It’s been said the key to becoming an expert in any field is to practice that specific task for 10,000 hours. But that’s a lot of time and your schedule is tight, so instead of dumping that massive workload on you, we talk to the experts, we glean the most valuable morsels of their expertise, and then we condense that knowledge into one informative and entertaining 10-minute nugget. This time we’re talking with Kevin Criaghead, the man behind NetChimp, a digital design agency that helps customers build or re-design their websites and draw more visitors. Join us as we cover everything from SEO and
content creation to house music and flea collars!
Is it true that your first foray into online marketing involved the music industry?
Yes, that is right. In the late 1990s I was manager of a band, which was great fun. At the time, alternative music sung by teenagers was the “big thing” so in my wisdom I decided to manage a bunch of guys in their 30s singing 80s influenced pop. I was never one to follow the crowd!
Due to their age, the mainstream music industry in the UK wouldn’t touch them. This didn’t put me off as I thought they were amazing and I love a challenge. I realized that we had to get creative with the marketing to get them noticed. In fact I was so convinced by them that I took 3 months off of my regular job at the time to manage them full-time.
Back then there was no Facebook or Twitter and MySpace was a distant dream, but I knew that if we could get their music heard, people would love them. I realized that their market was people in their late 20s or early 30s, so I created a brand around the band that matched this. We also targeted radio stations that played classic pop and rock rather than the teeny bop ones. We got positive feedback which was encouraging.
The first part of the online marketing plan was to build a website and host some tracks on it; sounds obvious now, but back then nobody gave away music like that. The band took some convincing, but I assured them that it would work. Luckily it did, and an Australian producer downloaded and listened to the tracks and got in touch. This was no small fry either– he had remixed tracks for U2 among others! He liked the music so much that he promised that he would mix the tracks for free and would make his money back from future sales. The band got lots of publicity from this and did TV and radio slots, which was great. Unfortunately the remixes never saw the light of day as the band broke up before they were completed. However, it convinced me of the power of the Internet.
What do you tell your clients about the importance of content creation?
When I build websites, I do it the opposite way to what my clients expect. You see, when clients commission a web designer to build their site, they expect it to be an art project. They expect to see a mock up of a beautiful looking design, with flashy things and gizmos all over the place—no substance and all style. Hell, when I started out, I used to design like this, but I found that this “best guess” method didn’t actually produce high performance websites, so I tried to figure out a new way of doing things. I studied the experts to find out what they did and mashed it together in a big bowl to come up with my own unique blend. So my design strategy is based on ideas from Jakob Nielsen on usability; Ben Hunt helped me with design layout; Corbett Barr provided me with inspiration on content creation; and the guys over at Conversion Rate Experts provided great insight on conversion.
The one thing that all these guys had in common was they agreed that the key element of a website is the content. The better the stuff on your website, the more likely people will find, read and respond to it. Writing epic content is vital. So when I build a website I:
- Do keyword research to see which phrases will bring in visitors from search engines
- Create landing pages based around each keyword
- Create a sales funnel that leads the visitor from the landing page to the sales page
Once the basic sales funnel is done, I’ll have a good idea of the number and type of pages that are required. I then have epic content written that provides the right message to persuade visitors along the sales funnel and to convert them into clients. These pages of text are the wireframe for the site. The design is then overlaid on top of the content, supporting the message without distracting from it. So the content IS the website, with the design simply supporting the messages that the content provides. My position on content is simple: content is king!
Do the owners of an underperforming website always know that it’s not up to par?
One of the ways I find new clients is by going to networking events. You know the type of thing: business lunches with a couple of hundred people where you try and meet as many leads as possible. Well, when I am at this type of event, people often ask me what I do. Previously I would always say “I am a web designer,” as most people understand what this is. However I became a bit dissatisfied with this description because:
a) It didn’t really describe the benefits of what I do
b) If they already had a website, they thought “There is nothing this guy can do for me.”
c) They thought “Another nerd–gotta get out of here before I get bored to death!”
I thought there must be a better way of describing what I do that makes it more relevant, interesting, and lucrative. I decided to try “I fix underperforming websites” as it seemed a bit more natural, and I thought it might lead to a fuller discussion where I could say more about the range of services I offer. And guess what? I was right!
As soon as they heard that someone could improve their website and earn them more money, the flood gates opened! Almost everyone I talked to went on a long rant about how disappointed they are in their website and how they wished it could earn more. I just listen to their problems, suggesting some minor tweaks — some of which they could do themselves — and they are sold on the concept.
So to answer your original question, yes, in my experience most people know their website isn’t up to par. They just don’t know if anyone can help them do anything about it!
Are some sites, like say, one for a company that simply sells flea collars, somewhat limited in the amount of traffic they can expect to see?
You would be surprised at how some markets that you might completely ignore can be profitable. It’s human nature to jump to conclusions using your own preconceived ideas about how popular something might be. However, using guesswork isn’t my style. What I do is find out how big the market might be by using keyword research and a little creativity. I then figure out what phrases people search for, how competitive they are, and base the traffic estimates on empirical evidence.
For instance, ‘flea collars’ has 14,800 searches per month, 2,400 in the UK alone. Of course these aren’t for collars that fit on flea’s necks, they’re for pets that have fleas, so this might not be a suitable phrase. This means you need to get creative.
