Reasons To Build A CRM-Powered Website For Your Business

Most businesses today rely on simple brochure websites for their online presence. These tend to be static websites with a few pages giving core information about the business and details on products and services offered. Although these are relatively cheap and less complicated to develop than a site that offers more advanced user experiences, a business can lose out on many opportunities to better engage with their customers and close sales.

With more and more businesses coming online and creating brochure websites, shrewd organizations need to stand out from their competitors by providing fluid, memorable, and personalized user experiences on their sites. To convert potential interest in your products and services into actual sales, a business needs to foster relationships with their customers on and off their sites. By integrating CRMs with company websites, a business can substantially upgrade their customers’ experiences on their site as well as modernize their internal processes.

The acronym CRM stands for Customer Relationship Management. CRM software helps you maintain information about and cultivate relationships with your customers and leads. It does this by analyzing what each customer does on your site and maintaining the data in a contact record. It provides several ways for a business to engage with them based on that behavior. It also offers various marketing and sales tools and keeps track of the interactions company representatives have had with each customer and how it’s leading to a particular goal like closing a sale.

CRMs generally help with the organization by grouping customers into lists and sales pipelines that can be used for targeted campaigns. Usually, a CRM ships with (or can later be integrated) a CMS (Content Management System). A CMS can generate a website and allows non-technical teams to create and manage pages and content. However, CMSs by themselves are limited in tracking how visitors interact with the site.

Why Should Websites Be Integrated With A CRM Platform?

By integrating a CRM and CMS, a website can enhance visitors’ experiences through personalization, marketing automation, better customer support, and streamlined internal business processes. In this article, you will learn how CRMs improve experiences not only for customers but across internal company teams. You’ll see how a CRM can provide deeper insights into customer behavior on and off your site, and how to use this information to drive sales. Lastly, you’ll get to discover how a CRM automates and abstracts crucial but work-intense business processes and workflows.

To better illustrate what a CRM and CMS can do together, the examples in this article will reference HubSpot’s platform for both functions. HubSpot’s CRM and CMS provide virtually all the features mentioned above and as such, are a prime model. Although only the base features of a CRM and CMS will be covered here, it’s important to note that HubSpot’s platform offers an extended range of features for marketing, sales, and support.

1. Seamless Digital Experience And Boost In Marketing Efforts

When a customer visits a site, they are usually looking to make a purchase or get information. They may go through several pages on your site before they land on what they’re looking for. They’ll browse through specific products and services. They may fill a form requesting contact with a sales representative, which may take a day or two. They may not find what they’re looking for and need additional help.

If a customer is not able to get immediate or relatively fast help when on your site, they may not make a purchase.

If there is no customer support to help them handle site issues or sales representatives to guide them to complete a purchase, that is a lost opportunity. Those customers are falling through the cracks.

A CRM can enhance a user’s experience by providing help when they need it. Is something not working for them on the site? They could launch a chat window and immediately get in contact with a support agent. Do they need to consult with a sales representative who could give recommendations based on their unique needs? No problem. They just have to leave their contact information in a form. This information is collected by the CRM, a contact is created, and a sales rep is assigned. The rep is notified immediately, views all the customer’s activity, and immediately starts corresponding with them through the CRM.

With a CRM, customers who seek information can get help almost instantaneously and have the support they receive tailored to them based on their history. The CRM can also automate actions based on the customer’s activity like receiving a promotional discount code in a marketing email after they chat with a rep.

Let’s say, for example, a visitor to a motor brand site wants to purchase a car. The customer wants to find out what cars would be a good pick for them. This website was built on HubSpot’s CMS and is natively integrated with HubSpot’s CRM tooling. They see that a chat-with-a-sales-rep option is available.

When they click on it, they provide some contact information and immediately begin chatting with a rep. The rep can make recommendations based on the information the customer gives. A contact is created for the customer on the CRM. The rep can add notes to the contact. The rep can see what other pages the customer has visited. Once they are done with their chat session, the rep can send an email with more information about vehicles they may like based on the conversation they had and what the customer looked at on the site.

All of this is done through the CRM. The customer leaves the site having had an engaging experience and getting the information they needed. The rep and marketing team can then continue staying in contact with the customer through the CRM untill they make a purchase.

2. Advanced Personalization

Without a CRM, website owners tend to miss essential information about how customers use their sites on an individual basis. The information and experience they offer on their site is generic and is usually one size fits all. All customers receive the same information and treatment despite having different needs and interests in the business. If a customer’s specific need is not met by the site, they may turn to a competitor’s site that’s more engaging and useful. Losing customers and sales is bad for business.

CRMs maintain complete profiles for each customer. They contain customer preferences, history, activities, contact details, and other information. You can use it to personalize each customer’s experience on your website to better meet their needs. This can include dynamically changing the messaging and content on a website based on the needs of a specific contact, as well as a range of other things. Marketers can accommodate customer preferences in the marketing material. Salespeople can check customer activity on the site and adapt their pitches to match it. Some personalized outreach can also be automated. Based on what customers do on a site, they can go through automated conditional workflows and sequences behind the scenes, and receive helpful information about what they seek.

For example, a customer visits a magazine subscription site that uses HubSpot CMS. Because the CRM knows they work in the software industry based on a form they filled out on a previous visit, the messaging on the site is dynamically tailored to their interests. Before they continue browsing, they set their language preference to French. As part of an automatic workflow, the customer is added to a mailing list for the French version of the newsletter. Further, when they seek help through support, it is automatically offered to them in French. When marketing creates ads, the customer is served the French versions of the ads.

3. Dynamic Site Pages Are Generated Based On CRM Data

Imagine creating many similar pages for user profiles, company branches, or any other application where page layouts are the same, but the data is different. Doing this manually can be time-intensive and frustrating for both developers and marketers. But with a CMS and CRM integration, the process can be greatly simplified. Developers can create a template for the overall page structure, then data can be pulled from the CRM to dynamically generate all of the pages that are needed. Non-technical users can generate additional pages by simply adding additional records to the CRM.

For example, a real estate company has many property listings in an area. This company has a website built on HubSpot’s CMS and they create records in the CRM for each property they are selling. With this, the company can import listing data and generate individual pages for each property. They’d do this by selecting a template or building a custom one, picking what data to populate it with from the CRM, generating the pages, previewing them, and scheduling when they will go live. Using this data and the CRM, generating individual pages for each listing can be a breeze.

4. Workflows Between Developers And Marketers Are Streamlined

As touched on in the previous point, marketers rely on developers to create websites and other digital assets. If a marketer is running a campaign, they may need developers to create additional pages for it. This usually involves a lot of back and forth as they plan, build, test, and preview the site and assets before launching a campaign. A significant amount of time and effort is spent creating them. Developers sometimes have to code the individual pages and if several of them are needed, work can pile up.

Content management systems provide tools to simplify web page generation. Marketers do not need to rely on developers. If any changes need to be made to a site, marketers can do it using user-friendly drag-and-drop design tools.

This leaves developers free to handle more complicated development tasks. These systems can also offer developer tools like bug trackers and alerts, theme builders, CLI support, and more to make development easier.

A marketing department for a clothing brand is planning several campaigns at one time. They need some web pages created for each of the campaigns, but fortunately their site is built on CMS Hub. Instead of having to talk to developers, they can just log in, create the pages using drag-and-drop tools based on templates previously created by the dev team, preview the pages, then schedule them to go live. This frees up developers to work on other crucial business tasks and saves everyone time and effort.

