Thursday, December 14, 2017

Most Popular Marketing Experiments Conversion Optimization, A/B testing and Value Proposition Content in 2017

This was a big year for MarketingExperiments. In 2017, our website got a major facelift. Certainly, a much different look than when we first started publishing in 2000.

More importantly, we hope 2017 was a big year for you. And to help you have an even better year in 2018, here is the MarketingExperiments content that was most popular with your peers this past year.

Quick Win Clinics

New in 2017, we launched the Quick Win Clinic video series to help marketers with problems that are easy to solve, but difficult to detect. In every episode, Flint McGlaughlin, Managing Director and CEO, MECLABS Institute (parent research organization of MarketingExperiments), provides conversion optimization suggests on audience-submitted homepages, landing pages, emails, display ads, etc.

Watch one of the Quick Win Clinics to get ideas for improving your marketing messaging.

Or give us the URL of the marketing collateral you would like to have optimized in the series. If yours is chosen, you’ll get specific advice to help improve conversion based on our patented methodology built from what we’ve discovered by testing more than 20,000 sales and marketing paths.

 Specific examples of great value propositions

MarketingExperiments email newsletter subscriber Jennifer wrote to us and said “I’m a big fan of MECLABS and your value proposition work. I’d love to see a story with specific examples of five great value propositions.”

So we published some good …

As well as bad examples …

Get some ideas for creating a powerful value proposition for your brand, products and marketing pieces from the article 6 Good (And 2 Bad) B2B And B2C Value Proposition Examples.

The Prospect’s Perception Gap

Flint McGlaughlin was a featured speaker at MarketingSherpa Summit 2017 (MarketingExperiments’ sister publishing brand).

We shared a free video replay of his full session. Watch now to learn how to bridge the dangerous gap between the results you want and the results you have.

Absolute Difference Versus Relative Difference

A perennial favorite, we published this article back in 2013 but it is still one of our top-trafficked pages, so marketers continue to see value in learning how to understand and communicate their results.

As an example, Kyle Foster used a simple A/B split test for a hypothetical landing page test with some dummy data to interpret.

Read the article about interpreting results to get a basic understanding of how you should report on your A/B tests.

Learn how to become a better, more efficient digital marketer

Lastly, another perennial favorite, the landing page for MECLABS online learning. With our curriculum of online certification courses — value proposition development, landing page optimization, online testing and email messaging — you can learn a patented methodology to increase customer response.

You might also like…

A/B Testing Archives

Value Proposition Archives

Testing And Optimization: 4 inspirational examples of experimentation and success

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10 Game-Changing SEO Tips For Ecommerce in 2018

Traffic is among the deciding factors which determine the ultimate success of an e-commerce website. As it brings potential customers to the businesses, it also helps maintain a robust rank among competitors in Google SERPs.

Visibility is the key factor that ensures a website remains displayed on SERPs and keeps attracting users towards its products and services. By upholding SERP rankings, an e-commerce website can generate profitable returns and bring the business to an exposure point where it can progress and grow into a reliable selling machine.

But how does a business achieve this milestone and which factors stimulate this process? The answer is SEO.

SEO (Search Engine Optimization) improves website visibility, engagement, retention, and rankings for enhancing search engine results and attracting relevant users towards products and services.

In this article, we will reveal the 10 game-changing practices that dominate SEO. By strategically applying these techniques, your website can gain the edge it needs to stay ahead of the competitive curve and return a healthy revenue.

1. Generate Original Content

Among the primary factors that help search engines’ algorithms grade websites is original content. Since e-commerce websites feature products and services which are also marketed by competitors, they often find themselves publishing generic content.

Rather than displaying stock descriptions and tags for products and services, generate original content which can be detected and graded positively by search engines. Write content which is helpful and distinguishes products and services from the customer’s perspective.

The same rules apply when using predefined templates and databases, which can lead to lower SERP ratings since the content is detected on competitor websites. Modify the content so it is unique, with keywords related to the topic.

