(I am sharing a post from my personal blog here for those of you who feel a bit SQUIRREL trying to work from home.) I’ve been working from home for at least 14 (wow really?!) years now, and I’ve gotten into a routine with it. When my hubby was between jobs, that routine was completely disrupted. Suddenly I had someone in the room with me playing computer games, sitting in a robe, and reminding me of life outside of work. It was distracting. I get it, a lot of you who are new to this working-from-home thing are struggling. How can those of us doing it for so long even like it? How do we get anything done?! Let me tell you, for the past many days, we haven’t been either. I want normalcy in the midst of chaos, and for me that is being productive and getting work done during working hours. Suddenly, I’m in a situation where major clients and projects have been put on hold and I’m worried about buying basic normal things from the grocery store, not for lack of money yet, but because normal things aren’t there. Throw in an early morning earthquake shake up call this week, and my focus is wrecked. I am going to talk about a few tips for making it easier to work from home, but first I want to say that I give myself (and you should give yourself), permission to be distracted, to not get work done, to accept that productivity requires a state of mind that allows me to focus, and that just isn’t my state of mind this week. Okay, so on to my recommendations for those of you who are new to this. First, REVEL in the freedom from the daily commute. I know that some of you have turned that into a time to learn, listen to music, listen to podcasts, and turn up the music really loudly to decompress after your work day. If you have, kudos, do all of those things at the beginning and end of your day, without the stress of traffic. This is your reward for giving up the office life. Eat breakfast and do a morning routine before you start your work. Sit in your car and turn up the music really loudly (don’t run the engine!) if your day has been stressful. The added distraction of kids at home is pretty much a guarantee that you’re going to need some serious head-banging tunes, or the zen of smooth jazz, whatever your jam is. Second, keep normal working hours. If your office job was 8-5, with a few breaks and a lunch break, then your home office job is 8-5 too. Don’t think that you’ll just make up work during the evening, or on the weekend, because suddenly you CAN. Unless you like the feeling that you are always working, I recommend not blurring the lines as much as possible. Keep boundaries in place between being on the job and being at home chilling. If you want to do laundry, start a load during your lunch break. Third, give yourself reasons to dress in regular work clothes. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t enjoy the sweatpants and t-shirts and slippers options you have now, but if you have a meeting, put on meeting appropriate clothes. It helps keep you in a more professional mindset and feel normal. In my early days of working from home, I put on work clothes. Now that this is my new normal, I don’t need that as much as I did, but early on it helped me create boundaries between work and home when I could change into comfy clothes at the end of my working hours. Fourth, set up a space in your home that will be your new office. Don’t just work from the kitchen table, then the couch, then your bed, your backyard, etc. Sure, it can be a nice perk to work from anywhere, but when you do that, you might start to feel like you are always working, and it will be harder to focus and tune out distractions. If you have the space in your house to set up a room to work from, I recommend doing it. Go to that room to work, then leave work behind in that room when you want to be home. Boundaries, that is what helps me be productive and not feel like I’m always working. I need to figure out how I can set boundaries between being distracted by the chaos of the world and all of the added little worries that are nibbling at me now. But not today, today I’m going to skitter around and TRY to get some work done, but recognize that my mind is still reeling. We’re all distracted, and stressed out, and unfocused, and that’s okay. The ripples of chaos will settle, the aftershocks will stop, and we’ll adapt and hopefully thrive.
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The convention with website markup is alt="" which tells a screen reader that the image can be ignored. For the descriptive text in your constant contact library, leaving it blank should act the same as the double quotation marks.
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The "Alt" Attribute in HTML Content
Behind the scenes of the content that is displayed on web pages are lines of code that explain how that content should be displayed. Email templates like those used in Constant Contact have the same behind the scenes code structure to control visual appeal and structure when viewed on different devices. Because image content can't (yet!) be scanned and translated into readable form, source code relies on special attributes to provide an alternative description for the image. Most times those are just the file name by default, but you can and should control what that description says. One way is through useful file names, but the other is by adding your own descriptive alternative (alt) text.
Alternative text is the words used to explain non-text content, mostly for web pages but also for HTML formatted email messages like online newsletters. Anything that can be displayed in a browser or email program has this formatting. Alt text has a few functions:
Screen readers are used by people who require special technology to interact with online content. Search engines use similar scanning technology to see behind the scenes of content. Alt Text can be read by screen readers and crawler bots in place of images. This allows the content and function of the image to become accessible to those who can't visually interact with it.
The alt tag's descriptive text is displayed in place of an image in browsers or email previews if the image file isn't loaded or when a user has chosen not to view images. It can also show when someone mouses over the image in a web browser.
