Reliable web hosting: more than a pint of beer a month

A short discourse on why good web hosting really should cost more than a pint of beer per month.

A pint of beer

Earlier this week, one of my clients had their WordPress site hacked. Alerted to the issue by my client, I began to investigate. Unable to access the admin side of the site, I quickly logged into the server via FTP. Within a few minutes, I discovered the hacked files and took steps to correct the problem. Once the site was restored, I visited the web host’s own site to chat with its tech support.

In an instant message window that many web hosts utilize these days, I asked the tech support chap if he could shed light on how or why the site was hacked. The tech support guy replied that his company does not offer that service; he had no useful information to share. That ended my interest in chatting with tech support.

A few days later the same site was hacked again, presumably by a different hacker as the hacked page content was different than previously. At that point, I picked up the phone, called my client and explained that it was time to pay more than one or two beers per month for web hosting.

Web server security is technical stuff

I’m a communications designer who can write some code. I certainly am well ahead of the general public when it comes to using a computer. But the level of technical knowledge required to keep a web server safe, online and free from hackers takes a great deal of specific, technical knowledge. Much more than I have. That sort of knowledge costs money to acquire, and companies must pay good salaries to maintain staff with that sort of knowledge.

The web hosts that offer monthly rates of $5.00 or less to keep a website online rely on volume sales. For less than a beer or two month, those web hosts rent us a bit of space on their web servers. Yet that’s where it stops. If they are only getting $5.00 per month from us, there nothing in it for them to care, much less help, when something goes wrong with our site.

Pay up front for safety and security

My own recommendation to clients is to spend the money up front to enjoy peace of mind later, the peace of mind that comes from knowing that skilled and well-educated people are there to help when required. Reliable, fast and perhaps most importantly, secure web hosting can be purchased for $20.00 per month and up. From a different angle, that’s like buying the tech support gal at least a beer every week. Since we’re buying her so many beers, she is bound to want to help us when something goes wrong.

Two recommendations

There are a number of reliable web hosts out there. I have this blog with UK-based host called Memset. My company intranet with is online thanks to WP Engine.

Gauging Customer Concerns Online

Tips and tools for gauging customer feedback online.

Customer satisfaction meter

In an age where customers have unprecedented access to their favorite stores, businesses and organizations through social media, small companies and consultancies may struggle to find a practical way to gauge customer feedback through online channels. When it comes to online engagement over social media, the difficulty for smaller businesses is typically an issue of time. Small businesses and non-profits often do not have the resources to dedicate to maintaining an aggressive online marketing campaign across multiple social media sites. If those organizations already lack time to engage customers via social media, how can they possibly determine the mood and concerns of their customers?

To address that question – how do small businesses or charities gage customer concerns? – I’ve shared a few ideas below.

What are the industry bloggers saying?

Professional bloggers make a habit of keeping an ear to the ground to the concerns of industry leaders and customers alike. Subscribing to the RSS feeds of the key bloggers in an industry can be a quick way to get a handle on the pulse of the market.

What’s the buzz on Twitter?

Connecting with customers on Twitter, either through the company’s Twitter account or our own personal account, can be an efficient way to monitor customers’ focus, news or complaints. Scanning through our Twitter feed once or twice a day – even if it’s only before and after the business day – can be enough to give ourselves some insight into our customers’ wants.

Drop an email or two

Most people like to offer their two cents when given an opportunity to do so. Take the time to send a personal email to a few customers to ask for feedback about a new service, campaign or other offering. Be specific when posing questions. The responses that come back could provide the insight that we’ve been after.

Invite your customers out for coffee

Let’s not forget the value of a face-to-face measurement. Take a couple of your customers out for a coffee or beer once or twice a month. It’s less time-consuming than running a social media campaign, and while less comprehensive than a broad survey, can offer real insight into your customers worries and needs.

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Integrating a WordPress Blog with Facebook

Why everyone should listen to Sean Blanda at least twice when it comes to integrating a WordPress blog with Facebook

Chickenmonkeydog's Facebook page

This blog post could just have easily been entitled “Why Everyone Should Listen to Sean Blanda at Least Twice.” Allow me to explain why.