2. Optimize Meta Descriptions

While meta descriptions are not the deciding factor for search engine rankings, they can be optimized efficiently to increase the Click Through Rate (CTR), subsequently growing traffic. Here are a few ways meta descriptions can be optimized for maximum effect:

• Self-Explanatory: Meta descriptions help users decide whether a website will provide the items they are searching for, and therefore should be written from a user’s point of view to boost CTR.

• Concise: Use short and meaningful descriptions to leverage the average user’s reading preference. Limit the description under the benchmark 156-character limit to bolster maximum engagement.

• Convincing in Nature: Meta descriptions should prompt an action from the customer through Call to Actions (CTR) and should persuade them towards purchasing products and services offered by your store, such as “Delivery Free for Orders over $80” or “Get Offer Now”.

3. Enable Product Reviews

One of the major reasons behind e-commerce site abandonment is mistrust. Even if a customer does end up selecting their choice, there is no reference material to validate the quality of their choice.

Adding customer reviews provides your potential leads the information they need to finalize their purchase. Reviews are regarded as reliable content by customers since they are provided by users who have previously purchased their choice of items and submitted honest responses absent of promotional intent. Customer reviews also serve as freely submitted, original content on your website which increases SERP ratings and enhances user experience.

4. Link Building (Quality Over Quantity)

A prevailing misconception about link building is that if an e-commerce marketer has a diverse network of links, it will automatically direct maximum traffic towards his or her website.

Contrary to this belief, successful influencers and veteran e-commerce professionals know that placing inbound and outbound links everywhere can reduce website credibility and traffic.

Placing links indiscriminately on low rated websites can ultimately cause lower SERP rankings since search engines also penalize websites that promote their links on sites blacklisted by them.

5. Implement 301 Redirects

Implement 301 redirects to cultivate the benefit of inbound links present in website pages which no longer exist. Providing a 301 redirect allows you to send users towards another page of the website that is relevant to their query.

6. Adding Keywords to Anchor Text

Optimize your content by integrating keywords within the anchor text of internal links to increase visibility and provide users with a descriptive, clickable link. This also enhances user experience through readability since the links provide the only information needed to help customers find pages, contributing to a much higher CTR.

7. End Reliance on Pay Per Click (PPC)

PPC is essentially the fastest means available to advertise your online presence on Google and other third-party websites. It works by placing textual and visual ads on top ranks, so it gets the best attention on SERPs and web pages. The catch to it is each time a click is made the advertiser will pay for it, hence pay-per-click.

Although it is an affordable fast-track method of bringing leads to your site, PPC strategies can also backfire. Badly optimized ad copy and poorly developed landing pages can nullify the campaigns and instead damage the website’s integrity. Moreover, customers tend to place little credibility in ads hosted on other sites and are naturally reluctant to click on them.

Google statistics revealed that reliance on PPC could result in negative consequences as 89 percent of clicks were lost on average when use of AdWords was discontinued. Instead, develop strategies which incorporate organic SEO techniques for ensuring your website visibility does not decrease even with the use of PPC.

8. Utilize Product Images for SEO

Search engines’ algorithms enable image searches to allows users to find their required products and services. While many e-commerce stores tend to neglect the potential offered by optimizing images in their stores, modifying alt tags through the integration of relevant keywords is a proven strategy that can significantly enhance the crawlability your website content.

9. Specifying Priorities in SiteMap.xml

Search engines rely on sitemap.xml for crawling a website. This can be modified to prioritize certain areas of the web store and develop an order by which the pages will be identified by Google. The highly optimized pages can be assigned a higher priority through sitemap.xml to make sure they contribute to higher SERP rankings.

10. Modifying the Robots.txt file

Search engine crawlers can be directed to crawl only specific website pages by modifying the Robots.txt file. This saves website bandwidth and streamlines the operations the search engine has to perform to ascertain rankings.

You can also exclude certain areas of your website for temporary periods, allowing you to submit portions of your site to search engines while you develop the SEO strategy for other sections.

Applying SEO Effectively

Deploying result-oriented SEO techniques remains the corner stone of any successful online business. These practices will not only ensure your portal gets the right publicity on the search engines, but also bring your website to a competitive business environment where trends can be set.

Simple steps can achieve major boosts and consistently practicing them can cultivate a much greater yield in the long run. With time, your store will convert users into happy, satisfied, and loyal customers.