Your description should provide meaning for images which can be read by search engines or used to enhance content around the image that page context can't provide alone.
Content creators need to realize that text must be provided to readers to give them the content and function of images independent of being able to see them. The main question you should ask yourself is, “Why is this image used? What message it supposed to convey?” "What context is the image used in?" Don’t bother with saying “image of” before the description. Don’t try to re-convey the meaning that is already in text used around the image.
Here is a good site with more examples of creating alt text: https://webaim.org/techniques/alttext/
How Much is Too Much?
Just like our subject lines, we need to be aware of the length of our alternative text. A good rule of thumb for alt text is to keep it between 5 and 15 words total. Some tests have shown that Google only counts the first 16 words in the alt tag, so it is a good idea to be SEO friendly too. The longer your alt text, the more difficulty text browsers will have in reading it. It's tempting to just copy/paste long sentences from your content and use it as alternative text (many times this is done because someone is trying to SEO it and stuff the tag with keywords), but if you keep Alt tags short, meaning is not lost and content will download faster. Some screen readers have limits and mobile previews will also limit how much is displayed. Mousing over an image may not display very long descriptions either. These are all good reasons for keeping the length of "alt" attributes to a minimum. At the very least, shorter than 125 characters will help you avoid problems.
How To Add Alt Text in Constant Contact
I'm going to briefly show where you can put your alt text while adding images to an email you create in your account. You can go back and edit images already stored in your library if you want to customize them and add descriptions to existing content too.
From an email template or when you edit the placeholder for an image, you can select from your library or upload one from your computer. After you upload an image to your library, you will see a box below the image file name that shows "description." This is where you can type in your alt text.
You can also add descriptions to images in your library. Click the "customize" button to update your images.
Accessibility is very important for a great user experience. It helps when someone requires special technology to browse content or is on a mobile phone viewing a web page or an email. Be sure to provide usability by taking the time to create meaningful alternative text descriptions for your images. Your users, and open rates, will thank you.
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Sure enough! I was going to say you can still get to the old sign-up tools page, but I see that the embed code option is gone from the drop down menu. That is disappointing. Thanks for the heads-up.
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Why Explicit Opt-ins are MUCH Greater than Implied Consent
When it comes to successful marketing campaigns, I mean the ones that not only get opened and read but lead to actions, there are no shortcuts. The businesses that understand what their clients value, and provide value over and over again, are much more successful than those that try to "touch" customers the X number of times that marketing gurus say they should. Are you just adding to the flood of information that people get bombarded with, and screen out, every day? Explicit Opt-in > Implied when it comes to building the value of your mailing list.
What We Compete With Every Day
So what are your messages competing with? The latest studies I've read state that people get an average of over 100 work-related emails per day. Studies also show that the percentage of emails that are spam are approximately 49%, out of the billions of emails sent out each day. Spam is a BIG DEAL for service providers as well as consumers. It causes me no end of grief as a web designer who has to protect my clients from registration spam and form submission spam. I don’t like hearing from clients that they got hit with 2000+ spam emails because a plugin changed and bot checks stopped working.
It is a big deal to the companies who have to deliver email too. Email services, such as Gmail, Yahoo Mail and Outlook, use reputation scoring to rank how likely it is that a mail server will send out spam. It takes time to build up a good reputation and high deliverability rates and very little time to get blacklisted. Service providers like Constant Contact take their reputation very seriously when it comes to preventing spam. Have you really read the CC Anti-Spam policy? You should, it has some great advice along with the rules, and is an easy read. https://www.constantcontact.com/legal/anti-spam
Bad Practices in Email List Growth
With all of the resources we have for researching brands and products, the typical sales funnel has changed a lot in our digital and mobile world. It is one reason why social media is so effective and necessary, and why a mobile-friendly website is so key. People look things up all the time! People state opinions about everything, and those opinions can have a staggering reach and impact. Your business may reach out and "touch" people, but those people are reaching back and researching before they make decisions. Buying decisions happen from a well-informed approach these days, not just from a sense of familiarity. Good will and opinions matter, so we should take extra care in not annoying potential customers with unwanted contacts.
I have been annoyed by plenty of people who take my business card and use it as an invitation to try to sell me something. I realize when I hand them my card or sign up for a gift drawing that I might end up on a list somewhere, but that doesn't mean my implied consent makes me less annoyed. I'm even more frustrated when a person asks for my card under the false pretense of doing business with me, but the only contact I get from them is a sales email. The effort they spent putting me on their list doesn't pay off. Unwanted emails that cause me to report spam or unsubscribe will ultimately harm the sender's reputation. Maybe this practice works out for some marketers, but I question how many are just adding to their list for the sake of growing it. Numbers on your list that are dead weight cost you money and ultimately don’t lead to sales if people never open your messages. Do “touches” count if they just see an email from you regularly but never read it or act? Some people think so, but I disagree.
