Why I Changed My Positioning & the Thought Process Behind It

A couple of my collegues in web design asked me to write this post, so here it is.

Not too long ago, I chose a new direction for my consultancy, and a specific vertical to serve. By writing down my thought process, and why I made the decision to niche down with SEO for manufacturers, it might help other web professionals with their own positioning.

First, Let Me Set the Stage

Before we get too far, let me back all the way up to the beginning.

I didn’t start learning web development until most people are already deep into their career. I was 38 and working at a Wonder Bread factory when I decided that I had to do something different. The baking industry (for workers) at that time, was not going to get any better. This was around 2009, and I had already been a member of the Bakers Union in Northern California for about 18 years. Most of the people that I had worked with in retail bakeries, and in the factory, were trying to get to their pension. When you are in your 40s or 50s, at that point in your life, most people would say that starting over is too much of a risk. In fact, when the factory shuttered in late 2012, most of the people I knew there were out of work for months, and some, a couple of years. Same thing with the people I used to work with at the retail bakery, they had come too far to deviate from their path.

I actually know one other guy from the factory that was going to school at the same time I was. You see, at that time, around 2008-2009, there were a lot of things happening inside the union and the industry itself, as well as with my own repetitive motion injuries, that made me decide to change my career totally.

By the end of this post, it will be clear why I’m taking the time to tell you all of this.

At that time, we would get letters every quarter on the status of the union pension fund. At this point, it had just begun to become underfunded, partially because the company was pulling out of the pension funding. (This is right before they wet bankrupt for the second time in seven years). On top of that, I was having back spasms because of repetitive motion from working on the shipping line. Under our contract, they could make you stay for eleven hours a shift, and there was nothing you could do about it. If things were running behind, that could get extended to fourteen hours (if you volunteered to stay that long). I knew that my body couldn’t hold up, and I needed to make a transition.

That was the point where I started to go to online school, learning HTML and CSS, and eventually building web pages for practice.

Putting in the Reps

I built websites for my own experimentation with CSS and jQuery, then came across WordPress, right around 2011. I was building sites for friends, whether they asked for them or not. Eventually, I built started building sites for local businesses.

Not long after this, the factory shut down, and ever since then, I’ve been making my full-time income from building websites, and more recently, from doing SEO for clients.

So, I haven’t worked a 9 to 5 since 2012, instead I’ve been working for myself as Lockedown Design & SEO. Most of that time, I was positioning myself as a WordPress developer — as a freelancer who could build WordPress themes, and that’s what I did. I always had at least one agency partner that I was working with. There were four different ones that I had worked with during this time — from 2012 to 2017, three of them were on the East Coast. On top of this, I mixed in my own personal clients. After about five years of being solo, I’d built up my business to where I was earning a decent amount, and in 2017, I had my best financial year ever. Up to that point, the most I had ever earned was in 2002, when I was working 48 hours a week managing a retail bakery, and another 15 to 20 hours as a shift supervisor at a local Starbucks. (At the time, I was saving up for a down payment on a house in the suburbs with my second wife).

Fast forward again to about midway through 2017.

Success is the Enemy of Greatness

So last year, I was doing pretty good. But, I was doing way more subcontracting to agencies than I probably should have been. It was starting to feel uneasy because I couldn’t use most of that work to win new clients. Even though I built sites and done web projects for many regional brands, and a few particularly large brands, the work wasn’t benefiting me long-term.

One of the things that had really been imprinted on me from my life as a 9 to 5 employee is that I never wanted to have my fate in someone else’s hands ever again. I was focusing too much on building empires for other people, when from the start, my vision and goal had been to build something larger than myself, and create work for other people.

At that time I knew that I needed to make a change.

Making the Decision, Then Committing To It

In 2017 I made a couple of big decisions.

Step One: I wasn’t going to subcontract to other agencies as a WordPress developer anymore. I contacted the agency I was doing contract work for, and let them know that my rate was going to go up by 2.5x. I knew that this would effectively end our working relationship, which it did.