Conclusion

Neglecting to cater your business website to your customers is not only detrimental to your sales but can also hurt your team’s productivity and operations. When customers are given a generic experience on your site, they won’t engage with it. Seeking information and help about your products and services will be frustrating.

Without adequate information and proper tools about customers, sales and marketing departments have a harder time doing their job.

Dissatisfaction festers, productivity declines and employee churn may occur. Without a CRM, repetitive and manual tasks have to be done painstakingly one at a time. This type of work takes up valuable time and effort from support, marketing, sales, and engineering teams.

Integrating a CRM with your business website has numerous benefits. For one, you can build a comprehensive profile of your customers and use that to personalize and improve their experiences on your site. You equip various departments within your company with tools to organize and automate work and improve efficiency. CRMs create great experiences for both customers and people in the company that serve them. Most importantly, it allows a business to foster and grow stronger relationships with its customers.

If you’re interested in learning more about the CMS and CRM featured in this article, you’re always welcome to visit the HubSpot website.

Influencer Marketing Part 6: Pitching

Prospective influencers likely know little about your company or its products. They’re not necessarily interested in promoting. You have to pitch them.

Welcome to “Part 6” of my influencer marketing series. I’ve addressed what it is, why use it, setting goals, picking the best channels, and targeting the right influencers. Once targeted, influencers typically need convincing.

A Good Pitch

An effective influencer pitch consists of two primary components.

Upfront value. Focus on the value you provide to the prospective influencer. Product, cash, commission — whatever the value, convey early in the pitch. Make sure the compensation aligns with the influencer’s worth to your business. My firm recently surveyed merchants and influencers and found that a range of $0.01 to $0.02 per follower is sufficient. (Roughly $500 to $1,000 for an influencer with 50,000 followers.) However, compensation demands increase dramatically for so-called macro-influencers — celebrities with millions of followers.

Convert and close. Simple pitches are typically the best. Be clear and concise in your offer to influencers and in what you expect in return. In my experience, pitches are often convoluted with unclear objectives and expectations. Succinctly explain your goal and the influencer’s role.

Minimize the steps to close in a clear, obvious manner. If you need to schedule a phone call with an influencer, provide a calendar link. If you require a completed form or additional info, make it easy to accomplish.

Test Everything

What happens if you pitch and no one responds, or you pitch and everyone responds? Giving away too much value is as easy as not offering enough. Testing can help.

No responses. First, double-check your email. Rule out technical problems, modify your subject line, and alter the greeting. If you’ve modified your subject line and greeting, drastically change your message and offer. Consider increasing the value and toning down expectations.

Responses with no accepts are almost always due to a low-value offer. You have the attention, but not the acceptance. You need to increase the value. If you are limited on the value or have already increased it, ask for less work in return. Consider requiring fewer hoops for the prospective influencer to work through. Make the pitch too good to turn down.

Everyone accepts. If all influencers accept, or nearly all, narrow the candidates by audience size and niche. If all targets are appropriate, reduce the offer, perhaps by lessening the value of follow-up campaigns. A 100% acceptance rate indicates too much value. If all candidates are suitable and you’ve already reduced the value, ask for more work. Test this by gradually increasing until you receive pushback.

Reducing The Need For Pseudo-Elements

Per the W3C spec, “a pseudo-element represents an element not directly present in the document tree”. They have been around since version 1 of the CSS specification, when ::first-letter and ::first-line were introduced. The popular ::before and ::after pseudo-elements were added in version 2 — these represent content that does not exist in the source document at all. They can be thought of as two extra elements you can “tack onto” their originating element. When front-end developers hear “pseudo-elements”, we think of ::before and ::after more often than not, as we use them in various ways to add decorations to our elements.

There are additional pseudo-elements beyond these. They are listed in the spec across three categories: typographic, highlight, and tree-abiding.

Interestingly, after years of web development, I never found myself using ::first-line, but it’s pretty neat and responds well to window resizing! Check it out.

Pseudo-Element Version

Many of you reading this will be accustomed to a pseudo-element version:

  • We use a relatively positioned wrapper element with large right padding to accommodate our angle — this is our <button>;
  • Many of us, students of the sliding doors technique, are accustomed to nesting an element to take on the button’s background-color;
  • Finally, we absolutely position a pseudo-element with its border rules into our <button>’s right padding empty space — we use ::before for this.

Aside from those steps, our hover styles must account for both our nested element and pseudo-element. This might seem manageable for you, but the more complicated our button designs get, the more overhead we have with hover styles. Also, with this version, buttons with word wrapping just plain fail.

Visit the final showcase to see these other button styles made easier without pseudo-elements. In particular, the blue bevel button’s pseudo-element version is pretty brutal. The amount of overall work is greatly reduced thanks to clip-path.

Button Wipes

A wiping effect is a popular button style. I’ve included left-to-right and top-to-bottom wipes.

Pseudo-Element Version

This can be achieved by transitioning a pseudo-element’s transform.

  • We absolutely position a ::before pseudo-element and give it a transform: scaleX(0) so it’s not visible.
  • We also must explicitly set its transform-origin: 0 0 to ensure the wipe comes in from the left rather than center (transform-origin defaults to center).
  • We set up transitions on the transform for some smooth jazz animation on/off hover.
  • Because our pseudo-element is absolutely positioned, we require a nested element to hold the button’s text, position: relative on this nested element creates a new stacking context so our text stays on top of our wiping pseudo-element.
  • On hover, we can target our pseudo-element and transition its scaleX to now be 1 (transform: scaleX(1)).

See the Pen Button wipe with pseudo-element by Marcel.

No Pseudo-Element Version

Why worry about nested elements, pseudo-element positioning, stacking contexts, and sprawling hover rules if we don’t have to?

We can reach for linear-gradient() and background-size to nail this down.

  • We give our <button> a background-color for its default state, while also setting up a linear-gradient via background-image — but the background-size will be 0, so we won’t see anything by default.
  • On hover, we transition the background-size to 100% 100% which gives us our wipe effect!

Remember, linear-gradient() uses the background-image property and background-image supersedes background-color, so this is what takes precedence on hover.

That’s it. No nested element required. Want a vertical wipe? Just change the linear-gradient direction and the background-size values. I’ve changed those via CSS custom properties.

See the Pen Button wipe with NO pseudo-element by Marcel.

Tiles With Screen Color Overlays

This is a common pattern where a semi-transparent color overlays a tile/card. Our example’s tile also has a background-image. It’s often important in this pattern to retain a set aspect-ratio so that tiles look uniform if more than one appears in a set.

Pseudo Version

Some of the same things come into play with our pseudo-element version:

  • We use the aspect-ratio “padding-trick”, setting a 60% padding-top value (5:3 ratio) for our tile.
  • We must position our screen color overlay pseudo-element, giving it a 100% width and height to fill the tile — we target this pseudo-element on hover to change its background-color.
  • Due to the pseudo-element’s absolute positioning, we must use a nested element for our text content, also giving it position: absolute in order for it to appear above our screen color overlay in the stacking order and to ensure it appears where it should within the tile.

See the Pen Tile screen color overlay with pseudo-element by Marcel.

No Pseudo-Element Version

It can be much simpler thanks to the aspect-ratio and background-blend-mode properties.

Note: aspect-ratio does not work in Safari 14.x, but will in version 15.

That said, as of this writing, caniuse lists it with 70%+ global support.