Best Practices in Growing Your List
Did you know that welcome message open rates are typically 50-60%, compared to 20-30% average of other types of campaigns. People are far more likely to open a welcome email because they expect to see it. You can read more best practices here: https://blogs.constantcontact.com/create-welcome-email/
When you get explicit consent from a person either through sign up forms or directly asking them in person, (not playing coy with the business card game or tiny text disclaimers), and follow up with what they expect to receive from you, you are one step closer to being part of the "in" crowd of content they consume. Momentum, reminding them you exist, consistency, meeting expectations... all of these lead to your reputation as desired content in their inboxes. If your messages end up in spam, how likely is it that your contact will notice and move the message out of spam (how often do you wade through the cesspool of your trash folder…)? With explicit consent, that likelihood goes up significantly.
Are you using your welcome email and a series of automated messages effectively? Is the series evergreen and generally relevant regardless of the stage of buying decision your customer may be in? If you do your part to add value to what you send so people look forward to your content, you can take it a step further and ask them to add your email to a contact list. This helps with deliverability of your content. I know several savvy marketers that create a sense of urgency for getting people to read their emails. They tell subscribers that they remove anyone who doesn’t read after 3 or 4 times in a row.
There are a couple of steps you can take to ensure people want to hear from you, Confirmed Opt-In (double opt-in), or a confirmation email. The double opt-in only applies to people who sign up for your lists themselves. It doesn’t apply for people you manually add via import, or to existing lists. You can still check with these manual adds by turning on the option to send a confirmed opt-in email.
I know many businesses who automatically tie booking and sales systems into their mailing list. For my own clients, this leads to many unsubscribes with the reason of "I never signed up for your emails."
If you are using this type of implied consent, you might consider keeping these customers segmented from the ones who specifically opt-in to hear from you. They are less likely to enjoy general email blasts and more inclined to report you as spam, unsubscribe, or only open less frequent incentives like coupons or bounce back offers.
Constant Contact allows you to import lists of your contacts into your account. However, there are a few rules when it comes to these email addresses. Did you know that you are not supposed to send to non-specific emails like marketing@ or Sales@ or Admin@ addresses? If someone gives you an address like that, they are probably planning to screen or ignore emails from you. How often do you think emails to generic addresses are read by a decision maker who will act on them? Why keep them as dead weight?
I encourage you to set expectations in advance before you start to send email to your contacts. Use the tools available to ask your contacts to explain the reason they unsubscribe, and make informed decisions from the reasons they provide. Your email list should serve your business and lead to a great ROI, not act as costly dead weight.
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One way to come up with content that practically writes itself is to listen to your customers’ and employees’ (especially new employees) questions. Often these questions are similar and frequent, and while the answers may seem obvious to you since you are the expert in your business or industry, your customers typically aren't. Your brain is already churning through answers when these come up. Questions can be amazing sources of content as long as you take the time to jot them down. I like using a whiteboard as my “FAQ Idea Board” so I can grab something when I need content. Don't forget to add relevant images
You can do this old school too by using a notepad or even a spreadsheet with one column for the questions and a 2nd column for your topic title or idea. If someone else is writing your post, or doing some research, use the "answers" column to jot down some suggested sources. And if you think a picture of a product or process would help get your point across better, take out your camera and snap a picture. Images are great content too.
I encourage you to stand in front of a blank whiteboard (or blank notebook) and think about the last interaction you had with someone at your organization. Did that customer or client have any questions? What information did an employee request about the job? Jot down the question and a brief answer next to it. Now think about another question and answer. Write down at least 3 ideas on your board.
Now, think about what subject line you would include with each of these questions. Your customers will use your subject line as a way to decide if your email is relevant to them. They may have asked the same question you are answering, so clearly explain what they’ll get/learn when they open the email. Jot down a short (6-10 word) subject that:
Clearly explains why someone should open an email immediately;
Puts a creative spin that will better attract a reader’s attention;
Doesn't come across as deceptive (don't make it so clever it looks like clickbait);
Is concise to fit in mobile phone previews (can you keep it below 35 characters?).
I you are using a whiteboard to generate these content ideas, you can erase and refine until you get a subject line that works.
Can you turn an answer to the questions on your whiteboard into one or more emails on a regular basis? I'll bet you can!