You need to think outside the box about the type of person who might want a flea collar. For example, they may own circus fleas, so you need to do some keyword research on that. So ‘flea circus’ has 6,600 global searches and 1,300 in the UK, and would fit the profile of the buyer better. Also, unlike ‘flea collar’, competition levels are really low, so it’s a potentially good phrase.
Next you can expect a number one site for a particular phrase to get 50% of the traffic. So if you setup a flea collar website and got it to the top of Google, you would expect 3,300 visitors per month. If you have a conversion rate of just 10%, then you could expect to sell 330 flea collars. And that’s with just one keyword. That’s not bad actually. I’m off to register fleacircuscollars.com right now!
What’s more satisfying: building a website from scratch or redesigning one?
I think doing a redesign is more fun because the client already knows something is wrong and you are going to fix it. This means they have more respect for your work and listen to what you have to say. When you build from scratch, some clients just want a website design based on their preferences. On a redesign they realize that it’s best to design the site based on their clients preferences–a big difference!
Your original design agency, Competitive Edge Design, was rebranded as NetChimp in 2011. Why the change?
Well the name was too corporate for a start. Competitive Edge Design sounds like a firm of accountants! The serious name seemed to attract serious clients with dull projects. I wanted fun clients so I rebranded to give the business a bit more personality. The website was redesigned and the content was written to be more personal. It seems to have worked with the number of people contacting me from my website up by a factor of 20.
SEO used to be so easy a, um, chimp could do it; just insert a ton of keywords. etc. Has the art of registering high on search engines been elevated?
It is much harder to rank highly doing the traditional SEO tricks. Some of the basics are still valid, but many of the old techniques just don’t work. Google in particular is rolling out changes to their algorithm on an almost monthly basis and it gets harder and harder to keep up. Some of these changes means stuff you may have done in the past to improve your position — such as creating backlinks — may actually end up counting against you.
In this moving landscape, the single most important thing you can do is have good quality content. This will never count against you. So if your website has interesting, unique articles on topics related to your niche, then your search engine position will improve. People will link to your content naturally because it’s so interesting—it’s a win-win.
I read that you fell in love with Pong in the 70s, and that spurred your interest in electronics. But couldn’t you just as easily been spurred on to become a bricklayer/bricksmasher?
I still remember seeing my first game console. It was like a miracle! You plugged this device into a TV and you could play an electronic game on it. I felt like Buck Rogers in some kind of futuristic time warp. I loved every minute of it and I was truly addicted. It didn’t matter to me that the picture was black and white, or that there was no scoreboard; this thing was so basic you manually kept score with a marble. I just loved that it seemed so modern, sleek, and new. It was also cool that I was one of the first kids that had one. At the time Star Wars was the big movie and the space shuttle was going to make space travel routine, so anything futuristic was really cool. And boy was Pong cool.
As soon as I saw this thing I was desperate to know how it worked. What was inside this box of tricks? This is why I was always going to be involved in electronics and computing. Although I never did learn what was inside that box.
You say you avoid using “techno-babble and buzzwords.” That’s awesome. Can you give us a few examples of techy terms that you normally simplify?
One of my first jobs was helpdesk support–you know those guys that you call with a PC problem and they say “have you tried switching it off and on again?” What I noticed was that all my workmates talked in acronyms. Even the department name was shortened from “Information Technology” to “IT”. Anyway, during this time I noticed that when I talked geek, people glazed over, looked confused, or got incredibly frustrated. At this point I realized I had to find a way to talk to people so that they understood the problem, what caused it, and how they could avoid it in future. I found that people really responded to this, and even though I wasn’t the most knowledgeable member of staff, I was the most popular because callers understood me.
When I set up my first business, I decided that plain-speaking was important, and something that made me stand out from other geek speak agencies. So even now I try to explain stuff in simple terms that my clients understand but without talking down to them. Clients aren’t stupid, they run businesses; they just don’t understand computer terminology! It is my job to explain things so my clients know what they are buying from me. Sometimes people ask for what they think they want but often they actually want something else. Being clear helps clarify what they want and what I will deliver. It also prevents any disappointment, such as the client thinking that their website will get squillions of visitors without running any promotional campaigns.
With regards to specific terms I avoid, there are too many to count! Most people have heard of the phrase SEO, and many of my clients know it stands for Search Engine Optimization. However they don’t know what that is, or how it is done. I get clients to tell me in plain English what results they would like and I’ll tell them the things I think the need in order to get those results. So they might say I want to sell 20 flea collars per week and I’ll go and do some research and let them know how we might achieve it— probably by appearing high in search results related to flea collars, social media promotion, and kick-ass conversion on the website that persuades people to buy.
So you’re anti-techno-babble, but what about techno music? House music has a big history in the UK!
I have actually enjoyed house music since the mid-90’s. I use to love guys like Pete Tong, John Digweed and Sasha but my absolute favorite was the Renaissance dance compilations. Absolute classics. I still have my original Renaissance CD (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Renaissance:_The_Mix_Collection) which I believe is quite valuable.
When not creating website brilliance out of this air, Kevin Craighead enjoys listening to music, experimenting on electronic equipment (which he admits makes his home resemble Dr Frankenstein’s lab), and rooting for his favorite football (soccer) teams, Aberdeen FC and Scotland. Thanks for all the great information and stories, Kevin!