Customizing Templates: Why We Do It

whywebuildwithtemplatesI hate it when I hear people talk bad about me. Thankfully it doesn’t happen often. In part, I’m sure, is because my friends know my ‘don’t tell me if it’s bad’ policy.

In reality, I’m a pretty sensitive person. But occasionally something does get back to me.

“She just customizes templates.” was actually someone’s idea of disdain for my work.

My response?

Uh, yeah I customize templates. But there’s no ‘just’ about it.

Hear that world? We customize templates! I admit it freely and openly in many blog posts even.

So why do we do this? Thought it may be good to clarify why!

Because templates save us time and, as a result, our customers money.

The whole ‘coding from scratch’ thing sounds pretty noble. Like having an architect custom design your house. Or creating your own recipe. Or building your own computer.

But guess what? Having a framework is helpful. That’s why we buy computers with already existing operating systems and software installed, plans to build our houses, and cookbooks.

Letting people figure out and test something then modifying it for our own uses is something we do in lots of areas in our life, why not websites?

I have actually tried build from scratch.

To the delight of parents of picky eaters everywhere trying to get their kids to try new vegetables, I’ve actually tried hand coding websites before I said ‘No thank you, more sweet potatoes please.’

I have hand coded exactly two HTML sites, neither of which are online anymore. It took long (don’t worry, I don’t charge customers for my learning curves, it was only painful on my end) and the results were lack luster compared to what is available today. So yeah, if I have the option of giving someone something better that I have the ability to do more easily anyway, I’m going to do it.

Because the amount of people who have gotten together and created a template is more than one (in almost all cases).

Kind of like how a composite photograph will always be more attractive than a photo of an individual person, a design worked on by multiple people is going to be better. It just is.

By working in collaboration, you can work out the bugs, get different points of view, and have a much better end product. And that’s what we’re starting with before our team even creates a custom design to go with.

(We even try to work with frameworks that are powerful and well known. If you really want to geek out on the difference between a template and a framework:

Because giving a customer something they can work with means that they are not stuck with us ever.

Because we use a standard system (Wordpress and Joomla) and follow the standard rules (creating child themes, putting design customization in the right file location, etc.) other web types can locate where to make changes in my code easily.

I’m not sure if you’ve ever inherited someone’s filing cabinet (when you bought a business or changed jobs) but it’s kind of annoying. A template means we’ve agreed on well labeled folders so when and if that handoff happens, it’s a smooth transition. Thinking of the person coming after you of course isn’t necessary but something I feel is the right thing to do.

And if you hear of a company that uses a ‘custom CMS’ please run for the hills.

Because templates mean when the customer creates new pages, they will look consistent. 

Do you really want to remember that you have to copy the menu on top, make sure the text is 18 point Helvetica and that the standard photo size is 450 pixels. What about headline fonts/colors, link colors, spacing, etc?

Even if you build something ‘from scratch’, you are going to end up making a page template so the site looks consistent as people browse from one page to another.

With templates you can set rules that all pages follow, when a customer creates a new page, I know that it’ll match all the other pages. Rather than restricting a customer to editing only certain elements of a page, I can let them go wild (I mean it is their website) and know it’ll still look pretty good at the end.

So we customize templates. And everyone who works with us gets a custom design that is unique to them. But we think this is a good thing, versus a bad one.

If I thought something was an inferior product, I wouldn’t offer it. Honestly. I live my life by the French proverb “There is no pillow so soft as a clean conscience”, in my business and personal life.

But as a company, I can firmly say we believe the collective wisdom and work involved in templates is a great start to a great website that is unique to each individual, company, or non-profit we work with.

I guess if this is the worst thing I hear about myself, I’m doing ok. But here’s hoping this clarifies why we customize templates versus building from scratch… and why we’ll keep doing this moving forward.

Gift Cards: In Theory, Easy. In Practice…

I have a funny story to tell you.

This May, my brother was having a tough time after his childhood pet passed away. He lives in Boston, and I wanted to send some sort of condolence his way. The new Mad Max had just started

The gift of the ultimate cinematic experience.