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Wednesday, December 13, 2017

How to Teach Marketers to Design: 3 Tips and 4 Essential Tools

Professionals often interpret things differently: a common problem when a marketer sets a brief for a designer without clear instructions, is the designer has to redo the project countless times until they are both satisfied with the final result.

Sometimes the task can be trivial, so much so that it’s quicker and easier for marketers to do it themselves. But what if they have no knowledge of design? What if they know nothing about type, color, and composition?

There are three common fears that prevent marketers from designing even basic jobs:

  • Only designers can create good images;
  • It takes a lot of time to create a good image, video, or a landing page;
  • Design tools are expensive and too complicated to use.

Fortunately, none of these myths is true. There are tools that can help you create an image in 5 minutes, a video in 20 minutes, and a landing page in 2 hours. Below you will find 3 tips and 4 tools that will help marketers create great designs.

Tip 1: Use High-Quality Images

90% of the information we get is visual, that’s why a high-quality image is a core element of every design. Good images attract our attention, make marketing materials look professional, and help to reinforce a brand.

The Internet is full of the same old photographs that have been used thousands of times on other websites. So you’ll see a difference when you start using high-quality stock images. You can buy images, vectors or videos on photobanks (like Depositphotos) and make them fit your projects.

Tip 2: Customize Your Materials According to your Marketing Message

You need to keep the unified style of all the materials you create. It will be easier for people to recognize your brand and it will form a positive first impression. You can add a watermark with the name of your brand to your images or select a certain color palette to set up certain associations.

Tip 3: Use Online Platforms

There are many online graphic editors you can use to create great marketing materials. Whether you’re creating a presentation, a blog post or an animation, there are thousands of free templates available on the Internet. They make things much easier, as you don’t need to look for the colors that fit, select fonts, or learn composition rules. You’ll find readymade examples and customize them easily. For example, most of these editors enable the creation of posts for social media, covers, posters, and animations.

4 Essential Design Tools

Crello

Crello is an online graphic editor offering thousands of free templates and high-quality stock images for your visuals. All the templates were made by professional designers and are absolutely free.

Formats: 31 basic formats including social media posts, banners, flyers, posters, gift certificates, and animations.

Fonts: More than 100 free fonts.

Photos and graphics: 10,000 free photos and vectors, the price for the paid images is $0.99

Advice: You can choose the topic for your design. It’s convenient if you need to prepare an image for holidays or special occasions

Magisto

Magisto is a great tool to create videos for your brand.

Formats: automated video editor.

How it works: You add videos or images, then select the mood for them, add music, and customize them.

Plans: There are three main subscription plans: $2,49, $9.99, and $39.99 per month.

PowToon

PowToon allows you to create animated videos and presentations.

Formats: More than 30 templates for personal, educational and work purposes. About half of the templates are free.

Special effects: Templates can be customized, you can upload your pictures, videos and icons.

Saving: You can upload video to YouTube in 480p and with a small logo for free. If you buy a subscription—from $19 a month—you can freely download videos in high resolution and without brand marks.

Tilda

If you need to design a landing page and have no idea about coding, Tilda is a great option for you.

Formats: Stylish, convenient, and most importantly, an ultra-simple platform for blogs, landing pages, and shops.

Admin panel: There is no classic admin page, you directly add blocks to your future page. That’s why it’s so easy to use; You see how the blocks look and directly add the ones you prefer.

Design: You can upload your pictures, add links to them or search in Google directly in the template. You don’t need to spend a lot of time selecting fonts—they all look great. Additional features are available only for subscribers starting at $15 per month.

Accommodation: You can create one site with 50 pages for free. The most expensive business plan allows you to create up to 5 sites with 500 pages per a domain.

 

[– This is an Advertorial post on behalf of DepositPhotos –]

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Tuesday, December 12, 2017

6 Engagement Marketing Metrics & How to Improve Them

5 Ways to Make Your Users Angry (And Productive)

Now why on Earth would you want to make anyone angry? Angry people are unpleasant to deal with at the best of times. Getting users angry seems awfully counterproductive. Why did you even write this stu…

Well, you don’t want them angry at you, of course. I wrote a whole article about that. Anger, temporary as it might be in most circumstances, is a fantastic way to inspire action. More specifically, it’s a great way to inspire social change. While you could theoretically use anger at your competitors to get users to buy your products; that’s more than a bit skeevy, and could very easily backfire, besides.