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Never Underestimate the Power of the Reporting Tab
How many of you just LOVE reading charts, graphs, and other metrics reports? I’ll bet I didn’t get many raised hands but probably got a few rolled eyes. It surprises me how few people get excited about looking at reports. In fact, many never even set up Google Analytics to see what happens on their websites or watch the data from their social media accounts. We make decisions all the time about the content that we share, our headlines, our keywords, our blog topics, email campaign subject lines, calls to action, list enticements, etc. Too many of us make those decisions in a vacuum, when we could be learning from past successes (or mistakes), instead. So let’s take a closer look at the Reporting tab in Constant Contact and how it can quickly and easily help us make better content choices.
This is the Trend Overview graph that is part of the basic dashboard in your Reporting section. It tracks the Open and Click rates for your campaigns. You can see which emails had zero clicks, which ones had many clicks, and if you are lucky, you can find those emails that got every person who opened them to take an action.
If you are careful in how you name your campaigns, you can start to see trends in which types of emails were the most engaging without even opening the individual campaigns. From my above example, you can quickly see that the emails I sent out after each of my seminars or webinars got the most opens and the most clicks.
Based on this quick glance, I can draw a few conclusions about what makes one of my message types more effective:
My subject lines were consistent and clear about the purpose of the email
I know that I had promised to send a follow up, and that I sent it either the day of or the day after my class, making it timely and expected.
The clickable content was something that most of the people who opened the message actually wanted to have.
What about the campaigns that had no clicks at all. Those might take a little bit more digging to figure out, but you can easily open each campaign by scrolling down, sorting by the Click Through Rate column, and then picking the Campaign Name for those with 0% clicks.
In one case, I realized my call to action was very hard to find (no button, just a text link). In the others, I noticed that I was sending out special offers for new accounts. Since most of the people I was sending to were already Constant Contact customers, those offers weren’t of any use to them. Based on these two observations, I can make better decisions for future emails such as:
Always include a very visible and easily clicked call to action in the form of a button or enlarged (16-18 pt.) text link.
Segment my lists to track existing clients versus potential clients, and only send offers relevant to each type.
Make sure offers and promotions don’t make up the bulk of my emails to those lists. Make sure I follow a value-first philosophy with them.
I didn’t have to dig very deeply into reports in order to make a few key observations about my email content. The Reporting tab is a powerful tool, not one that should be avoided. I encourage you to check it regularly, even if you only take a few moments to glance and find out if people open and click. I also encourage you to put some thought into how you name your various campaigns so that you can draw conclusions with a quick glance at the graph. Are you thinking, "Hey, reports are exciting!" now? No? Well, I hope I’ve at least encouraged you to view those graphs and look at your analytics. Measuring = Marketing.
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This may be a little technical and geeky for some, but as a web designer I am often asked to make opt in forms look better on my clients’ websites. With the variety of WordPress templates out there, the default settings for a Constant Contact list sign up form don’t always fit. While there are WordPress plugins like Bloom, that will let you style opt in forms in fun ways, sometimes you just want to tweak something small like the color of the form heading or the default width. Maybe you have a custom site rather than WordPress and would prefer to use a local version of the style sheet.
Even if terms like embed code, CSS, HTML, link rel, or style sheet are foreign to you; if you work with a professional web designer, they’ll understand now to make these changes. Ready to dive into the weeds with me? Let’s go…
Hopefully you read my previous article about connecting lists to websites, so you are familiar with how to grab the opt-in form embed-code for use on a website. If not, you may want to brush up on that part first.
Get the CSS File for Your Sign-Up Form
For these tips, you will make a copy of the style sheet that is referenced in the embed code of a list opt-in form, save it to your client's web server, tweak the saved style sheet, and then link the opt-in code to the local copy with your custom changes, rather than use the default version.
The CSS styles used in the embedded sign-up form from my examples are located at this link hosted by Constant Contact: 'https://static.ctctcdn.com/h/contacts-embedded-signup-assets/1.0.2/css/signup-form.css'
I copy the link from the embed code provided by my client and paste it into a browser to load the CSS file. I then make a local copy of the file for my edits.
The types of things I like to change are border radius settings to make button corners more rounded, width settings to make the form mobile friendly, and the font size of the footer text to make it less obtrusive. Some of the changes can be made in the CSS file, and some will be made directly within the embed code that you paste into something like a sidebar widget or custom HTML box in a WordPress site. For my examples, I’m working in a WordPress site and adding my form to the sidebar widget.
Not a good fit.
