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Search Engine Optimization (SEO)

» Ten Tips to the Top of Search Engines:

Having a website that gets found in Google, Yahoo, and Bing, etc. isn't hard to do, but it can be difficult to know where to begin. Here are my latest and greatest tips to get you started:

1. Do not purchase a new domain unless you have to. The search engines put a lot of stock in how long your website and domain have been around. While you can purchase a new domain and redirect your old one to the new one, your best bet is to use your existing domain/website if at all possible. If you're redesigning or starting from scratch and you have to use a brand-new domain for some reason, you can expect at least somewhat of a loss in search engine traffic. It could be anywhere from a few weeks to a few months or more.

2. Optimize your site for your target audience, not for the search engines. This may sound counterintuitive, but hear me out. The search engines are looking for pages that best fit the keyword phrase someone types into their little search box. If those "someones" are typing in search words that relate to what your site offers, then they are most likely members of your target audience. You need to optimize your site to meet *their* needs. If you don't know who your target audience is, then you need to find out one way or another. Look for studies online that might provide demographic information, and visit other sites, communities, or forums where your target audience might hang out and listen to what they discuss. This information will be crucial to your resulting website design, keyword research, and copywriting. Brand Formation Arrow
3. Research your keyword phrases extensively. The phrases you think your target market might be searching for may very well be incorrect. To find the optimal phrases to optimize for, use research tools such as KeywordDiscovery, Wordtracker or Google's Keyword Tool. Compile lists of the most relevant phrases for your site, and choose a few different ones for every page. Never shoot for general keywords such as "travel" or "vacation," as they are rarely (if ever) indicative of what your site is really about.

4. Design and categorize your site architecture and navigation based on your keyword research. Your research may uncover undiscovered areas of interest or ways of categorizing your products/services that you may wish to add to your site. For instance, let's say your site sells toys. There are numerous ways you could categorize and lay out your site so that people will find the toys they're looking for. Are people looking for toys to fit their child's stage of development? (Look for keyword phrases such as "preschool toys.") Or are they more likely to be seeking specific brands of toys? Most likely, your keyword research will show you that people are looking for toys in many different ways. Your job is to make sure that your site's navigation showcases the various ways of searching. Make sure you have links to specific-brand pages as well as specific age ranges, specific types of toys, etc.

5. Program your site to be "crawler-friendly." The search engines can't fill out forms, can't search your site, can't read JavaScript links and menus, and can't interpret graphics and Flash. This doesn't mean that you can't use these things on your site; you most certainly can! However, you do need to provide alternate means of navigating your site as necessary. If you have only a drop-down sequence of menus to choose a category or a brand of something, the search engine crawlers will never find those resulting pages. You'll need to make sure that you always have some form of HTML links in the main navigation on every page which link to the top-level pages of your site. From those pages, you'll need to have further HTML links to the individual product/service pages. (Please note that HTML links do NOT have to be text-only links. There's nothing wrong with graphical image navigation that is wrapped in standard tags, as the search engines can follow image links just fine.)

6. Label your internal text links and clickable image alt attributes (aka alt tags) as clearly and descriptively as possible. Your site visitors and the search engines look at the clickable portion of your links (aka the anchor text) to help them understand what they're going to find once they click through. Don't make them guess what's at the other end with links that say "click here" or other non-descriptive words. Be as descriptive as possible with every text and graphical link on your site. The cool thing about writing your anchor text and alt attributes to be descriptive is that you can almost always describe the page you're pointing to by using its main keyword phrase.

7. Write compelling copy for the key pages of your site based on your chosen keyword phrases and your target market's needs, and make sure it's copy that the search engines can "see." This is a crucial component to having a successful website. The search engines need to read keyword-rich copy on your pages so they can understand how to classify your site. This copy shouldn't be buried in graphics or hidden in Flash. Write your copy based on your most relevant keyword phrases while also making an emotional connection with your site visitor. (This is where that target audience analysis comes in handy!) Understand that there is no magical number of words per page or number of times to use your phrases in your copy. The important thing is to use your keyword phrases only when and where it makes sense to do so for the real people reading your pages. Simply sticking keyword phrases at the top of the page for no apparent reason isn't going to cut it, and it just looks silly. (Purchase and read our Copywriting Combo for exact tips on how to implement this correctly.)