But if you’re trying to make the world a better place; that’s another story. Anger can absolutely be effective in driving people to help you make a change in the world, or their country, or even just their neighborhood. It can also backfire and cause way more trouble than you ever intended. So, you know… be very careful if you plan to go this route.

Here are a few ways to do it in your content, and in your design:

1. Have a Clearly Identified Villain

I don’t mean that you should put a specific individual on blast, as such. That’s how Internet mobs get started. Internet mobs are bad. You want your users to use their anger constructively. The type of Internet justice typically meted out to individuals is often counterproductive at best, and usually just terrifying.

But it does help to have a bad guy; and it needs to be clearly named. It’s entirely possible for people to get somewhat angry at no one in particular; but that’s rarely constructive. Your villain can be a fairly vague concept (ignorance), an organization (Comcast or Electronic Arts), a disease, or what-have-you. The point is that you should start pointing fingers.

2. Mimicry as Provocation

Tying in with the idea of clearly identifying your villain, you might try mimicry. The best, and most classic example of this is the now-long-gone Green My Apple website which was created by Greenpeace. It was designed to pretty accurately mimic Apple’s website at the time; and it inspired a lot of talk about Apple’s role in environmental pollution. It’s regarded by most as a success story, which you can read on Greenpeace’s website. Heck, it won a Webby award, too.

It caught the attention of Apple’s fans because it so obviously looked like Apple’s site. It caught the attention of the web design community because of course it did. We love stories like Green my Apple. It also caught the attention of enough mainstream news sources, and made enough people mad that Apple took notice.

3. Show Your Users How it Affects (or Could Affect) Them

It’s sometimes not enough to just tell users that “Thing X” is bad. In these cases, it’s a good idea to clearly illustrate how “Thing X” is bad for them. And they might need to see it visualized. Battleforthenet.com does this by featuring videos on Net Neutrality by a variety of creators, including: John Oliver, Vimeo (the website), Youtuber Tay Zonday, a few politicians, and more.

Other options include infographics, comics, plain old presentations, and plain text. I list plain text last because it only works if people read it all. It is notoriously difficult to get web users to do this, as they tend to skim. [Leave a comment if you read this.]

4. Use Imagery that Shows the Aftermath

When the cause you’re promoting doesn’t directly affect your users, you might try showing them the consequences of inaction. Depending on the subject matter, this may be the nuclear option, as sometimes the consequences can be rather disturbing.

Even when we’re not talking about something as violent as war, photos that show the aftermath of bad things can be kind of disturbing. Take for instance the photos on the website Too Young to Wed. When I featured this site a few years ago in an article about designing for non-profits, one user commented on how haunted the girls looked, and how that disturbing that was.

In this case, that’s exactly what they were going for. They wanted people to see how sad it was for little girls to be married off to old men. They wanted people to get mad, and do something.

5. Outline the Win Condition

Okay, now that you’ve made everybody angry, it’s time to be responsible about this. You need to have a specific goal, or a win condition. You can have more than one, with short, medium and long-term goals, but they need to be clearly defined.

Undirected rage can result in those mobs I mentioned earlier. The other possible outcomes can be just as bad: Undirected rage can be stifled by simply having nowhere to go. Worse, it might manifest in some unrelated situation, and people could get hurt. Making people mad without clearly defining the circumstances under which they can stop being quite so mad is the path to apathy and/or disaster.

Bonus Tip: Make it Easy to Act

Rage doesn’t last long, as a motivation. It’s loud, it’s messy; but people get tired. It’s usually not a long-term motivation. You need to make it very, very easy for them to take one initial step. They just need one small action to make the world a better place.

Once they’ve taken that step, you should follow up on them. Turn outrage into determination, and you’ve got a life-long supporter of your cause.

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Monday, December 11, 2017

How to Manage Marketing Campaigns like a Financial Currency Trader

KPIs are due EOD.