This would leave me more time to work on my own clients, and fortify my client roster. But this was not the only big decision I had come to by this point.

The other big decision I had made was that I wanted to position away from being a WordPress developer, and focus on being an SEO consultancy. This was a scary change to commit to for a significant reason.

Up to that point, I was ranking number one in Sacramento for “WordPress web design” or “WordPress developer”. I had that ranking on — ahem — lock down — for about two and a half years. So, changing my positioning would be turning away money, right?

My Experience With Positioning (and Ranking Well) For WordPress

While it is true that I would get a lot of inquiries that turned into client work, many of the inquiries that I would get were “rescue projects”. People would hire an offshore team, or another local developer, and not be happy with the results. I’d say about 65% of the people searching specifically for WordPress needed someone to “fix” their code, or get the last 20% of their project done. Sometimes, I would also get inquiries from other local agencies needing a “rush job” for a client project.

The problem with both of these scenarios is 9 times out of 10, the budget was inadequate for the expectations. Rescue jobs, if done right, would often need to be re-coded from the ground up, and very seldom would prospects have the necessary budget left for that. Another scenario I encountered would be prospects attempting to leverage the threat of bringing in a new developer to get what they wanted from their current development team.

While early in my career, I accepted many clients that were probably not ideal, continuing to be “the WordPress guy” or “a WordPress developer” was not really winning me the type of prospective leads that I was looking for.

Part of this might be that WordPress development itself is, (however unfairly), perceived as something different than other forms of web development. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that many agencies and freelancers starting out essentially buy a ThemeForest theme and call that “web development”, and so the entire market seems very commodified. (Note: During the five year stretch from 2012 to 2017, I built 80 custom built websites, most custom built from the ground up on WordPress.)

For whatever reason, I know that my positioning at that time was not solid enough to get my business to the place I wanted it to be.

I felt like I had paid my dues, and it was time to make a change.

Changing My Offering

To be fully transparent, when I made the switch to being a SEO agency instead of a website development agency in autumn of 2017, I still had a foundation of retainer clients. I wasn’t starting from absolute zero. Most all of these clients have been with me for about two years, give or take a few months. By having those retainer contracts (for WordPress development and general web-mastery), I had enough of a foundation to make a pivot, even if there was no new work coming in.

So, why change to SEO?

For one, in the WordPress landscape right now, there are changes that are being made. Anybody who follows WordPress knows about Gutenberg (or they should). Maybe WordPress will be better for the changes when it’s all said and done, but it made me realize something. My core offering shouldn’t be tied to something that may or may not become a commodity in a few years. It would be infinitely better if my core offering was platform agnostic, and could deliver value to my clients, no matter what technology they use to build their website.

Also, to be quite honest, I wanted to change my positioning to something where the ROI to the client was more obvious. Don’t get me wrong, web design is downright vital to both the BRAND™, and more importantly, the revenue of any given company. The problem lies in how most agencies (at least the ones that I’ve seen in the wild) measure the efficacy of a website redesign.

I’m not exaggerating when I say this: most agencies that specialize in design do an excellent job of making things look more appealing, but a less than stellar job of measuring how much those designs actually impacted the top-line revenue of a company over time.

To be fair, this isn’t always the fault of the web agency. Many businesses don’t have time to do the things that are necessary to drive traffic to a new website. These can include, creating new content, building up relevant links to their site, or hiring a marketing person to be their voice on social media.

Why SEO?

I wanted to position my services around SEO. It had been something that I had done before. I had never taken a class on SEO, but I had some side projects of my own, in addition to friend’s sites that I had done SEO for before. And those had been really successful!

I figured, why not just do SEO all the time? I could help businesses with this regardless of what platform their website was built on.

There’s another reason I wanted to move in this direction. Typically, with SEO, it’s more of an ongoing effort. In any competitive vertical, it takes more than a few weeks to move a website from not ranking at all to being found in search. There’s usually a lot of work to do: creating content, improving user experience of the site, building back links, and so much more.