In October 2011, I attended WordCamp Philly, in Philadelphia, PA. In addition to learning a lot from Dave Konopka (@davekonopka) and Pete Schuster (@pete_schuster), I attended a presentation by Sean Blanda (@seanblanda) about connecting a WordPress blog with Facebook as a tool to increase readership, conversations and the like. Sean Blanda runs the tech news website, Technically Philly and is an engaging and clear speaker.

During his talk at WordCamp Philly, Sean walked through the simple, yet slightly technical steps of integrating Facebook’s Open Graph tags into the WordPress templates of the Technically Philly news site. I won’t repeat everything that Sean said, but what I want to highlight are two of about four steps that Sean took to improve the return he was getting on Facebook:

  1. He stopped using plugins or other automated services to push his blog content to Facebook. Instead, he took the extra time to manually add a link or note to Facebook.
  2. Sean also added a number of tags from Facebook’s Open Graph to the header files of Technically Philly’s WordPress templates. The Open Graph tags help Facebook learn about the content on the Technically Philly site.

I was impressed with the numbers that Sean related to the audience during his talk. In the course of only five months, with what sounded like only one or two days of coding (by his own admission, Sean is not a developer; he is a journalist), Sean was able to grow the number of Technically Philly Facebook fans by more than 250%, adding 7 to 10 new fans per day.

Inspired by Sean’s suggestions, I decided to apply these two techniques on my own blog, chickenmonkeydog.com. Up to that point, I had not been overly focused on Facebook as a means to promote chickenmonkeydog. I felt like this gave me a few new and practical steps to try.

Unfortunately, life and a busy work schedule intervened.

In early January 2012, I noticed that Sean would be speaking at an upcoming Philly WordPress Meetup. As Sean is a dynamic and entertaining speaker, I was up for hearing his presentation again. I wanted to be a good student and go into the presentation prepared. A few days prior the WordPress meetup, I started organically adding blog posts from chickenmonkeydog to Facebook. By the second time that I was in the audience to hear a Sean Blanda presentation, I had been manually posting on Facebook for about five days.

During that second presentation, I was glad to hear that Technically Philly’s Facebook numbers had continued to climb. When Sean began to cover how to review Facebook’s insights, I took a moment to check out the same for chickenmonkeydog.

Wow! In only the few short days since I had begun to organically add my posts to Facebook, I had seen that the number of people talking about chickenmonkeydog on Facebook had more than tripled. Our reach had more than doubled as well!

As the evening came to a close, I took a moment to thank Sean in person. I confessed that it was the second time that I had seen him deliver this particular presentation and that I was now a convert. He had shown me the light!

In the days that followed, I took the time to learn more about Open Graph (OG) and implement a number of OG tags on chickenmonkeydog.com. Not only did the OG tags help Facebook pull the right thumbnail image into each of our daily posts, it also seemed to help grow our reach even further. By the end of January, we had quadrupled our reach from December. The best stat of all is that we grew our Facebook fan numbers by more than 10%!

Let me slow down just a minute to point out that our fan and reach numbers are still very small. Yet, the fact that I was able to achieve quantifiable growth in a very short time is promising indeed. I shall continue to follow the practices that I learned and will be sure, at some point, to report back on our progress.

Small Business Blogging in 2012: How Are We Progressing?

Checking in on the status of our small business blogging efforts as the first month of 2012 comes to an end.

A calendar

The end of January is upon us already. In just a few short weeks, one-twelfth of the year has passed. With now more than four weeks of the new year behind us now, we should be able to get a read on how the year is shaping up. As a follow-up article to my previously published tips for successful blogging, let’s check in on our own blogging strategy and inbound marketing efforts in 2012.

Do we now have a plan in place?

Have we worked up a detailed online marketing plan that clearly sets out specific steps and a establishes a publication schedule for our small business blog? If not, let’s set a short deadline and ask a colleague, mentor or friend to hold us to this deadline.

Is our timetable proving practical?

Are we spending enough time on our blogging efforts? Are we spending too much time? As small business owners, we need to appreciate the demands of our work days to ensure that we give our online marketing efforts sufficient time and energy. Failure to do so could certainly cause our blogging efforts to deliver fewer returns that we might expect.

Have we noticed any returns on our blogging efforts yet?