  • The “padding-trick” is replaced by aspect-ratio: 400/240 (we could use any 5:3-based value here).
  • We use both background-image and background-color properties in conjunction with background-blend-mode — simply change the background-color of our tile element on hover.
Background-blend-mode

background-blend-mode blends a background-color with an element’s background-image. Any Photoshop users reading this will find background-blend-mode reminiscent of Photoshop’s blending modes. Unlike mix-blend-mode, background-blend-mode does not create a new stacking context! So no z-index hell!

See the Pen Tile screen color overlay with NO pseudo-element by Marcel.

Conclusion

Front-end development is exciting and fast-moving. With newer CSS properties, we can brush the dust off our old techniques and give them another look. Doing this helps foster reduced and simpler code. Pseudo-elements are helpful, but we don’t need to reach for them as much.

Product Photography, Part 5: Choosing a Camera

I’m frequently asked to recommend a camera. Sometimes folks inquire about the camera I use to display my artwork online. But both queries miss the point. Knowing how to use a camera is far more important than the unit itself. Nonetheless, choosing a suitable camera is critical.

This is the fifth post in my series to help ecommerce merchants take better product photos. “Part 1” addressed the importance of backdrops. “Part 2” explained tripods. “Part 3” examined the fundamentals of artificial lighting, and “Part 4” reviewed angles and viewpoints.

In this installment, I’ll address how to select a camera for product photography.

Merchants have three options:

  • Smartphone camera,
  • Point-and-shoot digital camera,
  • Digital single-lens reflex camera.

Smartphone Cameras

I love my smartphone for lifestyle product shots. It provides a gritty, realistic feeling to my art that I value in the photos of other goods online. Even with Amazon’s strict image requirements, a new iPhone 12 Pro or Samsung Galaxy S21 is more than adequate with the proper lighting and background.

Photo from Apple.com of the back of an iPhonePhoto from Apple.com of the back of an iPhone

With the proper lighting and background, smartphone cameras such as this iPhone are more than adequate for most product shots. Image: Apple.

However, smartphone cameras have weaknesses, such as no manual adjustment for white balance and aperture. Moreover, smartphones don’t handle bright lights well, producing inferior digital stills. Thus using a smartphone for your product photography requires a superior lighting setup to make up for those limitations.

Point-and-shoot Digital Cameras

Point-and-shoot cameras have much more flexibility than a smartphone, and they’re affordable, available at Walmart and similar retailers.

Photo from Amazon of a blue Nikon Coolpix cameraPhoto from Amazon of a blue Nikon Coolpix camera

Point-and-shoot cameras, such as this Nikon Coolpix, are flexible and affordable. Image: Amazon.

An example is Nikon Coolpix. It’s a terrific little camera with many more features than a smartphone, such as settings for shutter, aperture, and optical zoom. But a point-and-shoot camera cannot match a DSLR camera.

DSLR Cameras

I’ll always recommend a digital single-lens reflex camera for product photography. It provides much more freedom than lesser alternatives. A DSLR has the ability to shoot manually, providing control over every aspect of a shot. At $500 to $700, a DSLR may seem expensive. But the investment will more than pay for itself with quality product photos that drive conversions.

What sets a DSLR apart is the option to use different lenses. Like lighting, lenses can make or break product photography. Using a macro lens, for example, an online jeweler can easily increase an image’s product details. That versatility is why I use a DSLR for most of my product shoots.

I favor Canon DSLRs. But Nikon and Sony make great cameras, too. Here are my top DSLR recommendations.

Budget option: Nikon’s D3500. With its 24.2-megapixel sensor and price of $600 to $700, Nikon’s D3500 is an excellent, budget DSLR for ecommerce photos.

Photo from NikonUSA.com of a Nikon D3500 camera.Photo from NikonUSA.com of a Nikon D3500 camera.

With a price of $600 to $700, Nikon’s D3500 is an excellent, budget DSLR for ecommerce photos. Image: NikonUSA.com.

The D3500 takes amazingly sharp images with a high dynamic resolution. Per Nikon, the D3500 is “compact, durable, and versatile.” It’s available directly on Nikon’s website.

Best for beginners: Canon’s EOS Rebel T7. Canon’s EOS Rebel T7 packs a lot of value for a mid-range camera. It will take perfect product pictures.

Photo from B&H Photo of a Canon EOS Rebel T7Photo from B&H Photo of a Canon EOS Rebel T7

Canon’s EOS Rebel T7 will take perfect product pictures. It packs a lot of value for a mid-range camera. Image: B&H Photo.

The Rebel T7 is ideal for beginners because of its 24.1-megapixel sensor and easy-to-use touchscreen interface. But the best feature is the $450 price.

Best professional option: Canon’s EOS 5D Mark IV. The Canon EOS 5D Mark IV is the choice of many professionals because of its legendary performance.

Photo from Amazon of a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV camera.Photo from Amazon of a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV camera.

Canon EOS 5D Mark IV is popular among professionals because of its overall performance. Image: Amazon.

The camera comes with a whopping 30.4-megapixel sensor for superb images. It’s compatible with nearly all of Canon’s electro-focus lenses, making it powerful and versatile for all product shots. The only drawback is the cost, about $2,700 without lenses, on Amazon. But it’s worth every penny.

The Power Of Pen And Paper Sketching

Need to design something? It can be tempting to start with a computer-based tool, e.g. wireframing software like Balsamiq, or design tools like Photoshop or Figma. These have their place, but I would recommend stepping back and starting with the humble pen and paper.

Sketching by hand can feel unfamiliar and uncomfortable to those who don’t feel artistically inclined, but the flexibility of hand-sketches combined with our imagination means we can work through more ideas and form a better design direction faster than we could than if we started with a more concrete, computer-based solution.

Admittedly, I struggle with it myself at times; while I spent my childhood with a sketchbook perpetually in my hand and graduated university with an Arts degree, the paper sketchbook was briefly forgotten when I started my web design career. It took years of muddling through uninspiring concepts and feeling like I wasn’t pushing my limits before I realized how powerful idea generation via quick physical sketches could be.

This process is recommended even if we aren’t designing something big or in the capacity of a designer. Everyone needs to be a “designer” from time to time; from creating a quick personal homepage, a landing page for a new open-source project, or creating nice-looking slides for their next presentation.

Grab a piece of paper and a pen, and let’s get started!

Why To Start With Paper

As we’re always on a computer (and I think most of us are, nowadays), sometimes it doesn’t even occur to us to step away and try designing something off-screen.

Paper sketching can feel like something solely associated with visual art or graphic design (for instance, the legendary logo designer Saul Bass is well known for his advocacy of drawing), but even the earliest ideas for computer interfaces started with paper. Susan Kare, the designer of the icons for the Macintosh’s graphical user interface, used graph paper to design her initial ideas for the iconic early pixel art.

The power in paper sketching is the sketch’s ephemerality and how they feel less “real” than anything we create quickly on a computer. Start moving words and buttons around on a computer screen, and it’s tempting to fall into a certain direction and never explore alternate paths. Paper sketches force our imagination to fill in the gaps — far more quickly than if we added those details to a computer mockup.

We want to try a lot of different ideas when working on a new design. While the first few ideas may feel good enough, our fifth, seventh, or tenth idea might be even better. Working fast and loose helps us to get through many ideas quickly. Ideas flow faster, and we might surprise ourselves with what appears on the page when we work without restrictions.

If you’re not already familiar with design tools like Photoshop, Sketch or Figma, it can be overwhelming just getting started and learning your way around a tool. Rather than working through many ideas, we end up spending our time figuring out which button does what.

And wireframing tools like Balsamiq? They produce ideas that look like sketches — squiggly lines, imperfect boxes — but they still point us in the direction of working on one single idea and messing with it until it’s perfect rather than trying out many different ideas first. It’s quicker to start with pen and paper. Wireframing tools can be the next step in the process (rather than the first.)