With web design projects, you usually build the site, launch it, and move on to the next project. With SEO agencies, companies are on retainer contracts, and the agency is doing SEO work for them each month. Instead of having to continually be scouring for website builds for the pipeline, I could instead focus on a smaller number of clients, do deeper and more impactful work for them, and build a more stable business model. So far, this seems to be working out, as the clients I’ve been working with are seeing real revenue roll in because customers are finding their products in search. Not to mention, if they need a custom website build, I can actually handle that too. There’s no downside to this business model, as long as you can provide results.

This is the thing I enjoy about SEO. There’s no room to BS your clients about ROI. Either you drive traffic or you don’t. Either they sell more products in organic search or they don’t.

The ROI isn’t esoteric. It’s tangible and real. This means companies are less likely to haggle over price — because they are getting real sales out of it, which is the whole point of having a website in the first place.

Building Something Beyond Myself

I’ve said this since day one. I wanted to build something beyond myself. I wanted to build a team. I can’t do that unless I have the right business model in place. Ergo: Multiple retainer contracts going in parallel. That was a big part of my decision there. The key: focusing on something I knew I was already good at, that ties into my larger long-term plans for my business.

Who To Serve?

The final part of the puzzle, what vertical to niche down on? Literally, who should I serve?

I’d read Michael Port’s book, Book Yourself Solid before. I had done about the initial homework a few times over the past few years, but something always felt like it was missing.

A few years ago, I tried positioning around e-commerce development with WooComerce. While I had gotten some work out of that, it never caught fire the way I hoped it would. In hindsight, I probably didn’t succeed with this positioning because I was still too focused on the technology, and not enough on the intended audience.

This time around, I wanted to focus more on blue-collar industries. After a couple of months, I decided that my target audience needed to specifically be manufacturers. There were a couple of reasons for this.

When I was focusing on general web development, it was attracting people with budgets that were all over the board. A site that is labor intensive for one business may be worth significantly more or less than the same work for another business. It all depends on the perceived return on that investment to the purchaser.

For example, a small business just opening its doors may not want to spend that much on a website, while an established company with a steady revenue stream might be willing to spend more.

In my experience, the amount of money that a business generates from it’s website is the #1 factor in determining how much they will be willing to spend on a redesign or overhaul of that site. Here’s why this is a crucial factor.

If you have only worked at a generalist web design or development studio, you may not realize is that are costs associated with a lot of SEO work. If you plan on paying someone to create content for your clients, that will cost money. Many of the associations and memberships you may want your clients to join, for both traffic and back links, cost money. Also, most of the SEO software you will need to do an effective job (Ahrefs, SEMRush, Moz Pro, Majestic, SerpWorx, etc.) costs a certain amount each month.

Sure, there is a certain amount of SEO that you can do for relatively little cost. But having a certain amount of budget is absolutely necessary to do effective SEO work. Having clients that do not have a set monthly budget is going to be an uphill battle for you, and will most likely leave both you and your clients unhappy.

With that in mind, my thought process was: who will have the ability to pay a monthly retainer? Who will benefit from SEO and see a positive ROI? And what verticals need help? That also have a desire to win at SEO?

My answer to this question was manufacturing and industrial firms, based in the US, formed after the recession of 2008.

Here is my reasoning for choosing this particular niche.

Most manufacturers that are newer are trying to compete both with international firms, and established companies here in the US that have been around for decades. Newer manufacturers have websites that are likely in the first iteration — V1.0. These sites likely have very little content and almost no back links. These factors add up to poor SEO.

Companies that have been around for decades probably had sites that were around since the dawn of the internet. These are most of the sites that rank well. Part of the reason is that they received back links for many years, because they were the companies that were around at the dawn of the web.

A great deal of the links that these legacy companies have cannot be easily replicated. The websites that they are back linked from oftentimes are not being maintained, meaning a lot of outreach goes into a black hole. This means that newer companies have to try and get links from different sources.