While it is definitely too early to expect a significant upswing in traffic or sales to measure, we should notice at least some change or have picked up a few anecdotes as a result of our blogging: a new commentor, a new contact on LinkedIn or Twitter or an email response to one or more of our posts.

Do we have a method to tracking anecdotes?

How are we saving the little stories that give flavor and dimension to our web statistics? Are we using Google Docs? Maybe a spreadsheet on our local network server (so our colleagues can also access it)? Are we actively sharing and promoting that document internally as a way to help build enthusiasm around our blogging campaign?

Are we keeping online marketing a priority for our small business?

Have our inbound marketing efforts slipped down the pecking order? As small business owners, it’s easy to get bogged down or distracted by the day-to-day operations of running our company. Yet for our inbound marketing campaign, we need to dedicate ongoing and focused attention to our blog.

Know your limits

Knowing one’s limits is an important part of running a small business.

Pistachos, beer mug and Victory beer bottles

As a small business owner, I set myself a pretty aggressive online marketing schedule. I spend a lot of time promoting the business, trying to sell our services.

However, sometimes I have to give my marketing schedule a pass. As a small business, I can respond to only so many curve balls and tasks in a week. And frankly, this week had me running. As Friday afternoon rolls in, and having been at my desk since 3.00 am this morning, I have decided to take a slightly more Jimmy Buffett approach to this post: beer and pistachios. I know my limits, and my limits have been reached.

Yep, I am not meeting my inbound marketing task for the week, but I am doing so as a calculated decision. Other business efforts took higher priority this week. I’ll will be back to normal broadcasting next week.

Offline Promotion of Small Business Blogs

Four offline promotion tips for a small business blog.

Many social media gurus often overlook the value and methodology of offline promotion of a small business blog. The trendy focus rests heavily on inbound marketing, relying on social media and quality content to generate a regular readership of a small business’s blog. While that particular focus is important, a well-rounded approach to blog promotion certainly will increase the likelihood of small business blog success. Such a multi-faceted approach includes taking steps offline to raise the profile of the blog.

What follows are a few simple ideas for offline promotion of small business blog — and therefore the offline promotion of the business itself.

1. Tell people about our small business blog

It seems simple and obvious, but that’s the beauty of it. If our small business blog is going to return real value for our company, we need to do all that we can to promote. We should be looking for ways to mention our blog at networking events, in conversations with clients and, yes, even at parties with friends, church socials and the like. We should constantly be looking for ways to slip in a quick word about the topic of our focus, how often we publish and who our target audience is. ensuring that our clients, colleagues, friends and contacts know this will help ensure that our blog is regularly in their frame of reference.

2. Get others to talk about our blog

If we work hard to create a great blog, one that provides valuable insight or knowledge to readers, then it is very likely that readers will mention it to others. Certainly a good portion of those mentions will be via social media, or perhaps their own respective blogs, yet those fans will also discuss our posts with their friends and colleagues. The way of that word of mouth referral cannot be underestimated.

3. Add the blog address to business cards and other promotional materials

As small business owners, we are likely to hand out our business cards like they are candy. Share, share, and share them with everyone we reasonably can. Yet let’s make sure that the specific URL for our blog in featured in some easily identifiable way. Let’s add it to our brochures and flyers. We can even add it to our internal communications to encourage our staff and colleagues to join in our offline promotion work.

4. Write to people about our blog

In the age of online communication and ever-present social media, few surprises offline promotional charm like a handwritten note. We can pen a short note to a key customer or contact mentioning a blog we recently wrote that might be of interest to them. The attention that personal letter will generate when it arrives at the recipient’s desk is bound to ensure that the recipient visits our blog to look for the mentioned post. Social media may be fast and easily accessible, but a good, old-fashioned note on a piece of paper packs a big impact in today’s world.

The beauty and speed of WordPress

Highlighting and speed and ease at which a new WordPress site can be launched when needed quickly.

As a communications designer, I am occasionally called upon to perform acts of magic. Most consultants will know what I am talking about: asked to exert considerable effort and deliver significant results on a short schedule, often with little or no warning. While I am no magician, I do keep a number of tricks up my sleeve for use in select times. This past week presented such a time.