Profit and loss statements need to be generated.

Budget status updates have been requested.

Juggling multiple marketing campaigns is stressful. But more importantly, it’s also incredibly risky.

Soon enough, you’ve depleted your budget to the last few cents, and you have nothing to show for it.

Or worse, you didn’t spot the right trends in a successful tactic before spending too much on the underperforming ones.

And now you don’t have enough money to re-allocate to top-tier mediums.

Curiously enough, adopting the same methodical mindset of a financial currency trader can help you better manage results.

Here’s how.

Start With a Currency Arbitrage Mindset

Here’s the problem with digital marketing.

It changes every day. Old stuff gives way to new stuff.

And you never really know how a campaign will perform until you try it.

That saying (1) is unhelpful and (2) requires extra money to experiment with potentially budget-draining activities.

But it’s true.

You really don’t know which playbook, game plan, or actionable tip is going to work until you experiment. The stuff that worked last year almost certainly won’t work the same this year.

Not to mention that every business is structured differently. Each caters to diverse audiences. So copying your competitors or that awesome tactic you read about is also out.

What works for Company X might bankrupt Company Z.

If there were set-in-stone tactics that produced million-dollar businesses overnight, every dude on GrowthHackers.org would be rich.

PPC might be amazing for your friend’s business. But that doesn’t mean investing in PPC is instantly going to turn you into the next Zuckerberg.

So where do people turn when they hit this realization? A/B testing.

You all know those case studies that promise a mythical pot of gold at the end of a rainbow.

I did X and generated a 40000000000% increase in conversions!

Okay, maybe that’s a slight exaggeration, but it’s not that far off.

Most A/B tests fail, though.

They take too long to get results. Plus that whole “bias” thing. And of course, sample size.

You need a minimum of 1,000 conversions monthly for statistical significance.

So what should you do instead?

Implement a currency arbitrage mindset.

Currency arbitrage is a strategy in which the trader takes advantage of different spreads offered by brokers for a particular currency pair by making trades.

Different spreads imply a gap between the bid and ask prices. Meaning, they can buy and sell pairs to make more money.

What does this mean in English?

Place lots of small bets on different tactics, channels, platforms, and mediums so that you can evaluate their effectiveness in real-time.

Once you see specific trends developing (either positive or negative), you double down on the winners and cut your losses on the rest.

This way, you can test multiple experiments at once without the bias and lack of statistical significance that comes with A/B testing.

You get in and out fast. And you come out on the other side with specific campaigns to focus on rather than a mixed bag.

For example, you can’t always control the end result. But you can control the inputs that eventually get you there. And you can monitor, forecast, or predict where those will fall based on just a few days’ worth of performance.

Then, you can fine tune and adjust each ‘level’ accordingly to squeeze out the best results.

Adjusting Your Budget Based on Market Movement

The first banner advertisement ever appeared on HotWired in 1994.

Look at this gem:

Image Source

By today’s standards, it looks like a joke, right?

Is that tie-dye? Yes, yes it is.

But it gets worse:

See that subliminal “YOU WILL” message on the right???

Super subtle. Lord have mercy on us all.

But guess what?

This banner ad debuted with a click-through rate of 78%.

Yes, you read that right. Seventy. Eight. Percent.

If you told any marketer today that your banner ads are getting a 78% CTR, you’d get laughed out of the room.

Why? It’s inconceivable. It’s probably impossible in today’s world.

Today, the average display ad CTR is 0.05%.

Image Source

This all brings me back to one concept coined by Andrew Chen:

The law of shitty click-throughs:

All marketing strategies over time will result in shitty click-through rates.

As more and more people use these tactics, the market becomes saturated.

Users get sick of it, and they don’t click. Or they go banner blind.

You can see trends that follow this concept with almost any marketing activity.

Remember the good old days when Facebook organic reach was insane?

You paid nothing and reached thousands or millions of eager users.

Now, organic reach is almost nothing:

Image Source

As more and more marketers use the concepts put in place, it results in fewer and fewer results.

This is a perfect example of market movement and active management in currency trading.

You can’t hold certain trades forever and expect exponential performance.