The incumbent manufacturing websites usually fall into one of two categories: the site is modern and kept up to date, or the site is falling behind the times. My goal is to make my clients as competitive as possible with the incumbent manufacturing websites, while beating the older sites with superior content, user experience, and back link profile.

By picking this vertical, it does a few things. The ROI for the client is there. I work with companies that both have the ability to invest in a prolonged SEO campaign, and I can operate at a margin that is acceptable.

I know that there is a huge need in this vertical, because most of the newer manufacturing companies have founding members still doing sales calls, going to trade shows, and other growth activities. They have more money than time, while the prospects I am moving away from have more time than money.

Closing Remarks

This is the sweet spot that I’m really focusing on right now. Manufacturers that were formed after the 2008 recession, that are trying to compete with the larger firms, that don’t have a marketing team, that can benefit by selling their products online and B2B. I hope that’s a specific enough niche. So far, I’ve been doing a really good job with the people that I have been working with, and they are increasing sales through their sites.

Friends, I hope this answers your question, and gives you some more insight. If you want to give me feedback, you know where to find me on Twitter.

Discussion: Elements of a Successful WooCommerce Website

This summer, I sat down with some other WordPress experts to discuss the components of a successful WooCommerce website on the WP-Tonic podcast.

The other panel members were Morten Rand-Hendriksen of Lynda.com, Scott Buscemi of Luminary Web Strategies, Sallie Goetch of WP Fangirl, and Jonathan Denwood of WP-Tonic.

One of the recurring themes was that you have to drive traffic to your site, and you must have a marketing plan, especially for a brand new site.

So often, there is a “build it and they will come” mentality when it comes to marketing a website, and the same is true for e-commerce websites.

One that stuck with me is that as complex as the technical aspects of e-commerce are, we often neglect to know what the story of our product is, or who it’s for. Determining whether we have an audience or market for our products should be step one, before we sink tons of money into a website.

The main discussion about planning a successful WooCommerce site begins at about the 27:30 mark in the podcast.

 

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Why Your About Page Is A Big Opportunity

There’s a lot of websites that have the same opportunity — to connect with their customers.

It’s not hard to do, but — many sites fall short.

Most websites have a page with a name like About, History, Bio, or Meet the Team.

But most of them don’t list anyone who’s on their team, or perhaps one to two people at the most.

When the About page doesn’t list anybody, that’s the dirt worst.

Here’s why it’s a good thing to tell people who you are and who’s in your company.

Continue reading “Why Your About Page Is A Big Opportunity”

…Then You Need To Market

One of the biggest opportunities I see for service-based businesses is consistency in marketing their business.

Raising awareness of your services so qualified customers can find you is something every business can do year-round.

But consider what actually happens in many small and mid-sized businesses. When business is booming, most of the company’s resources go into getting the existing work done. Only when business gets slow again do most businesses re-evaluate their marketing efforts.

But when you’re busy, that’s exactly the time you need to step on the gas.

Building The Future Today

Building awareness for your company is something you must do year-round, not just when business is slow. The reason for this is sales cycles have a long timeline.

The average customer must hear a brand message twenty-one times before they even consider making a branded purchase.

This means you must build awareness of your company and what it offers about six months prior to each customer purchase.

The best way to prepare for your slow season is to make additional time to market your expertise when you are the busiest.

The work you put into building your brand today will benefit you six months from now.

Be sure to allocate time and resources for building your business long before you need it. Building momentum out of a cold start takes time. If you ditch raising brand awareness every time things get overwhelmingly busy, you will find it difficult to grow to the next level.

Marketing Is More Than Advertising

When you say the word “marketing”, many people hear the word “advertising”. Advertising is a subset of marketing, and far from the entirety of it.

Consider the noisy world we live in today. Even if you had a large budget to buy advertising, where would you invest that money?