A client contacted me late Wednesday afternoon with an urgent need to upgrade his web presence. This client needed a new website by the following Monday at the latest.

Such a request was a tall ask, but I knew that it was definitely possible given one of the aces I keep in my back pocket. WordPress.

My client was running a WordPress.com website. As a free service WordPress.com is a fantastic way to get a very functional website and up and running in minutes. Yet my client’s needs had outgrown WordPress.com, so I suggested that we go with a self-hosted site with the same WordPress software, offered for free through WordPress.org. The approach agreed, I was off and running.

Within a short while, I had the latest version of WordPress software running on my server — I had lent my client web space given the short timetables — and had begun to make edits to the selected WordPress theme. I didn’t make a lot of edits to the theme, just enough to make the look and feel of my client’s website not look so ‘out of the box’.

The theme edited, I used the export/import functionality on WordPress.com to bring all my clients website content to the new site. I made a few more design and functionality edits to the PHP templates and the CSS, then called it a day.

The following morning, I showed a draft version of this new site to my client. The words of praise that I heard on the phone gave me much reason to expect this client to continue to rely on my services for years to come.

Five tips for successful business blogging in 2012

Five clear and simply steps for getting a business blog on the track to success in 2012.

blogging in the year 2012

As the new year rolls forward, many small companies and organizations will focus attention on the creation of a business blog. For some businesses, this process will entail returning to an existing blog that has been allowed to wither or go stale from lack of attention. With this blog post, I aim to offer guidance on how to get a business blog on track for success in 2012.

1. Have a plan and write it down

It’s a generally accepted fact that small business owners are busy. Between the tasks of selling the company’s products or services and handling the administration of the business itself, small business owners are pushed for time. When time is a premium, advanced planning will always be a beneficial step. Professional and personal life coach Brian Tracy regularly states in his many books and seminars that every minute of planning saves at least 10 minutes of work time.

In planning for the next twelve months of this new year, let’s set down a detailed, step-by-step plan for using our business blog as an online marketing tool. Consider and set forth what actions we need to take, how much time we need to take those steps and when we will actually take those steps. Be specific. And let’s be sure to write our plans down. On paper. (I keep a printed copy my online marketing plan in a special folder on my desk, always within arm’s reach.)

2. Commit to a realistic time frame

Online marketing and, in particular, inbound marketing, requires concerted effort over a number of months. Business blogging must be an ongoing task for the company if there is to be a notable return on the investment of time and energy that small business owners will spend on creating valuable content. According to Mike Volpe, the Chief Marketing Officer at HubSpot, an inbound marketing campaign can take from a couple of weeks to least four months to gain benefits.

For the new year, let’s commit to blogging for a minimum of three months and ideally at least for six months. Let’s follow our written plan with vigor and zest. Be dedicated to our online marketing efforts.

3. Measure web activity and traffic

As the months of the new year roll by, monitoring the traffic levels and activity on a business blog is an important task. More than simply checking to see if overall numbers are trending upwards, let’s make an effort to ascertain if our intended keywords are bringing in the traffic and making the connections that we’re working towards. Don’t forget to keep an eye on the number of comments and inbound links as well. Those are key indicators of the value that our audience places on our business blog.

4. Note wins in an easily updated + shareable way

While web traffic and numbers of comments are easy to note, other online marketing wins prove more difficult to record and therefore often go undocumented. Wins can include an email from a key customer about one of blog posts or a door that we were able to open because we shared a link to another of our posts with a potential client. How are those little gains noted?

For the new year, let’s create a document, spreadsheet or other approach for sharing these little wins in an accessible and easily updated fashion. At lbdesign, we use an intranet blog to detail the specifics of these successes. I keep the intranet posts short and sweet — just detailed enough to be of use to my colleagues. An alternative method would be to use Google Docs.

5. Treat online marketing as a priority

Online marketing and business blogging must take priority on the ‘to do’ list if small business owners are to be successful in their new year campaigns. Just like traditional networking or sales, blogging for business takes time and energy over a dedicated period of time. The only way to ensure a positive return on inbound marketing efforts is to treat blogging as one of the most important steps in growing the business.

As this new year starts then, let’s remind ourselves that business blogging is a top priority for our small business.