“Sketchy” mockups also do a better job at expressing the kind of feedback we’re looking for when presenting to reviewers. A mockup that is too pixel-perfect will often prompt nit-picking about irrelevant details, but a rough sketch will result in higher-level conversations about layout.

Repeat To Yourself: Loose, Quick, Doesn’t Have To Be Perfect

We’ve all seen those “designery” sketches that look gorgeous and detailed. Those are not the standard to measure yourself against. Ignore them. Our sketches should be quick without much detail.

Rather, we’ll use really quick lines and boxes, keeping our sketches small and fast.

Sketching is useful for just about any kind of design task: newsletters, logos, presentations, widgets — anything where working you need to quickly think of many visual ideas. As an example, how about we explore a few ideas for an ebook cover?

A good way to start practicing this kind of sketching technique is to take an existing website and reverse engineer the sketch. Not only does this help get you comfortable with the act of drawing, but you also start getting a feel for different design patterns.

Whichever approach you take, fill your page with ideas! Don’t stop even if you hit on an idea that really excites you that you want to move forward with. When you fill a page, go to the next. Explore alternate ideas just in case you find something you love more.

Once you have many options, take a break to let your mind rest, then come back to circle your favorites, refine, and maybe then move onto making a mockup. You’ll have more confidence in the direction you choose since you know you’ve tried and discarded many other ideas.

Use Inspiration To Aid Your Sketching And Idea Generation

Sketches should go hand-in-hand with inspiration, so bring that computer back out! Fuel your own design process by researching other designs and look for details you think would work on your own.

If you’re unsure where to start, look for inspiration in related areas to what you’re working on. For a personal homepage, it’s great to start looking at the homepages of peers in your industry. If you’re stuck or want more general inspiration, check out these resources:

  • Dribbble, which is particularly good for researching design ideas for elements, like a login form.
  • SiteInspire, to see what the current trends in modern design are.
  • Land-book, for landing page design inspiration.
  • Commerce Cream, for e-commerce website design inspiration.
  • Pttrns, for mobile app design inspiration.

As you research, note what elements you’d like to pull into your own design (and remember not to copy exactly!). For example, a nice layout, a particular way that the inspiration pairs content with images, a contact form that seems particularly easy to use. Trying multiple different navigation ideas on paper sketches is much faster than creating full mockups or coding it all up.

As you find elements and ideas that you’d like to remember, sketch them out! Continue to add ideas to your sketch sheet and fill your page with all your potential ideas. Remember, work on many different options and ideas to start, and narrow down your favorite ideas afterwards.

Remember To Practice!

Any new skill is going to feel awkward the first few times. It’s normal. Don’t let it discourage you. The more you practice your sketching and utilize this skill when designing, the more natural it will feel.

For your next design project, put that keyboard away and let your imagination and creativity flow by starting with pen and paper sketches.

Let’s review what we’ve covered:

  • Paper sketches are the fastest way to explore design options.
    We can do so much more in less time by stepping away from the mouse.
  • Utilize inspiration when you’re sketching to boost idea generation.
    Don’t start with a blank page; get your ideas flowing by looking at design work you’d like to emulate.
  • Make more sketches and try more ideas than you think you should.
    Sometimes the fifth idea might feel like a good direction, but then you’ll find a later idea is even better.
  • Practice makes perfect.
    The more sketching you do, the faster it’ll go, the easier it’ll feel, and the better you’ll get.

Have other inspiration resources? What do your sketches look like? Would love to hear from you in the comments!

Further Reading On Smashing Magazine

3 Optimizations for Google Shopping Campaigns

The benefits of Google Shopping are compelling. Advertisers consistently experience strong revenue, traffic, and return on ad spend while often paying less per click than standard search campaigns. Still, the performance of Google Shopping ads, like all ads, could plateau. Thus continuous optimizations are key to sustaining results.

This post highlights three ways to optimize Google Shopping campaigns via the Google Ads interface. The tactics do not address product feed optimization, which is equally important.

Exclusions

The first optimization is excluding keywords and products. Although Shopping campaigns don’t utilize keywords, advertisers can review the search queries. In the campaign, go to the left navigation and click Keywords > Search terms. Exclude irrelevant and non-converting keywords.

It’s also helpful to add exact match negative keywords. Absent campaign keywords, broader search terms could trigger unprofitable ads. For example, a search for “shoes” could trigger a “running shoes” Shopping ad. An advertiser selling running shoes might experience many clicks, but the conversions, if any, would likely be expensive. Thus creating a keyword exclusion list could save money.

Products are the other exclusion opportunity, for multiple reasons, including:

  • Sub-par performance,
  • Low-margin goods,
  • Limited inventory.

Exclusions are especially helpful for advertisers with a broad product range. For example, an advertiser with 500 types of running shoes may want to exclude 20 of them from a particular campaign.

When assessing performance, segregate product groups and identify items for exclusion. The image below shows products’ clicks and conversions. I’ve highlighted those with at least 100 clicks and fewer than two conversions. I will exclude these items. (I blurred out product names.)

Set your own threshold for product exclusions. Excluded products will not show, allowing you to allocate the investment to better performers.

Screenshot of the Google Ads interface showing product exclusions.Screenshot of the Google Ads interface showing product exclusions.

When assessing performance, segregate product groups and identify items for exclusion.

Smart Shopping Campaigns

I’ve addressed the importance of testing Smart Shopping campaigns, which grant greater control to Google and benefit from its machine learning to automate network exposure and bidding. Smart Shopping advertisers cannot set bids, add negative keywords, or use a bid strategy other than “Maximize conversion value.”

I’ve seen mixed results with Smart Shopping versus standard Shopping campaigns. For example, targeting the same 10 products in both Smart Shopping and standard Shopping campaigns often produces different winning campaign types. Smart Shopping campaigns typically see more traffic because Google assigns a higher priority. But standard Shopping campaigns tend to be more efficient, with higher revenue and conversions.

I usually segregate high-performing products in standard Shopping campaigns and place them in Smart Shopping. The gives products their own budget and priority. A bonus of Smart Shopping campaigns is targeting new customers, those who haven’t been to the site. It helps advertisers assign a value to new customers, too.

A bonus of Smart Shopping campaigns is targeting new customers. It also helps advertisers assign a value to those buyers.

Adjust Bid Strategies

Standard Shopping campaigns include the option of changing bid targets. For example, an advertiser could meet its Target ROAS bid strategy of 500% but have a low 30% impression share. Lowering the ROAS goal would increase impression share and, likely, conversions and revenue, too.

Another option is changing the entire bid strategy. Moving to a “Maximize Clicks” strategy would tell Google to obtain as many clicks as possible within a designated budget. A “Maximize Clicks” strategy would not optimize conversions, but it would generate more traffic.

Standard Shopping campaign advertisers could also set manual bids per product or product group instead of Google automating the bids.

Orchestrating Complexity With Web Animations API

There’s no middle ground between simple transitions and complex animations. You’re either fine with what CSS Transitions and Animations provide or you suddenly need all the power you can get. Web Animations API gives you a lot of tools to work with animations. But you need to know how to handle them. This article will walk you through the main points and techniques that might help you deal with complex animations while staying flexible.