Today, people barely glance billboards because they’re too busy looking at their phone. There’s thousands of TV channels on TV, Netflix, Hulu, and YouTube — and people either fast-forward or tune out completely to get past the commercials.

There’s also scores of social media platforms, millions of apps, and billions of websites there to fill the gaps in people’s day.

Don’t forget podcasts, which are growing exponentially. Radio, newspapers, and magazines also still exist. Advertising dollars have to be focused towards the right customer personas, at the right time, in the right medium, or that investment vanishes.

In today’s world, everyone has a portable computer in their pocket, and more information is created and published every few years than in the century that preceded them.

This is one of the main reasons I don’t rely on pay-per-click advertising as a main form of marketing.

We’ve been ignoring banner ads for almost two decades, and is advertising is ethereal by nature.

Pay-per-click continues to thrive though, because it’s the one thing guaranteed to get a message in front of an audience.

PPC is a financial penalty for not investing in long-term marketing through site content.

Content Marketing: A Long-Term Strategy That Works

I believe all businesses can benefit from content marketing. This means creating information which is interesting and relevant to your customers, and can be reused extensively.

For example, many books that are published today are written first as daily blogs. That’s content marketing in full effect.

Over a period of time, and these thoughts are collected in book form. But let’s say you don’t want to write a book just to reach customers.

What’s a manageable option for you?

Blogging is one possible option. By writing down your industry knowledge and addressing the questions your customers already have, you accomplish a few things.

First, you establish your expertise. What’s the difference between you and everyone else in your industry doing the same thing? Customers trust companies that establish their expertise through digestible information.

We trust what we can analyze to be safe. We fear the unknown.

Continually publishing information and insights allows your company to establish it’s expertise, and begins to establish you as an expert in your field.

Content marketing through writing, podcasting, and videos also has a curious effect on search results.

Google tries to match search results to the best individual pages that answer the searcher’s intent. Google looks for clues for what a site is about in order to better categorize the pages in that site.

When search engines see your company publishing about the same subjects, over and over, they begin to associate your brand with those subjects. Branded content is becoming more authoritative to Google and other search engines.

Brand As A Ranking Signal

You are more likely to rank higher by consistently publishing about specific subjects, as opposed to a company that never publishes anything new on their site, or a competitor that lacks focus in their content strategy.

Having a large amount of content that helps your customers solve their problems will also help your content get shared on social media.

Think about it. Which site are you more likely to share on Facebook or Twitter? A website with only a few vague pages about what they do, or a site that has blog with hundreds of articles on a particular subject?

The more of your insight and expertise you share, the more chances you have to make your content spread, and therefore introduce people to your company and your brand.

Marketing Has Many Forms

Marketing doesn’t always have to be online either.

Making new connections and closing deals almost always takes place face-to-face. It’s good to go to industry events, trade shows, local events, and community meet ups in order to make your company known.

As a business, hiding your light under a bushel does no one any favors. Embrace marketing.

In A world of increasingly short attention span’s, you have to fight to be above the noise.

We expect business to be like Field of Dreams. But the truth is, if you build it, it doesn’t mean they will come. They won’t come if they don’t know it exists.

If you build it, and then market it effectively, only then will your future customers show up.

First, You Have To Believe

It’s been written in every major philosophy and religion that belief precedes results.

Meaning, an event you wish to transpire will not occur unless you believe that it will happen first.

Why do you think this is?

Myself, I believe that we each are our greatest ally and our greatest enemy.

I also believe that we create our own reality through the stories we tell ourselves internally.

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WordPress Development: More Than Picking A Theme & Plugins

I was recently asked by an industry colleague about the hyper-focus many folks in the WordPress ecosystem place on themes and plugins.

What my peer was talking about was something different than the drive to keep up with industry knowledge.

They had noticed that some people believe WordPress development is something similar to magic. If you need functionality for a site, there must be a plugin and/or theme that takes care of that need, and it appears from thin air.