8. Incorporate your keyword phrases into each page's unique Title tag. Title tags are critical because they're given a lot of weight with every search engine. Whatever keyword phrases you've written your copy around should also be used in your Title tag. Remember that the information that you place in this tag is what will show up as the clickable link to your site at the search engines. Make sure that it accurately reflects the content of the page it's on, while also using the keyword phrases people might be using at a search engine to find your stuff.

9. Make sure your site is "link-worthy." Other sites linking to yours is a critical component of a successful search engine optimization campaign, as all of the major search engines place a good deal of emphasis on your site's overall link popularity. You can go out and request hundreds or thousands of links, but if your site stinks, why would anyone want to link to it? On the other hand, if your site is full of wonderful, useful information, other sites will naturally link to it without your even asking. It's fine to trade links; just make sure you are providing your site visitors with only the highest quality of related sites. When you link to lousy sites, keep in mind what this says to your site visitors as well as to the search engines.

10. Don't be married to any one keyword phrase or worried too much about rankings. If you've done the above 9 things correctly, you will start to see an increase in targeted search engine visitors to your site fairly quickly. Forget about where you rank for any specific keyword phrase and instead measure your results in increased traffic, sales, and conversions. (You can sign up for a Google Analytics for free, which easily tracks and measures those things that truly matter.) It certainly won't hurt to add new content to your site if it will really make your site more useful, but don't simply add a load of fluff just for the sake of adding something. It really is okay to have a business site that is just a business site and not a diatribe on the history of your products. Neither your site visitors nor the engines really give a hoot!


Website Design

» How to Hire a Web Designer:

Today, anyone who wants to provide information, sell something, share information or promote a business knows that a Web presence will help them achieve those goals.

A charity organization may want to promote itself to potential members and volunteers, as well as provide information through newsletters and articles related to its work, so that anyone who’s interested can learn about that organization. A rock climbing center may want to display a map with directions that explain how to get to the center, hints on climbing techniques, tips on where to find good equipment, a photo gallery of the gym with action shots of climbers… Unlike other marketing strategies, a Website has a global reach and can be accessed online 24-7.

If you want a Website, but you’re not a designer or developer, how can you go about getting one? You don’t have the time to learn what it takes to be a Web design guru and you don’t trust that your cousin, who studied computer science, has enough experience to build you a professional Website. So, who can you hire to build your site? With thousands of Web designers and developers out there, ranging from individual freelancers to big Web design agencies, how can you make sure you choose the right help? What Do You Want? Brand Formation Arrow
In order to find help, you need first to figure out what you want. Ask yourself the following questions:
  • What kinds of information do you want on the site? How big do you think your site will be?
  • Who are your users? Do you know which operating system and browser they are using?
  • Will your site require regular updates? Would you like to make changes yourself?
  • Will you be selling something?
  • Will you need a database to store and retrieve information?
  • Do you want to rely on search engines to send more traffic to your site?
  • When do you need the job done?
  • What is your budget?

The Search Begins
Those who can spot a good Web designer are usually a good Web designer themselves, or will at least have done quite a bit of Web design themselves. But for those who aren’t designers, the choosing of a professional can seem an overwhelming task.

Referrals are a safe bet; although you know you may not be getting the very best Web designer in town, you can usually trust that you won’t get the worst, either. However, if you use referrals and also conduct your own searches, you will have a much better chance of finding a designer who’s right for you. Once you’ve compiled a list of Web designers and/or developers from the sources of your choice, you need to do some serious homework.

What if some of the designers on your list are from out of town? Don’t rule them out if you really like them. If you don’t mind working via email and talking on the phone, you may be quite happy with your choice. There’s always an advantage to meeting in person and onsite visits can be important, especially if there are problems.