Before we dive into the article it is vital that you’re familiar with the basics of the Web Animations API and JavaScript. To make it clear and avoid distraction from the problem at hand the code examples provided are plain. There won’t be anything more complex than functions and objects. As nice entry points into animations themselves I would suggest MDN as a general reference, Daniel C. Wilson’s excellent series, and CSS Animations vs Web Animations API by Ollie Williams. We won’t go through the ways to define effects and tuning them to achieve the outcome you want. This article assumes you have your animations defined and need ideas and techniques to handle them.

We start with an overview of interfaces and what they are for. Then we’ll look at timing and levels of control to define what, when, and for how long. After that, we’ll learn how to treat several animations as one by wrapping them in objects. That would be a good start on your way to using Web Animations API.

Interfaces

Web Animations API gives us a new dimension of control. Before that, CSS Transitions and Animation while providing a powerful way of defining effects still had a single point of actuation. Like a light switch, it was either on or off. You could play with delays and easing functions to create quite complex effects. Still, at a certain point, it becomes cumbersome and hard to work with.

Web Animations API turns this single point of actuation into complete control over playback. The light switch turns into a dimmer switch with a slider. If you want you could turn it into the whole smart home thing, because additionally to the playback control you now can define and change effects at runtime. You now can adapt effects to context or you could implement an animations editor with real-time preview.

We start with the Animation interface. To get an animation object, we can use the Element.animate method. You give it keyframes and options and it plays your animation immediately. What it also does is it returns an Animation object instance. Its purpose is to control the playback.

Think of it as a cassette player, if you remember these. I’m aware that some of the readers might not be familiar with what it is. It’s inevitable that any attempt to apply real-world concepts to describe abstract computery things will fall apart quickly. But let it reassure you — a reader who doesn’t know the joy of rewinding a tape with a pencil — that people who know what a cassette player is will be confused even more by the end of this article.

Imagine a box. It has a slot where the cassette goes and it has buttons to play, stop and rewind. That’s what the Animation interface instance is — a box that holds defined animation and provides ways to interact with its playback. You give it something to play and it gives you back controls.

The controls you get are conveniently similar to the ones you get from audio and video elements. They are play and pause methods, and the current time property. With those three controls, you can build anything when it comes to playback.

The cassette itself is a package that contains a reference to the element that is animated, the definition of effects, and options which include timing among other things. And that is what the KeyframeEffect is. Our cassette tape is something that holds all the recordings and info about the length of the recordings. I will leave it for the older audience’s imagination to match all those properties with the components of a physical cassette. What I will show you is how it looks like in code.

When you create an animation through Element.animate, you’re using a shortcut that does three things. It creates a KeyframeEffect instance. It puts in into a new Animation instance. It immediately starts playing it.

const animation = element.animate(keyframes, options);

Let’s break it down and see the equivalent code that does the same thing.

const animation = new Animation( // (2) new KeyframeEffect(element, keyframes, options) // (1)
);
animation.play(); (3)

Get the cassette (1), put it into a player (2), then hit the Play button (3).

The point of knowing how it works behind the scenes is to be able to separate the definition of keyframes and deciding when to play it. When you have a lot of animations to coordinate it might be helpful to gather them all first so you know they are ready to play. Generating them on the fly and hoping they would start playing at the right moment is not something you would want to hope for. It’s too easy to break the desired effect by a few frames drag. In case of a long sequence that drag accumulates resulting in not at all convincing experience.

Timing

As in comedy, timing is everything in animations. To make an effect work, to achieve a certain feel you need to be able to fine-tune the way properties change. There are two levels of timing you can control in Web Animations API.

On the level of individual properties, we have offset. Offset gives you control over single property timing. By giving it a value from zero to one you define when does each effect kick in. When omitted it equals zero.

You might remember from @keyframes in CSS how you can use percentages instead of from/to. That’s what offset is but divided by one hundred. The value of offset is a portion of the duration of a single iteration.

The offset allows you to arrange keyframes within a KeyframeEffect. Being a relative number offset makes sure that no matter the duration or the rate of playback all your keyframes start at the same moment relative to each other.

As we stated previously, offset is a portion of duration. Now I want you to avoid my mistakes and loss of time on this. It’s important to understand that duration of animation isn’t the same thing as the overall duration of an animation. Usually, they are the same and that’s what could confuse you, and what definitely confused me.

Duration is the amount of time in milliseconds that one iteration takes to finish. It will be equal to the overall duration by default. Once you add a delay or increase the number of iterations in an animation duration stops telling you the number you want to know. That is important to understand to use it to your advantage.

When you need to coordinate a keyframe playback within a bigger context, like media playback, you need to use timing options. The whole duration of the animation from start to “finished” event in the following equation:

delay + (iterations × duration) + end delay

You can see it in action in the following demo:

See the Pen What is the actual duration of an animation? by Kirill Myshkin.

What this allows us to do is to align several animations within the context of fixed-length media. Keeping the desired duration of animation intact you could “pad” it with delay at the start and delayEnd at the end in order to embed it into a context with a longer duration. If you think about it delay in this sense would act as the offset does in keyframes. Just remember that delay is set in milliseconds so you might want to convert it to a relative value.

One more timing option that would help to align animation is iterationStart. It sets the starting position of an iteration. Take the pool ball demo. By adjusting iterationStart slider you can set the starting position of the ball and the rotation, for instance, you can set it to start jumping from the center of the screen and make the number be straight in the camera in the last frame.

See the Pen Tweak interationStart by Kirill Myshkin.

Control Several As One

When I worked on animation editor for a presentation app I had to arrange several animations for a single element on a timeline. My first attempt was to use offset to put my animation at the right starting point on a timeline.

That quickly proved to be the wrong way of using offset. In terms of this particular UI moving animation on the timeline meant to shift its starting position without changing animation’s duration. With offset that meant I needed to change several things, the offset itself and also change the offset of closing property to make sure the duration doesn’t change. The solution proved to be too complex to comprehend.

The second problem came with the transform property. Due to the fact that it can represent several characteristic changes to an element, it can get tricky to make it do what you want. In case of a desire to change those properties independently of each other, it could become even harder. Change of scale function influences all the functions following it. Here’s why that happens.

Transform property can take several functions in a sequence as a value. Depending on the order of function the result changes. Take scale and translate. Sometimes it’s handy to define translate in percentage, which means relative to the size of an element. Say you want a ball to jump exactly three own diameters high. Now depending on where you place the scale function — before or after the translate — the result changes from three heights of the original size or the scaled one.

It is an important trait of transform property. You need it to achieve quite a complex transformation. But when you need those transformations to be distinct and independent of other transformations of an element it gets in your way.

There are cases when you cannot put all of the effects in one transform property. It can get too much pretty quickly. Especially if your keyframes come from different places you would need to have a very complex merging of a transformed string. You could hardly rely on an automatic mechanism because the logic isn’t straightforward. Also, it could get hard to understand what to expect. To simplify this and retain flexibility we need to separate those into different channels.

One solution is to wrap our elements into divs that each could be animated separately, e.g. a div for positioning on the canvas, another one for scaling, and a third one for rotation. That way, not only do you vastly simplify the definition of animations, you also open up the possibility of defining different transform origins where applicable.

It might seem that things get out of control with that trick. That we are multiplying the number of problems we had before. In fact, when I first found this trick I discarded it as being too much. I thought that I could just make sure my transform property is compiled out of all the pieces in the right order in one piece. It took one more transform function to make things too complex to manage and certain things impossible to do. My transform property string compiler started taking more and more time to get right so I gave up.

It turned out that controlling the playback of several animations is not that hard as it seems to be initially. Remember the cassette tape player analogy from the beginning? What if you could use your own player that takes any number of cassettes? More than that you could add as many buttons as you want on that player.