Just because something is generating an insane ROI now, doesn’t mean you can ride it off into the sunset.

Markets are constantly shifting, just like marketing tactics.

What was hot one day (banner ads) isn’t now.

If you don’t adjust your strategy based on analytic research and forecasts, you risk declining performances associated with passive management.

Passive management is when you sit idly by and attempt to cruise to the finish line on your current strategy.

Active management relies on analytical performance data over time to spot trends and make informed decisions about what needs to change.

If you notice a decline in organic reach on Facebook, you probably shouldn’t be dumping your campaign dollars into it.

Unfortunately, us marketers (including me) fall into this trap more often than we’d like to admit.

You log in to Google AdWords or Analytics and see some great conversion data:

Your plans are working as you’d hoped.

But that doesn’t mean you can sit back and let the good times roll.

Sure, you can do that for a little bit. But over time, as markets, tactics, and consumers shift, you’ve gotta take an active role in managing campaigns.

Adjust based on trends.

A great way to do this is by analyzing specific topics on Google Trends:

Or even keeping up to date with the latest studies on popular marketing tactics by conducting a basic Google search:

Stay up-to-date with market movement and look at the underlying trends or patterns. Because when people are blogging about it, tweeting it, favoriting it, or liking it, it’s already too late.

Be Cautious in a Bull Market

When everything is running smoothly, it’s referred to as a bull market.

Investor confidence and financial optimism are at an all-time high.

On the surface, everything is running like a well-oiled machine.

Unemployment is low. The economy’s GDP is growing steadily. Stocks are rising.

And your marketing tactics are getting more traction.

But with all of this surface-based optimism comes serious potential side effects:

It now becomes difficult to predict potential shifts and trends or when tactics might change.

Facebook’s organic reach was booming just a few years ago. Until, of course, it didn’t.

Image Source

Now? Good luck. We’ve crapped out.

There is actually a pretty easy explanation for it. Simple supply vs. demand.

User growth is slowing while the number of content pieces has exploded exponentially. Too much supply, not enough demand.

Guess what’s going to repeat now on Instagram?

Right now it’s the place to be for your content. Just give it a minute.

And don’t get swept up by the bull market.

Find your own Big Short

Have you ever seen The Big Short?

If not, I highly recommend it. It’s a great movie.

Not just because it’s an incredible, intense account of the 2005 housing crisis.

Mainly because it features Steve Carell:

via GIPHY

Inspirational as always, Prison Mike.

In all seriousness, it’s a great movie that heavily relates to digital marketing.

The main concept of the movie was based on the true story of Michael Burry, a hedge fund manager who shorted the housing crisis of 2005.

He believed there was a housing bubble, leading him to short sell and bet against the banks who thought he was a chump, taking his deals like candy.

The idea of short selling is motivated by the belief that a security’s price will decline, enabling it to be bought back at a lower price point for maximum profit.

And people thought Michael (Burry, not Prison) was insane.

Who in their right mind bets against the housing market when prices are nearly doubling year after year?

But Burry noticed a few troubling trends. He saw that subprime home loans were in danger of defaulting. And many adjustable rate mortgages with balloon payments were all adjusting around the same time.

He decided to throw more than one billion dollars into credit default swaps.

It’s safe to say that the banks weren’t too happy in the end.

Here’s the moral of the story:

Very few people believed him. But Burry discovered the mystical unicorn that most marketers strive to find.

The main point as it relates to marketing campaigns is this:

You need to find your own big short.

Your own diamond in the rough that you can tap into before anyone else.

Your own display ad invention that generates a 78% CTR.

Finding the tactic that brings your conversions up by 10x.

Sounds wonderful. But you know it’s not easy. Because it hasn’t been blogged about or shared at conferences just yet.

But examples of it do already exist in the marketing world today.

For example, Brian Dean of Backlinko raised the link-building bar with his skyscraper technique.

He took a spin on a classic link-building tactic that increased his search traffic by 110% in just two weeks.

Image Source

On top of a massive increase in traffic, he generated countless backlinks from thousands of different referring domains:

referring domains from backlinko blog postImage Source

He effectively took his link-building strategy to the next level by going against the grain.