There are many things to consider when reviewing your list of potential Web experts. The first, obvious thing to do is to check out their Websites. Browse through the pages and find as much information about them as you can. Ask yourself:
  • Is it easy to find information and to get back to where you started?
  • Do you like the navigation system?
  • Are the pages accessible (no broken links)?
  • Are the pages and overall design consistent?
  • Are there a contact page and site map and can they easily be found?
  • Is there enough relevant information on the site (eg. details about the company including location, what they do, the people, policies, etc.)?
  • Are things aligned properly?
  • Is the text easy to read?
  • Do the pages load fast?
  • Are the pages short, so that it’s not necessary to scroll horizontally, and there’s little or no vertical scrolling?
  • Do links open onto the same page?
  • Is there a portfolio you can view?
  • Does the site discuss the designer’s technical background?
  • Does the site make use of the right colors?
  • Are page titles appropriate and informative?

Hopefully, the answer to all the above questions will be yes. Basically, if you don’t like a Web designer’s site, you probably won’t want them to design your site. Check their portfolio and see if the style is right for you. If you see sites that you really like, make sure the employee/s who built those sites are still employed and can work on your site. What technologies does the designer use? Will this technology work for you and your viewers? Does the team follow Web standards or are they still stuck coding sites like it’s the 90s? Ideally, you want your site to work independent of the user’s operating system and browser.

Has the team created sites for other businesses in your industry? If so, were they able to reflect the business properly? If yes, then this team already knows the needs of your industry and will be more the kind of expert you need than will other Web design generalists who haven’t produced these particular sites. If the site offers testimonials, read them to see what past clients had to say about the work they received. In addition to having technical skills, the designer should be continuing his/her education in order to keep up with the latest technologies and standards.

Beware of companies and individuals who claim to be Web designers and developers but perform mostly graphic design and work in print media. Being able to use Web creation software such as Dreamweaver does not make a Web designer. Your Web designer should, at the very least, be able to help you with Web design and development, Web hosting, graphics creation, database creation, Web content, maintenance and Internet marketing and promotion.

Freelance vs. the Big Web Design Firm
After you evaluate the selected sites, you may need to choose between engaging a freelancer and using a big Web design company. A big Web design company may appear to have a lot of credibility due to its large portfolio, many testimonials, and large collection of experts in all areas of design and development. These experts have to work together to deliver a consistent and successful package for their clients. The size of this kind of organization can make clients feel secure and confident in enlisting in their services.

Freelancers are individuals who can take on all the necessary design and development responsibilities. These kinds of providers often work very closely with others to get the job done, and such close collaboration between fewer people (or in some cases, just one person), means that consistency is easy to achieve. Working alone or in a small group can also generate more motivation and dedication to completing projects in which clients can be guaranteed satisfaction. In this type of arrangement, what you see is what you get: the professional freelancer you meet on the Web will be the Web specialist for your project, and can be held personally accountable. In contrast, in working with a larger company, a perfect stranger may be assigned as your account manager once the sale goes through.

Freelancers may also represent better value for money. With a freelancer, there are rarely any hidden fees, nor many complex contractual details to overcome before the project can begin. Freelancers may also be more readily available to go onsite if required.

Depending on the size and complexity of your site, a big agency may be the right choice. A larger company may be in a position to deliver bigger projects more quickly than can an individual freelancer. An individual freelancer may often need either to subcontract or learn certain skills or technologies in order to get a job done. This can mean extra time and/or cost, and, depending on the freelancer involved, can also result in a less-than-expert product. For this reason, if your project requires the use of a particular language or technology, it’s a good idea to seek out designers who already specialize in that area.

Pricing and Guarantees
To further refine your list of possible designers, you’ll want to make note of their service rates. The prices designers put on their services can vary drastically. Compare rates between designers with similar levels of education, experience and talent. Like most purchases, with Web design, you tend to get what you pay for. If your project is fairly small and straightforward, freelancers may charge less than big agencies. By "small", I mean a site with a few forms and a small database.