The only difference between calling play on a single animation and an array of animations is that you need to iterate. Here’s the code that you can use for any method of Animation instances:

// To play just call play on all of them
animations.forEach((animation) => animation.play());

We will use this to create all kinds of functions for our player.

Let’s create that box the would hold the animations and play them. You can create those boxes in any way that’s suitable. To make it clear, I’ll show you an example of doing it with a function and an object. The createPlayer function takes an array of animations that are to be played in sync. It returns an object with a single play method.

function createPlayer(animations) { return Object.freeze({ play: function () { animations.forEach((animation) => animation.play()); } });
}

That is enough for you to know to start expanding the functionality. Let’s add pause and currentTime methods.

function createPlayer(animations) { return Object.freeze({ play: function () { animations.forEach((animation) => animation.play()); }, pause: function () { animations.forEach((animation) => animation.pause()); }, currentTime: function (time = 0) { animations.forEach((animation) => animation.currentTime = time); } });
}

The createPlayer with those three methods gives you enough control to orchestrate any number of animations. But let’s push it a bit further. Let’s make it so our player could not only take any number of cassettes but other players as well.

As we saw earlier, Animation interface is similar to media interfaces. Using that similarity you could put all kinds of things in your player. To accommodate for that let’s tweak the currentTime method to make it work with both animations objects and objects that came from createPlayer.

function currentTime(time = 0) { animations.forEach(function (animation) { if (typeof animation.currentTime === "function") { animation.currentTime(time); } else { animation.currentTime = time; } });
}

The player we just created is what will allow you to hide the complexity of several divs for single-element animations channels. Those elements could be grouped in a scene. And each scene could be a part of something bigger. All that could be done with this technique.

To demonstrate the timing demo, I divided all the animations into three players. The first one is to control the playback of the preview on the right. The second one combines jumping animation of all the balls’ outlines to the left and of the one in preview.

Finally, the third one is a player that combined position animations of the balls in a left container. That player allows the balls to spread in a continuous demonstration of the animation with about 60 frames per second slices.

Conclusion

Web interfaces like Web Animations API expose for us certain things that browsers did all along. Browsers know how to render fast by passing on work to the GPU. With Web Animations API, we have control over it. Even though that control might seem a bit foreign or confusing, it doesn’t mean that using it should also be confusing. With an understanding of timing and playback control, you have tools to tame that API to your needs. You should be able to define how complex it should be.

Further Reading

21 New Social Media Tools for Merchants in 2021

New and updated social media tools can enhance an ecommerce business.

Here is a list of new social media tools and platform updates in 2021. There are tools for shopping, influencer marketing, live streaming, payments, dynamic advertising, and more.

Facebook

Facebook introduces Horizon Workrooms. To help people work remotely, Facebook has launched an open beta of Horizon Workrooms, available for free to download on Oculus Quest 2. Workrooms is a virtual meeting space where you and your colleagues can collaborate from anywhere. Join a meeting in virtual reality as an avatar or dial into the virtual room from your computer by video call. Use a huge virtual whiteboard to sketch out ideas, bring your computer and keyboard into VR to work together with others, or have expressive conversations as if you are in person.

Home page of Facebook Horizon WorkroomsHome page of Facebook Horizon Workrooms

Facebook Horizon Workrooms

Facebook Pay expands to additional platforms. U.S. businesses that use participating platforms can now enable Facebook Pay as a payment option directly on their websites, giving their customers the ability to check out without re-entering their payment information. Facebook Pay uses encryption to safely and securely store payment card numbers, removing the need for merchants to manage that data. Facebook started the rollout with Shopify merchants and will be expanding to other platforms.

Facebook expands Shops. Facebook has made it easier for people to discover and buy from Shops. In the U.S., businesses can bring Shops products into Marketplace. Facebook has also expanded ratings and reviews to products in Shops on Instagram, including photos and videos from the community. Also, Facebook has introduced Shops ads based on people’s shopping preferences.

Facebook introduces Bulletin newsletter app. Facebook has launched Bulletin, a standalone newsletter platform for free and paid articles and podcasts. To launch the platform, Facebook has recruited prominent writers, including Malcolm Gladwell, Erin Andrews, and Mitch Albom.

Instagram

Messenger API for Instagram opens to all developers and businesses. Facebook has opened the Messenger API for Instagram to all developers and businesses to integrate Instagram messaging with their preferred applications and workflows.

Home page of Messenger for InstagramHome page of Messenger for Instagram

Messenger for Instagram

Instagram introduces ads in its Shop tab. Instagram has launched ads in its Shop tab globally, making ​​it easier for people to discover and shop from brands. These ads appear as tiles on the Instagram Shop tab home page. Clicking on an ad takes users to the product details page.

Instagram introduces affiliate and shop features. Instagram has launched new ways to help creators monetize their digital efforts. Creators can now tag products from the brands they work with or use Shops for their own product line. Instagram is also testing a native affiliate tool to allow creators to discover new products available on checkout, share them with their followers, and earn commissions for the purchases, all within the Instagram app.

Instagram launches Live Rooms. Instagram’s Live Rooms gives users the ability to go live with up to three people. With Live Rooms, viewers can buy badges for the hosts and use other interactive features such as Shopping and Live Fundraisers.

Home page of Instagram Live RoomsHome page of Instagram Live Rooms

Instagram Live Rooms

Instagram introduces Content Publishing API. Facebook has launched Content Publishing API, a feature on the Instagram Graph API platform to make it easier for businesses to publish content. Instagram Business accounts can now schedule and publish posts to their Instagram feeds from third-party platforms. With the Content Publishing API, businesses can easily plan campaigns and build internal processes around publishing content using the platform of their choice. Content Publishing API will support scheduling and publishing single-photo or video posts to Instagram feed for Instagram Business accounts.

Pinterest

Pinterest launches Shopping List and expands shopping features and merchant tools. Pinterest has launched Shopping List, a method for pinners to have their product pins automatically saved in one place. Pinners are also informed of compelling deals on products they’ve saved with price drop notifications. Pinterest has also expanded its suite of merchant tools with the launch of (i) the verified merchant program in the U.K., Australia, Canada, France, and Germany, (ii) a shop tab on profile, and (iii) product tagging in Australia, Canada, France, and Germany.

Pinterest introduces Idea Pins. Pinterest has released Idea Pins, a multi-page format to help users engage and explore videos directly. Idea Pins make it easy for creators to publish quality, long-lasting, saveable content directly to Pinterest via a suite of publishing tools, including video recording and editing, voiceover recording, ghost mode transition tools, detail pages for instructions or ingredients, and interactive elements such as people tagging and stickers.

Home page of Pinterest Idea PinsHome page of Pinterest Idea Pins

Pinterest Idea Pins

Pinterest introduces new ways for creators to earn money and partner with brands. Pinterest has launched new ways for creators to build their business and earn money with the ability to make their Idea Pins shoppable, earn commissions through affiliate links, and partner with brands on sponsored content. Creators can tag their Idea Pins with any Product Pins. Creators producing branded content have an easier way to disclose paid relationships with a new tool to add a “paid partnerships” label.

Twitter

Twitter launches Shop Module to let users shop from profiles. Twitter is testing Shop Module, a new ecommerce feature that lets brands, businesses, and merchants showcase products directly on a business profile. Followers can scroll through a carousel of product images and tap on a product they’re interested in purchasing. That tap opens the business’s website inside Twitter for additional product info or to make a purchase.

Twitter tests new ecommerce card and Shop button. Twitter is testing a new card format that links to ecommerce product pages. The experimental new tweets include a prominent Shop button and details, such as product name, shop name, and price.