The gift of the ultimate cinematic experience.

playing in theaters, so I found a movie theater close to his apartment, and proceeded to order a gift certificate online. Instead of following through with my original plan of buying a card and having it mailed to his apartment, I decided to go paper-less and ordered a digital certificate, which would get sent directly to his email. He could go to the movies that night, and I’d basically be Sister-of-the-Year. Boom.

Unfortunately, there was some room for user error. Long story short, I ignored the multiple warnings to double check the recipient email address, and now some random person with Gmail has a e-gift certificate to an AMC in Boston. You’re welcome. 

Fast forward a few months, and my dad (successfully) used a similar strategy to order my brother’s birthday present (a gift card to a menswear store in Boston). He was looking for a gift of professional clothing, but didn’t want to be responsible for size, color, or even the article of clothing (maybe Stephen needed a tie and not yet another button down shirt), and it made more sense to get a gift card to a store in Boston rather than in Maine.

These anecdotes prove a few different things: a) that I’m an impulsive shopper, b) that my dad is better than me at online ordering, and c) that my brother gets a lot of email gifts. But let’s take a step back. What role to online gift cards play? In a), online gift cards helped fuel my spur-of-the-moment desire to send comfort to a loved one far away. In b), ordering a gift card online allowed dad to purchase something thoughtful that he was able to research, and remove any sort of responsibility in a clothing related decision making process. In c), my brother, who lives slightly more than a stone’s throw away, is able to receive gifts that he can use where he lives, not where we live. Dad and I didn’t physically have to go into a store in Boston, and it was awesome (well, minus the part where I wasn’t visiting Boston).

From a business and marketing perspective, this got me thinking about online gift cards. Why do people buy them? Why do businesses sell them? Here’s what I came up with:

Why give a gift card online?

Location. Maine to Boston doesn’t necessarily cover a lot of ground, but one of the benefits of purchasing a gift card online is location. Giving a friend in Colorado a gift card to their favorite local burrito place when you live in the Catskills is completely possible now. How cool is that??

Convenience. If my whole gift certificate debacle had been successful, my brother could have gone to see Mad Max. He could have also gone to see Pitch Perfect 2. He could have waited until November. He could have brought a friend or gone alone and bought a ton of popcorn and candy. With a gift card option, the user can cash in when it’s convenient for them. It’s different than buying him two tickets to the 9:00 p.m. Mad Max showing. What if he can’t go then? What if he’s sick, but feels the need to drag himself to the movies because of these tickets? Gift cards take off a lot of pressure from both ends.

Low-Pressure. Remember those old “Oh, you shouldn’t have…you really shouldn’t have” commercials? Well, the cool thing about gift cards (besides being “free money”) is that you take the pressure off yourself. Don’t know someone’s shirt size? Can’t remember his favorite color? With a gift card, you’re putting the ball in the other person’s court. The recipient can go out and get exactly what s/he wants, and it’s all thanks to you!

Should you sell gift cards?

Pretty much all the larger corporations sell gift cards on their website (whether through email, physical mail, or both). However, only 3% of small/local businesses sell their gift cards online. What?!? These businesses may offer gift cards, but you have to physically go into the store to purchase them. Honestly, sometimes I am just feeling a bit lazy and would rather order a gift card online than walk down the street, wait in line, purchase one, and walk back.

Another statistic that might appeal to businesses: 72% of customers will spend more than the value of their card (usually around 20% more). Over 50% of gift card recipients will make multiple trips to completely redeem their gift card, and who knows, they might bring a friend or two to shop with. The bottom line: you’re getting more bodies in the door and more money in the bank. 

Amazon offers gift cards to hundreds of business that are deliverable via email, print, or mail. But, what about the people who would rather purchase from a smaller business?

Amazon offers gift cards to hundreds of business that are deliverable via email, print, or mail. But, what about the people who would rather purchase from a smaller business?

If you do…

The good news: it’s really not that difficult to set up. You’ll need a few different things (we outline them in greater detail in this blog post, so I’m just going to gloss over them here).