Once you’ve narrowed the list, get in touch with the companies or individuals concerned, explain your project, and ask for an exact price quote. Make sure your designer can outline all costings and the work in detail for you. If you have questions, don’t be afraid to ask, and remember: it’s not unreasonable to negotiate a lower price that that quoted if you feel the quote price is not justified.

If possible, also take a look at the supplier’s Web contract. Make sure that the client is protected under this contract, and be sure to check the copyright and payment policies. Make a note of the supplier’s response time, too. You want to work with someone who’s readily available, easy to contact, and who will get back to you promptly.

Look for, and ask about a guarantee of work. Stated policies such as, "If you are not 100% satisfied, we will give you your money back," or "Our rates are competitive but if you find a similar service for less, we will be happy to match it," will give you a clear idea of the designers’ confidence that they can meet your needs. Guarantees are important: there’s nothing worse than paying big bucks for a site you’re embarrassed to show your clients or customers.

Guarantees show potential clients that the company cares about making them happy and is doing its best to ensure your project’s success.

Last Steps: Contact and Check References
When you’ve narrowed your choice down to just a couple of designers, it’s time to contact them and check their references. First, call the providers and ask questions. Are they polite on the phone? Are they good listeners? Were they helpful at all? If they are difficult to talk to and you don’t like the way they treat you, it will be difficult to work with them.

Check each provider’s references by reading any testimonials on the site and perhaps even talking to past clients. Go to their portfolio page, locate the contact information for a couple of clients, and give them a call. If there are no testimonials, ask for references when you call the provider. You are looking to hire, so you have the right to check their work references.

Lastly, it’s a good idea to meet with the designer in person and go through your project ideas. Even at this point, you are not obligated to enlist in their services unless you are perfectly confident they are the right person for the job.

It’s Worth the Work
Follow these steps and you should increase your chances of successfully finding and hiring a Web designer or developer who meets your needs and those of your project. This process may seem like a lot of work, but when you’re spending thousands of dollars, over many years, on your online presence, it pays to do your homework!


Social Media

» Six Key Benefits of Using Social Media for Small Business:

Today, anyone who wants to provide information, sell something, share information or promote a business knows that a Web presence will help them achieve those goals.

Occasionally, I’ll read an article suggesting that small businesses aren’t seeing the value of social media, the evidence most often cited being a lack of direct sales for some business owners. And each time I want to ask, what were their initial strategies for using social media? What about the other benefits they might see?