TikTok

TikTok launches AR development platform, Effect Studio. Joining Facebook and Snap to support third-party developers via augmented reality, TikTok has launched Effect Studio, currently in private beta. The experimental resource seeks new ways for creators to bring their ideas to life for the TikTok community.

Home page of TikTok Effect StudioHome page of TikTok Effect Studio

TikTok Effect Studio

TikTok releases Creator Marketplace API. TikTok is helping brands and agencies work with influencers by rolling out a new Creator Marketplace API. Marketing companies can now integrate more directly with the application’s influencer platform. The new API allows partnered marketing companies to access TikTok’s first-party data about audience demographics, growth trends, best-performing videos, and real-time campaign reporting for the first time.

Shopify introduces in-app shopping on TikTok. Shopify has announced a new way for entrepreneurs to reach consumers on TikTok. Shopify merchants with a TikTok For Business account can soon add a shopping tab to their TikTok profiles and sync their product catalogs to create a mini-storefront that links to the ecommerce store for checkout. Shopify and TikTok have also partnered to tag and link products in organic TikTok posts. TikTok users can shop directly from a merchant’s mini-storefront or click a tagged product in a merchant’s TikTok video to shop directly on the merchant’s Shopify store.

Web page on Shopify Blog announcing new in-app shopping experiences on TikTok.Web page on Shopify Blog announcing new in-app shopping experiences on TikTok.

Shopify Blog: Introducing new in-app shopping experiences on TikTok.

YouTube

YouTube unveils brand extensions. At its Brandcast Delivered event, YouTube previewed a new interactive feature for advertisers called brand extensions, designed to make the platform more shoppable. Brand extensions, available globally later this year, invite viewers to learn more about a product with one click, without interrupting their viewing experience. Brands can measure conversions in Google Ads.

YouTube introduces Super Thanks, letting creators monetize video content. As its fourth Paid Digital Good function, YouTube launched Super Thanks, allowing viewers to pay for pre-recorded or uploaded content. Similar to Super Chats, a monetization tool for YouTubers who live stream, Super Thanks lets a fan contribute to any uploaded video, as long as the creator is a YouTube Partner and has monetization enabled. There are four price points for viewers to purchase a single Super Thanks: $2, $5, $10, and $50.

Snapchat

Snap expands Dynamic Ads. Snap has announced the global rollout of Dynamic Ads. The product lets advertisers automatically create ads in real-time, using a product catalog. Snap provides various mobile-ready templates for advertisers to choose from, then serves the ads to the platform’s 229 million daily active users based on their interests.

Snap launches Creator Marketplace. Snap has launched a Creator Marketplace to help businesses discover and partner with Snap’s creator community. Snapchat’s Creator Marketplace is available via Business Manager to users with a Business Account. It will initially focus on helping businesses discover and partner with AR Lens creators. The marketplace will gradually extend to different types of creators (e.g., video creators and Snap Stars) and launch additional features to make it easier for brands and creators to work together.

Home page of Snap Creator MarketplaceHome page of Snap Creator Marketplace

Snap Creator Marketplace

Software Exec Shifts to Bicycle Components, and Thrives

Brian De Groodt launched Dispatch Custom Cycling Components in 2018 after a long career in enterprise software. The company sells bicycle headset caps, which sit atop the stem connecting handlebars to the frame. Customers can customize the caps, adding uniqueness to their bikes.

He told me, “We don’t just sell headset caps. We sell inclusivity. We sell the opportunity to take a neglected bicycle and turn it into one of one.”

DeGroot and I are more than acquaintances. I’ve invested in his company via a firm I co-own with other entrepreneurs.

He and I recently discussed bicycle culture, the origins of Dispatch, and more. Our entire audio conversation is embedded below. The transcript that follows is edited for clarity and length.

Eric Bandholz: Tell us about Dispatch.

Brian De Groodt: I launched Dispatch Custom Cycling Components in 2018. We sell a small piece of the bicycle called a headset cap. We customize the cap with our own artwork or whatever text the customer wants.

Bandholz: You’ve had an accomplished career. Is entrepreneurship new?

De Groodt: I’ve always been an entrepreneur at heart. I haven’t found the right outlet for it, until now. I spent most of my career in enterprise software. To me, entrepreneurship is freedom and a method of expression.

Bandholz: There’s a kind of elitism in the biking culture. If you didn’t have the best gear or wear spandex, you were looked down upon. Dispatch is the opposite.

De Groodt: Absolutely. It doesn’t serve the bicycle manufacturers or anybody else in the business to assume cyclists are supposed to look, act, and ride a certain way. It’s not good for the individual who wants to ride a bicycle. Maybe it’s their primary transportation or their mental or physical therapy.

Bandholz: You’re essentially manufacturing products and selling them. Where did you get the idea for the company?

De Groodt: The idea dates to 2015. I purchased a mountain bike frame manufacturer. I wanted to expand the brand into hats, glassware, mugs, those kinds of things. Headset caps came out of that. I worked with a local laser engraver. Before you knew it, they were taking off. So I separated that business from the frames and turned it into Dispatch.

As soon as somebody creates a custom text headset cap, we’re able to lay that out into a production template and run a big jig of orders for the day. We typically ship them in under 24 hours.

Bandholz: Why not outsource that process?

De Groodt: Speed-to-ask — taking what somebody created and producing it in the moment. Customers have two lines of text to engrave on their headset cap. It’s imperative to turn it around and ship within a day.

I’ve had two engraving machines. I’ve taught myself how to use them. I’ve worked in software all my life. An engraver is basically a printer. It comes with a cable that connects to a computer. It’s not complicated if you understand printing and vector graphics.

Bandholz: Your business model is compelling. You sell something roughly the size of a quarter with the ability to customize. How can Dispatch expand beyond headset caps?

De Groodt: We don’t just sell headset caps. We sell inclusivity. We sell the opportunity to take a neglected bicycle and turn it into one of one. We’ll continue to roll out products that allow for that individualization.

But we’re keeping it simple. We don’t want complex customization.

Bandholz: How have you generated awareness of the brand?

De Groodt: First, a lot of one-off, manual communication. Shopify facilitates the actual transactions, but the opportunity to use tools such as email, phone, and text is critical to get in front of customers and listen to them. I’ve had hundreds of emails from customers that have shared stories about their bicycle and how Dispatch has allowed them to further whatever that bicycle means to them.

I’ve received stories about divorce, DUI, family deaths, and how the bicycle has kept them mentally healthy.

Those types of conversations are amazing. They’re wind in the sail for the company.

Bandholz: I’m a fan of building a brand with a purpose. Authenticity can separate a brand from competitors. That’s ultimately what a business should be about.

De Groodt: Yes. The concept of value is critical — what you’re bringing to the customer. There have to be core values within an organization. Authenticity is one of them. You can’t fake it.

When you have those core values and stick to them, it becomes obvious that yours is a different organization. It wasn’t until I received feedback from my customers that I realized what my values actually were. And inclusivity, in my opinion, is paramount.

Bandholz: Tell us about your workday.

De Groodt: The structure is rigorous from 5:30 a.m. till about 6:00 p.m. The first part of the day is very regimented. I use Integromat to pull all orders out of Shopify into a Google spreadsheet. Then I run down the artwork, get the templates set up for the day, answer some emails, update the site as needed, and check the previous day’s reports. Then it’s off to whatever needs to be done, usually either sales calls or customer service issues.