First, you need a form that accepts payment and a secure certificate. You’ll also need a way to accept that payment, usually via a third party system. We use Stripe, but Paypal is common. Then, it’s a matter of putting the form on a page on your website, making it pretty, and making sure the instructions are clear. Clear enough that people won’t accidentally send a non-refundable gift card to a rando and still be bitter about it…

Alright, to be honest this was 90% user error.

Alright, to be honest this was 90% user error.

For “extra credit,” mobile friendliness is a huge bonus. Millennials are leading the way with online gift card purchases. Personally, I like the convenience of multi-tasking and if I’m in line at the grocery store, I can kill two birds with one stone by ordering a gift card on my phone while waiting. How’s that for multitasking?

Gift card sales online have been on an upward trend for the past few years, especially for small and mid-sized businesses. They’re easy to set up on your website, and are incredibly convenient for the donors and recipients. People love to shop local when given a chance, trust me! If you have any questions about selling gift cards on your website, feel free to email us or leave a comment on this post. Always happy to help!

What SEO Means in 2015

I get asked, at least once a week if we ‘do’ SEO. This is my experience with SEO:


Typically, it’s used as a d-bag intimidation tactic to get people to simultaneously 1) feel stupid and 2) give them money.

To me, SEO is ongoing work that happens when you’re doing online marketing, maintaining a well built website, and mixing that in with other avenues (maybe a mix of paid ads, offline events, and more). Like how when you watch what you eat and exercise, you get more energy and sleep better. It’s a great byproduct but not one you’re necessarily concentrating the hardest on.

This is what I always want to say in response when someone asks what I think about SEO:

SEO means building a website correctly.

To me, most SEO problems can be prevented by building a website correctly. This means:

  • having unique page titles and descriptions for each page.
  • having words on the page people are looking for.
  • interlinking content so it’s easy to browse.
  • making items easy to share on social media.
  • more common sense stuff people shouldn’t have to ask me for as a professional.

I personally don’t believe in charging people $X to do things one mediocre way and a higher amount of $Y to do things the best way I know how. Part of building a website is doing the small things that add up and make a difference. It means building the site thinking about search engines.

(A note here: Do I think adding, say, a sitemap will make a crappy website rank number one in search for a certain key phrase? Not so much but having some things in place to make life easier for The Google usually helps your cause.)

SEO means thinking of mobile first.

A kind of big idea that summarizes SEO in the last two years is ‘mobile first’. So what does that mean?

More than 50% of website visitors are coming from a mobile device, which makes mobile visitors (for most websites) are the majority.

The mobile version of your website doesn’t get to be a crappy, pared down version of the desktop version of your website anymore. If you have to decide between a website that is mobile friendly and a website element that is pretty, you should be picking mobile friendly.

To overly simplify, thinking mobile first means:

A) a responsively designed website (one that looks good and works well on all screen sizes)
B) a fast loading website (we don’t all have five bars of cell reception 100% of the time). Don’t make your website visitor look at this:


If you need examples of terrible websites:

SEO means maintaining your website.

If you think once you’ve designed your website you never have to touch it again, think again.

Search engines want up-to-date software and new content. They want people linking to the website. If you haven’t looked at your website in three weeks, why do you expect Google, or the blogger you want to link back to you, to care more than you seem to?

A website, like your house, will constantly need cleaning, repairs, redecorating, etc…. because people are using it. And that’s what happens when people use things regularly: they find ways they want to make it better.

SEO means making choices.

So it’s very hard (ok, I’ll say it, impossible), on one website page, to optimize for ‘rental property’, ‘rental home’, ‘house for rent’, ‘residential rental’, etc. If you try to put all those words on your site, you’ll sound like a synonym generating robot. If you keep changing what term you are using, the page will feel inconsistent.

seokeywordstuffing(Ewww example above via:

And this is where we get tough, people. You can’t be all things to all people. You have to pick. Who is your audience? What words do they use? What do you need them to get to on your website?

Doing SEO well means making choices. Bigger (and some smaller) websites are collecting data on us for a reason: so they can offer a customized experience. Amazon doesn’t try to design one website to make everyone happy: it selectively shows information depending on who you are.