Given the impressive array of social media tools you can choose from – such as blogs, Twitter, LinkedIn, and OPEN Forum – it’s become increasingly important to first develop your strategic goals for how social media might help your business, and then determine which tools will help you achieve those goals. This first step cannot be underestimated, as how successful you are with social media should be measured against those goals. Brand Formation Arrow
In thinking about your strategy, consider the following key benefits I most often hear from small business owners:
  • Search results: In a previous article on building exposure through search results, I discussed how using social media can help you improve your ranking in search results. By extending your presence onto other sites, especially those of high “quality”, and building links from those sites back to your own, you can help elevate your ranking in search results and thus increase exposure for your business. But you should be thoughtful in your approach, as how and where you build those links carries different value. To be more efficient, focus on sites and engagement most relevant to your existing and potential customers.
  • Brand management: As Yelp and other opinion sites gain momentum, you should consider your options for protecting your brand reputation, remembering that advocates as well detractors can comment on your business. By using social media to proactively find and build relationships with customers; you may be able to turn them into fans to help deflect any negative opinions that may arise. As the saying goes, the best defense is a good offense. Also, by building more positive sentiment for your brand through social media, you can help ensure that when someone searches for your company, they’re less likely to find any negative comments or that any they find are far outweighed by positive sentiment.
  • Relationships: More than a broadcast tool, social media offers a unique opportunity to network online and build your business. Paul Rosenfeld, CEO of Fanminder, has found partners, customers, investors, and employees through social media, including on OPEN Forum’s Connectodex. Donna Johnson, CEO of Indie Business Media, said recently about Twitter, specifically: “I use it to have conversations and share information with my customers and business colleagues. I reach out to them, they reach back to me. We share, connect, learn and talk business. How can that not be a benefit to my business, even if every Tweet does not result in a sale?”
  • Brand awareness: Social media presents an incredible opportunity to generate brand awareness among a targeted audience. Begin by researching what channels and tools your customers are using, and then start engaging and linking back to your own website. While you may not see an enormous spike in traffic, you can be reasonably assured that those who do follow the link are more likely to be future customers. “I’ve gotten quite a few leads from OPEN Forum,” Suzanne Vara, founder of Kherize5 Advertising & Marketing. “It’s taken time to build a consistent presence, but eventually, people have noticed how involved I am in the community and have started reaching out.”
  • Innovation: Social media can be a great learning tool, as well. By knowing where your customers are talking about your products and services – or better yet – giving them a place to do so on your own site, you may find new areas for improvement or innovation. Many of the improvements we made to OPEN Forum came after paying attention to feedback we’d received on the previous version of the site, as well as engaging our customers in conversations about how best we can meet their needs.
  • Competitive Research: Besides the concern that your competitors may already be using social media, the upside is that by following what your competitors are doing and saying, or what customers are saying about them, you may find ways to differentiate your brand and get better results. Rosalie Kramm, President of Kramm & Associates, says, “Keeping track of competitors and clients’ activities is very valuable. I can see what competitors are doing on social media and see how they’re marketing themselves.”

Given these benefits, it is worthwhile noting that not all social media tools are right for every small business. While it may offer a less-expensive marketing option, social media marketing can sometimes cost more in time than in money. That’s why it’s so important to start with a strategic vision for how social media can contribute to building your business. As Anita Campbell says in this article on social media, “From a business perspective, if this is done aimlessly it can be more noise than signal... Often this disappointment results from approaching social media without a clear strategy and plan.”
Social media should be considered as part of your overall marketing plan, tying back your activity to specific goals, such as generating awareness for a new product or event or creating a feedback channel for customers. Once you determine some clear objectives – as well as where your audience is – you can develop a plan for what channels to use and how much time to dedicate. This will help you separate social media as a business tool rather than diversion, and then you can better assess if the time invested is paying off.



» What are the Benefits of eCommerce & eBusiness?:

The processes involved with conducting business on the Internet and opening an eCommerce shop to sell from have several benefits to both merchants and the customers who buy from them. The biggest benefits of conducting business Online include a cheaper upfront cost to the merchant, it's easier to set up and open the store and it's faster to get an Online business up, running and making sales.

Helps Create New Relationship Opportunities:
Expanding or opening an eBusiness can create a world of opportunity and helps to establish new relationships with potential customers, potential business associates and new product manufacturers. Just by being in an easy to find location that is accessible to users all over the world, you will be available for others to find and approach you about new opportunities. Customers who don't know you exist will know about you, product suppliers will request you add their items and other businesses will approach you about partnership opportunities. Many of these opportunities would not present themselves without an Online presence or site for them to discover you on their own. Brand Formation Arrow
Open for Business 24x7:
An eCommerce site basically gives you the ability to have unlimited store hours, giving your customers 24 hours a day, 7 days a week access to shop and buy items from you. Some merchants choose to limit their hours to 5 days a week, but orders can still be made over the weekend and customers can still make contact 24/7 via email, phone or fax. In addition, the costs associated with having your store open 24/7 are much less than maintaining a physical storefront or phone operator with 247 operation capability. You can literally take orders and let customers shop while you sleep, take vacations or from remote locations.

Increases Brand or Product Awareness:
Having an Online business means that you can literally reach out to millions of consumers looking for what you sell anywhere in the world. By reaching out to new markets and displaying your site prominently in front of them, you will be able to help increase your company/domain brand name and also increase awareness about your product line. By giving users 24/7 access in an easy to find location, you will help to create more word of mouth buzz for your eBusiness, in turn helping to promote your brand name and products. Users who haven't heard of you will discover you exist and help spread the word about you.