He didn’t sit back and ride the wave of guest blogging or other outdated, declining strategies.

He found his own big short.

While small marketing tactics like A/B testing and creating new ads or creative for your campaigns is a step in the right direction, it isn’t the end-all-be-all. Small bets don’t move the needle.

They merely help you figure out if you’re on the right track (or not). And help to show you when it’s time to go all-in.

Conclusion

Managing marketing campaigns is a stressful task.

Big, splashy, high-budget campaigns have high expectations. Bosses and clients expect big, lofty performance to go with it.

Money can get away from you fast if you aren’t careful.

Even worse, you can get so caught up in data that you miss the right trends.

Trends that tell you which aspects of your campaign are winning and which are losing.

Instead of flying blind or crossing your fingers, think like a financial currency trader.

Analyze the data with a currency arbitrage mindset. Keep up with market movement by taking an active management role in your campaigns. Be cautious in a bull market when everyone’s saying the same things.

And don’t be afraid to bet big when the time comes.

About the Author: Brad Smith is the founder of Codeless, a B2B content creation company. Frequent contributor to Kissmetrics, Unbounce, WordStream, AdEspresso, Search Engine Journal, Autopilot, and more.

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Breaking the Grid Without Breaking Design

Symmetry is safe. It’s comfortable, non-threatening, and aesthetically pleasing. It can also be very dull. Using ‘asymmetrical balance’ can make things more interesting while still sticking to a grid to keep things ordered. In design, as in so many other things, the higher the risks the greater the potential rewards.

Symmetry has long been considered a good thing precisely because it is aesthetically pleasing and unchallenging to the eye. The word symmetry is derived from greek components which translate to ‘with measure’; symmetry is about proportion and balance, qualitative similarity as opposed to identical sameness. Asymmetry would therefore be a lack of balance or proportion, an unevenness.

In a visual context, however, most of us, even if we can’t remember taking basic geometry lessons (never mind what was in them) think of symmetry with a more restricted definition.

If something is symmetrical [has symmetry], it has two halves which are exactly the same, except that one half is the mirror image of the other.

-Collins dictionary

One very famous example of near perfect symmetry is the Rorschach Test cards. Their bilateral symmetry was a deliberate and important aspect of their appearance: Hermann Rorschach stated that many patients rejected asymmetric images. While the reasons for this might be an interesting area of study in itself, it’s a whole other article. All we need to know is: Symmetry comfortable; Asymmetry not so comfortable.

All we need to know is: Symmetry comfortable; Asymmetry not so comfortable

Asymmetrical balance, in a visual design context, is where two or more elements on either side of a plane are different but have the same visual weight. A simple example would be an image on one side with a block of text on the other, sized and styled to balance each other.

The two tools we use to create symmetry–and asymmetrical balance–in a design are the grid and our eye. The grid, as we know it is very much a mid 20th century invention, but in the same way that gravity already existed long before an apple fell on Isaac Newton’s head, so we can see evidence of grid based layout in some of the oldest surviving manuscripts we have: The Dead Sea Scrolls are written in even columns with regular margins and leading; the care taken over the positioning of illustration and text in early medieval manuscripts, such as the 8th century Book of Kells, indicates the use of a grid.

The grid is the bedrock of modern graphic design, and has been so for centuries in some form or other, long before the term graphic designed was coined. The grid ensures balance in a design by breaking up the ‘page’ into equal or proportional sections.

While the grid is objective, dividing space up based on exact mathematical proportions, the human eye is subjective. There are some guidelines or rules which apply for the vast majority, such as line length of x characters depending on device size, readable color contrast, all caps is a bit aggressive, and so on. But how a particular design is seen and received can vary greatly.

These variations range from the big (like the different meanings of colors across the world) down to the the individual variations of personal taste.

This is where a designer needs to have confidence; The courage to acknowledge that not everyone is going to love every design you do, and doing it anyway because it works. Knowledge and experience help, understanding why something doesn’t work means you understand how to fix it.

the grid is a tool that helps us, but we do not have to be bound by it

Sometimes, even though you know that an element is positioned correctly, or some leading is proportionally accurate according to your grid, somehow it just looks wrong. So you fix it by eye. You make adjustments until it looks right, until it feels right.