This is a dangerous fallacy that exists in the world of WordPress. Yes, plugins and themes are great tools, but someone had to actually develop those tools before anyone could use them.

The more you know about development within a platform, the more you can achieve with that platform. WordPress is no different.

Behind The Curtain

No doubt about it, plugins can be useful, and can usually help you get most of the functionality you want.

But somewhere, someone has to develop those plugins and keep them up to date.

Where problems arise is when folks install all manner of plugins, without keeping track of what plugins are still being maintained, or researching which plugins have security issues.

WordPress core has about 3 to 4 major releases per year. A large percentage of these updates involve hardening security, though most people focus on the improvements in functionality.

Because the WordPress platform is continually moving forward, it’s imperative that the plugins and themes on your site are continually keeping pace with these updates. On a long enough time frame, free plugins have a greater chance of not being maintained. Premium (paid) plugins and themes cost money, because in some cases, those companies are trying to cover the cost of ongoing support and maintenance.

What terrifies me is the reliance on marketplace themes, found on sites like ThemeForest, and the lack of knowledge of independent theme shops that produce and support a generally superior products.

Some of you are now wondering: What do I mean by lack of knowledge? And what do I mean by superior products?

Educating The Market

If you’re a do-it-yourself-er, I can understand why you’ve never heard of anything besides ThemeForest, or perhaps TemplateMonster. Their theme selection dominates the Google rankings, and this is how most people find themes.

What’s less forgivable to me is the large percentage of web studios who have never heard of The Theme Foundry, Press75, Elegant Themes, UpThemes, or Slocum Themes.

It takes more work to research independent theme shops, who aren’t present on ThemeForest. But these independent shops are usually following best practices in WordPress development much better than the marketplace theme sites.

“All-in-one” themes like the ones found on marketplaces are designed to look appealing to consumers looking for a quick solution, but are often lacking in performance, security, adaptability, or ease of use.

Marketplace themes generally come bundled with multiple plugins “baked in”. What this means is when plugins need to be updated, you won’t be alerted in your admin Dashboard, because plugins weren’t meant to be baked into themes.

Essentially, you are relying on the theme authors to update the plugin in their themes, and then let you know that you need a theme update.

There have been numerous cases where plugins bundled into marketplace themes had security holes and millions of sites had serious vulnerabilities for months without the plugin authors notifying anyone. But many DIY-ers are likely to skip updates, for fear of breaking their site.

Plugins, even when they aren’t bundled in a theme, can still have vulnerabilities, if not regularly updated. So choose wisely when it comes to what foundation you’re building your site on. Make sure the company behind each component will be here a year or two from now.

There’s a huge opportunity in the web development industry, especially at the small and mid level end. This opportunity is gaining knowledge of which themes are performance driven and which are not.

Unfortunately, most the top-selling themes are performance nightmares, filled with bloated code. The result is sites that load slower than they should, which causes increased bounce rates, decreased conversions, and even lower search engine rankings. And I still see tons of web firms perfectly okay with using these themes, because it is the path of least resistance.

There are a million ways to solve a problem, but not all of them are good for achieving business goals.

Simply having good working knowledge of which WordPress themes, plugins, and hosting can boost a web design shop into the top half of firms with actual knowledge of WordPress. Being able to create custom templates, themes, and plugins will boost a web studio even higher.

Some Plugins I Use

That said, using certain plugins are a great way to cut development time down. I rely on Gravity Forms for integrating form functionality with other moving parts, WooCommerce for e-commerce, and Types and Advanced Custom Forms Pro for custom post types and fields.

This allows me more flexibility in custom coded themes. (Most of the work I do is either custom WordPress theme development or child theme development).

Picking a theme and plugins isn’t really web development by itself — but it can be the right solution, in certain cases. WordPress developer Tom McFarlin calls this implementation, to distinguish it from web development.

Web implementation can be a good fit for smaller businesses, but is unthinkable for large or enterprise level businesses. The larger an organization gets, the more complex and custom their web development needs become.