Add the Form to Your Sidebar
I started by pasting the default embed code into a custom HTML box in my sidebar. Here is what the default form code looks like on my test site. Ouch, that is not a good look! The sidebar for my site template is much narrower than the default form field boxes. The H2 style in my theme is also a dark text color, rather than white, so the heading for the form doesn't stand out against the background color I picked. And wow, that is a lot of disclaimer text at the bottom of the form. To fix this, I need to change a width setting in the style sheet and the H2 style in the code I pasted into the sidebar widget, plus remove some of the text at the bottom in the pasted code.
Edit the CSS File
Use 98% instead I use Dreamweaver to edit CSS files, but you can also just open the file in a text editor like Notepad. You can see in the default style sheet that I copied from Constant Contact's site, that there is a specific minimum width of 350 pixels given to the form. That won't work very well on sites that are mobile responsive, and it doesn't work well on my test site. Instead, I want to make the minimum width a percentage so the form will adjust to fit the section where I use it. I also made a few tweaks to the border-radius settings to make corners and the button a bit more rounded.
Now, save a local copy of your edited CSS file and upload it to a folder on your website. You will need to connect to your site with FTP or your hosting provider's file manager to do this step. Make a note of the location of the file and the name you gave it. You will need to change the form code to point to this location instead of the default.
Next, Edit the Embed Code
To change the location of the CSS file from a Constant Contact copy to your own local custom copy, you need to update the CTCT Sign-Up Form embed code that references the style sheet. Paste in the URL for your uploaded local copy of the css file over this default link:
Find this near the top of the code
To make my form heading white, I will add a color setting to the H2 style in the embed code. You could do this within the style sheet rather than inline, but you might create larger conflicts within your site when you do this, so I prefer to keep it inline with the form instead.
The embed code also includes a lot of disclaimer text at the bottom. Most of my clients don’t like to use the full text, so I customize it to something simpler. Scroll down in the embed code until you find the ctct-form-footer section and edit the text there.
Everything fits this time
The Final Custom Sidebar
With these few little tweaks, my sidebar widget now includes a sign-up form that fits the section correctly and is more readable. I could even insert a small feature image in the section to make it stand out better, but for now, I'm happy with the basic form.
I hope I haven't made you cross-eyed with all of this HTML-speak. For some sites, the default styles and forms will work just fine. For others like my example, knowing how to customize your own form and styles will provide your clients with a professional-looking form without the need to add an extra plugin to the site.
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Making Connections Between Your Constant Contact Account and Your Website
People ask me all the time, “Paula, how do I get people to sign up for my email list from my website?” When I give training presentations, I talk about the importance of adding a great call to action (CTA) to an email campaign. It’s easy to do within the Constant Contact email templates, but people are a bit baffled when it comes to CTAs on their websites. Connecting your email lists to your website isn't as hard as you might think. I'm going to walk you through 3 steps you can take to turn your website into a list building tool.
This starts in your Constant Contact account in the List Growth Tools section.
The General Interest list is added to your account by default. It comes with a basic sign-up form ready to be used right out of the box. I like to at least preview the sign-up form and then edit it to customize how my logo and colors look, but you can use it without any extra edits if you want.
So, what's next?
Step 1 - Simply Add a Link
This one takes the least amount of technical skill. Pick the "Form URL" option from the Actions drop-down menu and copy the link provided. This is a very flexible option for accessing your sign-up form. You can add it to existing buttons within call to action blocks, include it as a hyperlink within text on a page, or link it to your website navigation. This link does open it's own page, which takes visitors outside of your site. If you know how to set a link target, then I recommend you have it open in a new tab/window.
Step 2 - Customize a Button
For this one, it helps to know a little bit of HTML coding, or at least understand how to add code to your site. Pick the "Sign-Up Button" option from the Actions drop-down menu and copy the code provided. If you don’t already have a button or call to action block in your web page options, you can create one with custom colors and button text, and copy the code for it to include on your site. Again, clicking the button will open a separate page with the form fields, that is outside your own website.
Step 3 - Include a Form Within Your Site
This one is the most involved because you need to understand how to fit the sign-up form within the structure of your website page(s). Having some website developer skills or access to someone who does will be needed. This is the best option if you want to keep site visitors within your website when they give you their information. Pick the "Embed Code" option from the Actions menu, copy the full form embed code and send to your developer. She will then fit the form within the structure of a page(s) on your site.
Want to learn about some other ways to build your email list(s)? You can check out this online help article with helpful tips for building your list.
If you have access to a developer who understands HTML and CSS, you can do a lot of fun things with your sign up forms and really customize them. There are some great plugins available for WordPress sites that add images and animations to make opt-in forms really pop. Join me next month when I get into the weeds a little bit to talk about sign-up form customization.
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