Roughly 60% of my time is dedicated to operations, producing product and getting it out the door. Probably 20% is on ideas — what the next thing is. That takes a lot of mental focus. The remaining 20% is marketing.

Bandholz: Where can people support Dispatch and reach out?

De Groodt: Our website Dispatch.bike. We’re also on Facebook and Instagram. I’m on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Web Design Done Well: Excellent Editorial

A lot of web design talk concerns itself with what goes on around content. Page speed, design systems, search engine optimization, frameworks, accessibility — the list goes on and on. This gives us at Smashing Magazine plenty to write about, which is great, though it’s worth reminding ourselves what it’s all in service of.

In this third edition of our Web Design Done Well series, we’re honing in on the beating heart of many websites: content. More specifically, editorial content. The Web has given storytellers an incredible selection of tools to work with, and as an occasional semi-competent journalist myself, I love a good scoop.

What follows are examples of web technologies being woven in with editorial content to take it to the next level. We’ll then close with broader tips on thinking creatively about digital content. Even now, overwhelmed by the content production line, the good stuff still shines through.

Part Of: Web Design Done Well

Reuters Lean Into Swiping

In this piece about systemic racism in the US, Reuters shapes the content around swiping, breaking the story up into bite-sized chunks. Reading feels far more purposeful than it would have through a traditional scrolling approach. It’s like turning the pages of a book. On mobile, you literally flick to the next section. It makes for snappy, immediate reporting — and that’s to say nothing of the excellent data visualization on show.

We live in a mobile-first world. There is no point in being precious about this. Yes, magazine spreads have a certain class about them. Yes, a desktop view gives you a bigger canvas to work with. The reality is most people will be viewing what you publish on a mobile phone, so lean into it. For a similar approach, these ‘tap stories’ by The New York Times and Input are also excellent. For those interested in further reading on mobile-centric editorial, The Story by legendary newspaper designer Mario Garcia is heartily recommended.

The New York Times Shows Rather Than Tells

For all the awful things the COVID-19 pandemic has caused, it has at least led to some breathtakingly good reporting. This interactive New York Times piece explains how face masks work by taking readers to particle level. You can see how fibers catch particles, and why different masks have different levels of effectiveness. Any fool can make complicated topics hard to understand, but making them easy to understand? That’s an art form all of its own.

There are a lot of elements at play here. Graphics, color, animation — there’s even an augmented reality experience if that floats your boat. What could so easily have been a dry, stuffy subject is brought to life. And most importantly of all, it’s vital information. Stuff like this is why Gabriel Gianordoli was voted World’s Best Designer at the 2020 Society for News Design awards. Smashing.

The Washington Post Visualises Exponential Spread

The pandemic has also forced data visualization to the front pages of publications all over the world. This article on exponential spreading from March 2020 (remember that?) does an incredible job of visualizing how and why certain viruses become real big problems real quick. From full-blown simulations to little inline sparkline graphs, this is editorial that takes full advantage of its digital setting.

What I especially like about this one is that it never feels gratuitous. Every visual improves the story, to the point where you almost feel sorry for anyone having to explain the same concepts with words alone. It being available in more than a dozen languages at the click of a button is another wonderful touch — a reminder that the Web is in fact borderless. I can only imagine how many people around the world this article has helped.

The Marshall Project Mixes Media

Here The Marshall Project presents hard-hitting journalism about the US criminal justice system with the elegance and bittersweet beauty of a children’s storybook. In “The Zo”, creative writing, striking illustration, mesmerizing narration, and an important story combine. This is multimedia editorial in full flow.

They say that songs can take several forms. The same is true of editorial content online. What you see above was inspired by a 96-page academic paper. That it could find a new audience as an animated series online, then be nominated for not one but two Emmys, is testament to the transformative powers of the internet.

SBS’s Interactive Graphic Novel Is No Novelty

Speaking of the transformative powers of the internet, how about an interactive story. We’re all familiar with film adaptations, radio play adaptations, miniseries adaptations, and so on. Why not web page adaptations? That’s just what Australian broadcaster SBS set out to do with The Boat, an interactive retelling of a short story in Nam Le’s book of the same name.

The page’s opening sequence pulls you right in, its words tilting and tumbling with the waves as you read, with the sounds of thunder and rain filling your senses to the brim. As the story settles, Matt Huynh’s illustrations drift by like memories. It’s a remarkably vivid experience, beautiful in its own right as well as a savvy way to bring literature to younger generations.

The Pudding Monkeys Around

I wish I’d come across this in time for the sound edition of this inspiring sites series. No matter, it’s here now. In a truly superb showcase of digital editorial, The Pudding doesn’t so much explain the Infinite Monkey Theorem as live it through music. Don’t know what the Monkey Theorem is? Well, what are you waiting for, the page will do an infinitely better job of explaining than I could. I’ll wait.

By using interactive four-note examples, the article involves the reader while also making the concept simple to understand. As a final, delightful touch, the page is itself a live, ongoing experiment, randomly working its way through increasingly complex tunes. You can expect it to get “Seven Nation Army” right in about 19 years. One wonders whether a monkey typing at a keyboard for long enough could create the perfect JavaScript framework. Hope springs eternal.

A List Apart: A Class Apart

For all the talk of data visualization, music, augmented reality, and other snazzy tools, there’s a lot to be said for getting the fundamental right. Pages don’t have to be the web equivalent of the Vegas Strip to be eye-catching. A list Apart shows that better than most. Its approach to content will always hold a place in my heart. Title, illustration, copy, blue hyperlinks. Beautiful.

What I now realize was an unsettlingly long time ago, I wrote about the two branches of ‘brutalist’ web design. The gist of what I said was that one approach is loud and brash, the other resolutely functional. A List Apart shows the beauty of the latter done right. The multimedia toolkit is a wonderful asset to have, but even now there are times when only words will do.

Thinking Creatively About Content

For better or worse, the web is absolutely awash with content. A lot of it is great, a lot of it is not. A lot of the talk around it has the cold, calculating cadence you’d sooner expect from industrialists talking about assembly lines. The examples shared above hopefully speak to the value of resisting the urge to churn things out, but let’s be real: most websites don’t have the resources of, say, The Washington Post.

However, there are ways to think creatively about content at all levels, from personal blogs to global publications. Here are a few of them:

  • Question your default approach.
    We are creatures of habit, including in how we tell our stories. Take the time early on to step back and ask, How could I do this differently? Maybe a photo essay would be more prudent than an article. Maybe a heat map is better than a table. Specialization is important of course, but don’t let it blind you to other, often complementary ways of doing things.
  • Use free resources.
    One of the great gifts of the internet is how much amazing free stuff there is. Like, actually free, on purpose. From photography to graphic design to data visualization tools to audio editing software, the resources you need to transform your content are just a click away. Our freebies tag is a good place to start.
  • Give content multiple forms.
    As The Marshall Project showed especially well with “The Zo”, stories can find new audiences when they take different shapes. Wrote an article? Great, why not record an audio version? Produced a data-driven report? Pretty cool, though is it as cool as it might be if you started plugging those numbers into D3? Only one way to find out.
  • Experiment.
    The examples here are the cream of the crop, but it’s worth mentioning there is a tremendous amount to be gained from trying new ideas and embracing the occasional failure that brings. Iteration is key to the creative process. If you try something and it doesn’t work, fine, no matter. It’s the only way to get to what does work.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to content, but respecting the story is essential. Web technologies are supplemental, not the main event. Don’t let them be the tail that wags the dog. The best results come when the story is in harmony with how it’s told. That’s the kind of content that sticks with people for years.