Do Your Research

It pays to do your research when choosing themes and plugins. Sometimes that means enlisting someone to help you do just that.

My advice is use premium plugins to do important jobs, stay away from ThemeForest themes in general (10-20% of the themes are okay, but it’s hard to tell what you have until you buy it). Also, update everything, and don’t install anything that isn’t compatible with the current version of WordPress.

Focus On What You’re Good At

All our lives we’ve been told to improve the areas where we’re weakest.

If you’re unskilled at something, the common wisdom is to work on skill that really hard so you can eventually be a well-rounded individual. A human Swiss army knife, if you will.

A lot of that same mentality carries over into running a business.

And what happens is you have business owners trying to do all these things that they’re not really good at, because that’s what they think they should be doing.

Instead of knowing what we’re best at, and focusing on those strengths, we try to do it all. That leaves us being inefficient at everything.

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Ad Blocking: What’s The Future of Web Revenue

Read anything good on the web lately?

Perhaps you’ve noticed the abundance of online advertising out there.

Although web researchers have been warning us about “banner blindness” since 1998, advertising has been a viable revenue model since the dawn of the web.

Recently, a series of events have reminded online publishers of the looming probability that ad revenue may be an endangered species.

A Brief History of Ad Revenue

Many digital empires have been built on the pillars of trading tracking information for online content, and trading ad clicks for money.

Internet behemoths Google and Yahoo were built on the ability to deliver targeted ads to consumers.

For many years, media and content publishers have been able to generate supplemental income from placing ads on their site. Today, there are hundreds of web and mobile advertising networks, serving ads to site vistors, paying the hosting sites for clicks.

The Game Is About To Change

Earlier this week, the mobile ad blocking app, Peace, was the best seller in the App Store for about 36 hours. Developer Marco Arment then pulled the app, stating “Ad blockers come with an important asterisk: while they do benefit a ton of people in major ways, they also hurt some, including many who don’t deserve the hit.”

Arment elaborated, “I still believe that ad blockers are necessary today, and I still think Ghostery is the best one, but I’ve learned over the last few crazy days that I don’t feel good making one and being the arbiter of what’s blocked.”

What’s interesting to some people is the fact that this type of software is enabled on the recent iOS9 upgrade.

Some believe this is an attempt by Apple to force online publishers into their Newstand app (which cannot be deleted), in which ads are also, oddly enough, unblockable.

This would also simultaneously hurt Apple’s competitor, Google, by blocking their ads. Google is the largest server of ads on the web.

Journalist Nilay Patel writes that what’s happening is a war for proprietary platforms.

Patel states, “Google has the web, Facebook has its app, and Apple has the iPhone. This is the newest and biggest war in tech going today.”.

What’s unfortunate is that there are millions of independent publishers that depend on ad revenue to continue publishing. Servers and bandwidth cost money, and mismanaged success can be a bigger drain on a company’s resources than remaining obscure.

But the allure of an ad-free internet is Pandora’s Box. Once people get a taste of it, they won’t want to go back, if they can help it.

How To Make Money On The Internet

Ad blockers have been around for years, and yet advertisers keep finding ways to serve ads. This will always be a battle that keeps morphing into different forms.

In the present day however, if most content sites had 75 to 85% of their ads blocked, they would have to find a new revenue model (quickly) or shutter operations.

Many successful independent publishers advocate visitors to only frequent sites that serve no ads or serve them in a respectful manner.

Most consumers just want to read or watch things on the web. They won’t keep a tally of which sites bombard them with ads (most of the web), and which ones don’t. Nor should they be burdened with that responsibility.

So what are the options if you’re a content publisher, and you don’t want to see your revenue disappear, now or in the near future?

Do Paywalls Work?

The trick to making paywalls work seems to be producing very high quality content, and having a strong consumer base before implementing the paywall. For most online publishers, paywalls are not the all-inclusive answer.