Our immediate response to design is emotional, the intellectual and analytical responses follow after. So we need to remember that the grid is a tool that helps us, but we do not have to be bound by it.

So, how can we break the grid, while still maintaining a coherent design?

Using Masonry

Probably the most frequently used technique is a masonry layout, like that made popular by Pinterest. The page is divided into regular columns along the horizontal plane, but the content blocks within those columns are of differing heights. Sometimes columns can be of double-or even triple-width, or an individual element may take up two or more column widths, but it will always be divisible by the single column width.

This technique can be applied the other way round—as in, content blocks of differing widths arranged into regular height rows—but it’s more commonly done as even columns. A masonry layout can, of course, be completely regular. If the vertical plane is divided into equal height rows and the height of each content block is a multiple of that row height then you have a masonry layout that sticks to the grid.

It is usual for the vertical spacing between elements is always the same, and matches the horizontal spacing between columns. If your content blocks contain text, making sure that the block height is consistent with your baseline grid can help with visual coherence.

Alliance Graphique Internationale

Alliance Graphique Internationale is a classic example of a masonry layout. The images are of equal widths, but differing heights while the vertical margins between images match the column gutters. All the images fill a single column width making it nicely responsive. An added touch is that the images load in randomly as you scroll down.   

L’√ČLOI

L’√ČLOI’s layout has some double width content and uses a larger gutter size, both of which increase the impression of randomness. The greater space between elements emphasises the difference in their heights and vertical position.

Grafik

Grafik’s layout takes things a bit further again. Like the two previous examples, the page is divided into equal columns, the number of columns being dependent on the width of the viewport. But there is no defined horizontal or vertical spacing between elements, and the images are not all sized to fill a full column width. The column widths are the same, but the horizontal space between items in each column is dependent on the size of the elements and the size of the browser window. The result feels interesting and random, while at the same time having a reassuring order that we are subconsciously aware of.

In addition, hovering over an image brings up it’s article title and an excerpt, which in a lot of cases overlaps adjacent images.

 

Repeating Irregular Pattern

Another technique is to create a repeating pattern of irregularly placed elements. The human eye is drawn to patterns, and our brains have a natural tendency to recognize patterns all around us. We instinctively seek out patterns because their predictability makes us comfortable.

Tom Dixon

Tom Dixon’s layout groups together several different sized elements, with varying horizontal and vertical space between them. The exact arrangement varies depending on screen size as the images scale at different rates. This ‘sub’ layout is then repeated with more content. It gives us the visual interest created by the irregular spacing and misalignment, but combines it with the reassuring symmetry of a repeating pattern.

Look Mom, (Almost) No Grid!

You can of course retrospectively apply a grid to almost any design. And even those designs that don’t appear to be grid based, almost always make use of an underlying grid, especially for their typography. However, as the whitespace around elements grows the grid becomes visually less and less dominant.

Ditching a grid based layout entirely is risky, but it can work in the right hands. Keeping things minimal and clean is an easier option to avoid grid geometry. This type of layout also works best with all images or at least predominantly images.

Sojournal

Sojournal pairs an image with a title and subheading. There is a slight pattern in that the images alternate between left and right placement. But the images are different sizes and proportions, and the exact placement varies from image to image. There are no defined columns and the vertical space between elements varies. 

The size of the images mean that no more than two are visible in the window at a time. It is a very clean, spacious feeling layout and the irregular positioning of the images focuses attention on each one in turn.

Blacksheep

Because the images in Blacksheep’s layout are all of a similar—quite small—size, and are on the same subject theme they can be grouped together more closely, in some places even overlapping.  The overlaps are balanced out by the larger spaces in other places.

Hollie Fernando Photography

For Hollie Fernando’s portfolio, smaller images are placed closer together, while larger ones have more space around them. As with the two previous examples, the images here are carefully chosen and grouped. Content curation is always important for any site, but it is a vital part of a successful gridless layout.

Source

p img {display:inline-block; margin-right:10px;}
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p.showcase {clear:both;}
body#browserfriendly p, body#podcast p, div#emailbody p{margin:0;}

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