Helps Establish Customer Loyalty:
An eCommerce storefront will help create an easier means for your customers to purchase the items you sell and offers a unique way to display and describe your products in a informative, visual and interactive way. The customers you have will become more loyal shoppers each time they visit, making eCommerce great for improved customer satisfaction and visitor loyalty. Now that you offer your products for sale Online, consumers will be able to shop from your catalog more easily, get updates on new items or product discounts and can shop or buy anytime they wish.

Potential to Increase Overall Business Sales:
An eCommerce store that is an extension of a physical storefront is a great way to boost overall business sales and potentially increase company profits across the board. Companies who already do business from a physical location are typically unaware of how much more they could be making if only they were to expand into their Online marketplaces. Selling Online opens up many opportunities for businesses both new and old. It's a great way to increase sales, especially if you already have a physical store.

Potential to Increase Company Profits:
As mentioned above, opening an Online extension of your store or moving your business solely Online are great ways to boost sales and potentially profits. Remember, just because SALES increase it does not necessarily mean that company PROFITS will increase also. Online businesses do have a greater chance of increasing sales and profits by opening up an eCommerce store to sell the items they offer. Sales and profits are the lifeblood of any company, so it makes sense to increase them where ever possible and whenever possible throughout the existence of your company. More sales, more profits, bigger budgets, etc.

Potential to Decrease Some Costs:
In addition to potentially increasing sales and profits, eBusiness owners can also typically reduce the costs of running their business by moving it or expanding it into the Online world. eCommerce stores can run with less employees including sales staff, customer service reps, order fulfillment staff and others. eBusinesses also do not need a physical location in order to stay operational, which can reduce costs related to building leases, phone bills, utility costs and other costs associated with running a brick-and-mortar storefront.

Expands Geographical or Customer Reach:
As mentioned, owning an eCommerce business typically means no limits as to who and where you can sell your products. Some countries outside the United States have additional regulations, licensing requirements or currency differences, but generally you will not be limited on the customers you can reach out to. Physical storefronts are limited to the city in which they are located, Online businesses aren't limited unless you put geographical limits in place. At the very least, you should consider targeting U.S. buyers, but also consider, Canada, UK, Australia and others. Sell to anyone, anywhere, anytime!

Allows for Smaller Market or Niche Targeting:
Although your customer reach may expand beyond your local area, you may only wish to target smaller consumer markets and buyer niches for your eCommerce products. Owning an Online store gives the merchant much control over who they target and reach out to notify about the items for sale in their store. Currently, you can target women, men, a generation of users, a particular race and many more smaller niche markets. This is typically done by placing keywords that those niche markets use on a regular basis when shopping for the items you offer.

Allows for Easier Delivery of Information:
An Online store and Web brochure are great ways to deliver and display information about your company and the products you sell. With an Online presence your customers will have direct access to product information, company information, specials, promotions, real time data and much more information that they can easily find just by visiting your site day or night. Not only does it benefit your customers, but it's also generally easier for merchants to update their site rather than break down an in store display and put up another for the next event. It saves both your customers and you precious time and can help you to plan more updates or better sales as it will be much easier for you to update and take down.



Brand Formation, LLC is a full service branding firm located in St. Petersburg, FL experienced in marketing and branding services. We offer tailored packages that meet our clients' needs. From full service branding consisting of web development, search engine optimization, brand collateral creation, email marketing and lead generation to freelance graphic design services. Our unique, 360 degree branding approach takes your business from beginning to end with agency support every step of the way. The Brand Formation team believes that web solutions are designed to deliver results. Not only will web designs and email marketing compaigns be developed with style, but designed with lead generation and sales in mind. Brand Formation creates a core solution that takes into consideration your marketing goals, budget and branding approach. Our ultimate goal is to create an on-going business relationship. Please take advantage or our free consulting offer and enlist our expertise in your marketing and branding efforts.


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