Some newspapers, like the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, have successfully created a paywall revenue stream. Other online publishers with specialized, highly differentiated information like the Financial Times, Bloomberg Network, or Harvard Business Review also implement paywalls. Some of these are “hard” paywalls, while others are metered.

Services like Spotify offer you a choice of paying for a subscription, or being served ads with tracking information.

Do Subscriptions Work/

Subscriptions can work for independent publishers if they have certain things in place.

The publisher must have specialized knowledge or insight on a subject. They must have established some credibility in the community they are writing for. They must have high production values. The price must make sense to the subscribers.

In the WordPress community, Brian Krogsgard has been able to make the Post Status membership work. He offers annual memberships at the $99 level, and patronages at the $365 level.

Whitelisting Respectful Advertising

The Deck is an ad network that places one solitary ad in partner pages. Carbon Ads does something very similar.

The idea is to make ads less intrusive, and more tastefully done. The downside is that these ad networks are centered around design, development, and web culture, and selective about their partners and their advertisers. While these two ad networks are on to something good here, their solution will only work for a very specific niche.

The ad blocker Ghostery allows you to white-list ad networks, thereby rewarding publishers who use those networks by not cutting off their ad revenue.

The issue is, this is not a viable solution for the majority of publishers. Many sites use content blockers in order to force site vistors to see ads, otherwise they can’t access the content that they came to the page for in the first place.

Challenges Going Forward

The problem is that most of us now expect information to be free. If we’re going to pay for something with money, we have to see a lot of value in it.

Web advertising continues because there’s less friction paying in attention instead of cash.

But as Seth Godin writes:

And advertisers have had fifteen years to show self restraint. They’ve had the chance to not secretly track people, set cookies for their own benefit, insert popunders and popovers and poparounds, and mostly, deliver us ads we actually want to see.

…Ad blockers undermine a fundamental principle of media, one that goes back a hundred years: Free content in exchange for attention. The thing is, the FCC kept the ad part in check with TV, and paper costs did the same thing for magazines and newspapers. But on the web, more and more people have come to believe that the deal doesn’t work, and so they’re unilaterally abrogating it. They don’t miss the ads, and they don’t miss the snooping of their data.

This reinforces the fundamental building blocks of growth today:

The best marketing isn’t advertising, ‘s a well-designed and remarkable product.

The best way to contact your users is by earning the privilege to contact them, over time.

Seth Godin, “Ad Blocking”

User experience designer Jared Spool adds:

CSS innovator and web pioneer Eric Meyer reflects:

Showing Up

If you run a business, you want more people to walk through your doors and purchase your services. The only way to make that happen is to market effectively — both online and offline.

Showing up where your customers are looking already online makes a big difference. That means being in forums, having a solid social media presence and doing a TON of content marketing.

One goal of content marketing is to answer questions that people are typing into Google. Answer those questions consistently, on a long enough timeline, and people begin to recognize you as an authority in your industry. This works, but it takes commitment and patience.

The other half of that equation is doing offline marketing. This means getting in front of other people, and establishing your authority in an industry.

Continue reading “Showing Up”

Imagination, Stagnation, and Curation

At its heart, front-end design and development is still about putting boxes inside other boxes on a web page.

Granted, the tools, the techniques, and the processes have become more complex compared to even five years ago. That’s part of the territory.

What we do with those boxes has gotten more complicated, but web development is still in its adolescence.

Hell, we just started designing for smartphones five years ago. Double check the date on this seminal article on responsive web design — it’s only from 2010.

That’s not what this post is about, though.

What terrifies me is the idea that there’s a stagnation ’s going on in my own imagination. I get frightened when I think I’ve stopped dreaming of what is possible on the web.

Maybe you’ve felt it yourself. Maybe you’ve forgotten what it felt like the first time you started to understand how to build something on the web.

I can’t speak for anyone else but myself. I don’t live in your skin, or share your exact experiences. But here’s my tale.

Continue reading “Imagination, Stagnation, and Curation”