Your website can be collecting information about visitors to some degree (check out the concept of ‘remarketing’ if this interests you) but most of us folks with smaller websites need to pick who we are, and who we are not, and think about attracting people via search accordingly.

As you see, I’m not telling you I don’t care about search engines or building websites that search engines like. I am just advocating for all of us stepping away from this idea of ‘doing’ SEO and instead thinking of SEO as a happy byproduct from good websites and online marketing campaigns.

Changing Website Design Forever: The Grid and PageCloud

About six months ago, someone asked me what I thought of ‘The Grid‘. Started by some folks behind, it was a promising startup. The membership model was simple: sign on as a founding member and lock in a low monthly rate. The idea is that artificial intelligence would decide on what was important on your website and optimize it accordingly for display.


It doesn’t take a math genius to figure out $8/month times 56,000ish people is not a bad chunk of change.

Now here is where The Grid seems to have gone off the rails. They promised a ‘late spring’ launch. Now late spring can be anywhere from May up to June 22 (the summer solstice) in terms of interpretation. Guess what didn’t happen?

Instead, The Grid launched its ‘beta’ version to 100 founding members in July, promising to do a full release when they had 100 happy users.

Problem was they kept taking out Facebook ads during all this and so people, seeing it in their newsfeed, left comments there, many of which The Grid did not respond to.

At first, people understood the delay… but the delay plus paid ads plus lack of communication started to rile people up. This comment pretty much summarizes the overall sentiment of those not happy with The Grid:


Basic message: yes we’re on Facebook but we’re communicating with founding members via email and the public via Twitter. So I went to Twitter last night and saw this exchange… with a guy that has 39 followers:

Screen Shot 2015-08-11 at 11.44.30 AM

OK so there’s no time for Facebook updates but there is time for a Twitter engagement with someone who a) might not even be a founding member and b) has a relatively small following? It doesn’t make much sense. I get that they are hesitant to put out a date but as businesses wait for this technology to come out, etc., it’s pretty hard to not know how long the wait will last.

Of course there are some people who have seen The Grid in action and say it is amazing and that they still believe etc. but I think collectively, the public is wary at this point of The Grid. I certainly am, no matter how many tech journalists with thousands of Twitter followers tell me otherwise. Honestly, I will happily pay $25/month when it comes out to just try it.

So I’ve been watching The Grid for about six months and last night, another Facebook ad showed up to me for PageCloud. Look familiar?

Screen Shot 2015-08-11 at 11.53.59 AM

So the idea with PageCloud is that you can have a designer create your site but PageCloud’s technology allows you to edit it on your screen (move elements, resize, etc.) A bit different than having a website automatically created.

I looked at both The Grid and PageCloud. Pricing is similar ($8ish/month for a locked in membership rate and early access) but PageCloud is rolling this out A LOT differently.

For example they are responding to current articles in their blog, which is being kept up to date:

PageCloud's response to the idea that 'web design is dead'

PageCloud’s response to the idea that ‘web design is dead’

The original 'web design is dead' article in UX Magazine, citing AI as a reason website design is declining/dying.

The original ‘web design is dead’ article in UX Magazine, citing AI as a reason website design is declining/dying.

I will say if I had $1 for every time a client said “I trust your intelligence and experience completely, just design me something!” I’d have zero dollars. Because despite the fact that some people seem to have no opinion, they often get one when they see their website design concept. They suddenly hate purple or their email newsletter more prominently featured. Seriously, I’ve seen it happen.

The reality we all face when we want a website:

1) We want a well functioning beautiful website that looks great on all screens
2) We are not going to like the first thing a designer (or The Grid or anyone else) shows us, even if it is perfect, and
3) We are going to want some things how we want them (Definite side menu! Definite slideshow! Something to decide on definitely.)

(If you don’t believe me on 2 in particular, watch Say Yes To The Dress and – even when they find the exact right dress the first time- notice that the bride always tries on several. My statement is no attack of people being persnickety about web design, it’s just human nature to want to see other options.)

So The Grid and PageCloud have accepted these realities and are dealing with them in two different ways.

With something like The Grid, you can click through automatically generated options until you find one you like. You don’t need a designer to start with. Content is your main feature.

With PageCloud, you can have the layout, etc. likely produced by a professional but maintained by you. You probably want a designer to give you some nice ‘bones’ to work with. Content is what you are changing.

Different products but we can agree both are changing the way we look at web design. But I can bet you can tell which one would be easier for me to sell to a client. (You can go to each website and watch the intro videos to get an idea of how each are different.)

I will say PageCloud is maintaining an active social media presence (responding to Facebook comments, etc) and overall, seems like a more upbeat corner of the internet than The Grid right now. Also, rather than alienating the kind of people who could help them ‘sell’ this service (web professionals), PageCloud seems to want to bring them in. Like this guy who said something they could have easily ignored but didn’t:

Screen Shot 2015-08-11 at 12.22.35 PM

I’m going to make a call right now that we can all look back on in a few months: PageCloud is going to do better financially than The Grid because:

1) Designers will be involved.
2) People will get to decide elements (ie not have robots do EVERYTHING for them.
3) There is way better PR happening prelaunch, allowing customers and future customers to feel much better about this purchase.

Once I can get in, I’ll be happy to report back on what I think of both systems but this is a prediction! Stay tuned!

Website Launch: Tucker Mountain Log Homes

Tucker Mountain Log Homes was a fun build for us. From the moment we first spoke with Judy, it was clear that everyone on the Tucker Mountain crew is dedicated to the business and delivering a quality product that their customers will love. We even got to sit down with Cliff, Judy, and “the boys” to hear them explain various projects and their unique method of construction. After that, we started our own construction process (apologies for the really corny lead-in…), here is the highlight reel from our latest website launch:

A snapshot from the old site, our starting point.

A snapshot from the old site, our starting point.

Tucker Mountain Log Homes has an incredibly photogenic business, from the logs to the building process to the finished product. It was unanimously agreed that the new site needed to showcase the aesthetics of their work, so we went for a “show, don’t tell” approach. The first place was the home page, which now has a full size featured slideshow:


The next step was showcasing the log home process from start to finish. Using the amount of high quality images we had and Judy’s recommendation of dividing the gallery among the construction process, interior shots, and the finished product, we developed a gallery that gives clients an idea of what a custom build involves, from selecting the logs to a fully assembled home.


TMLH doesn’t only build log homes- they also do decor, furniture, and refinishing.


An example of the “Before/After” images used on the Refinishing page.

So we made a page for each of these services with a photo gallery and contact form. This way, as customers browsed, they could easily get to the ‘sign up’ process, no matter what page they were on.

Besides showcasing the different types of projects the crew has done, it was also important that the website lifted some of the weight off of Judy’s shoulders in the office. So, we incorporated a couple custom forms throughout the site. These forms handle general intake questions and specific requests. It’s an easier way for Judy to collect the initial information she needs so she is only following up when the person has done research and is ready for that next step… and we hope it helps ease some of her office management burden!

Getting to meet the team was a lot of fun, and now potential customers can “meet the team,” too! In addition to the business history from the old site, everyone now has their own blurb explaining who they are and what they do at TMLH (and there’s pictures, so you can put names to faces).

These guys already had a pretty good handle on social media, so part of the rebuild process involved linking their Facebook and Instagram accounts to the site. Now whenever they’re on-site and want to share project updates on Facebook, it’ll show up on their website, too. Oh, and all those beautiful images of log homes, decor, and furniture? Totally pin-able (because, who doesn’t have a “Dream Log Home” Board on Pinterest?).

Piece of cake!

Piece of cake!

Between Kassie’s (my) content writing/curating, Nicole adding website functionality and managing the project, and Leslie creating and implementing a custom design, we were all able to use our strengths to take Tucker Mountain Log Home’s website into the 21st century. (You can check out the finished product here).

Overall, we had a great time working on this project. It’s always a pleasure to work with small businesses with big passion for what they do- thanks Tucker Mountain Log Homes and enjoy your new website!

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