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Tooting the horn

Posted by Robert Mohns on September 24, 2007.

Since iMarc merged our News & Blog functions into a single Communique (see Dave's series of blogs on the redesign, and specifically the architecture notes), we haven't really been promoting our recent work. Wiffle ball, avoiding snake oil, virtualization and the Darwine project, web standards, development tools, sure. Tooting our horn? Not so much.

Pity. Because we have some truly awesome clients.

Here's what we've been up to this year...

  • ECRM
    ECRM creates imaging technologies and software systems for commercial printers and newspapers around the world. ECRM asked iMarc to help redesign the site, complete with new architecture, content management system, dealer profiles and secure dealer extranet, ad campaign management and tracking, customer product registration, and more. ECRM's rich content management system, based on the iMarc SiteManager frameworks, has become our flagship CMS example. More importantly to ECRM, though, is the way the web site creates news sales leads, supports their regional VARs, provides powerful marketing support and saves time so they can focus on what they do best — making the best imaging systems in the business!

  • Springstone
    Springstone provides financing to patients of elective medical procedures (think braces — not cheap, and what HMO covers orthodonics?). This simple looking site belies its underpinnings; the web site communicates securely with Springstone's back end business sytems to perform live credit checks/approvals. The new site keeps patients moving quickly to get the care they need, while streamlining processing for medical offices. Good stuff.

  • The Museum of Biblical Arts
    MOBIA had a great web site design in place, but wanted to add an online store. MOBIA asked iMarc to add a store to the existing site, and to create a new content management system based on the iMarc SiteManager frameworks. Along the line we helped them update the site architecture and navigation, and added a rich HTML newsletter for their members.

  • ReloJournal
    ReloJournal is an unbranded web site providing resources and community for HR professionals. The design is very open, inviting and contemporary. Check it out!

  • Massachusetts Society of CPAs
    MSCPA is a long-time iMarc client; we've been working with them for seven or eight years now. They'd gotten a great return on investment in their site, but in 2006 they decided it was time to get the sprawling monster under control. We spent a lot of time working with them to create a new site architecture, plan real-time integration and data exchange with AM4 (a business system purpose-built for CPA societies), improve discoverability of member services, and so on. It was a big project and the site launched in June of 2007.

  • TVAR Solutions
    TVAR is a professional consulting firm specializing in high security and classified government and military consulting projects. TVAR has really been picking up momentum, and wanted a great new web site to help bolster their marketing and sales efforts. We worked with TVAR and a great Flash designer they had worked with in the past to create a new site that tells their story.

  • Maine Maritime Museum
    We love doing museum sites. The content is rich and engaging and they benefit their communities and society as a whole. Maine Maritime Museum celebrates Maine's maritime heritage and culture, and is just down the street from the historic shipyards of Bath, Maine. A special treat while doing this project was a site visit for photography and project discussions. Our project team really got a great sense of the museum's identity, and the great design ideas for the site really came out of that.

  • Newburyport Pedicab
    A pro-bono project taken on by iMarc employees (and Newburyport residents) Jeff and Patrick. Pedicab is a local non-profit that raises money for cancer research.

  • AMAG Pharmacueticals
    AMAG came to us as they were doing a re-branding to refocus their company around their growth areas. iMarc worked with AMAG's branding agency to create a web design based on their new branding, and create a nice, compact site architecture presenting their new products, information for investors, and to attract top candidates for employment.

  • Motorola Solutions Catalog
    An online catalog of software for Motorola phones. Third-party developers who create apps for Motorola mobile phones and other wireless devices can log into a secure extranet and create product listings for their solutions. The site looks elegantly simple but it's a very powerful beast beneath it's beautiful skin. Our developers have been working on this for months. We were very excited to launch this because it's a great tool for developers to get in touch with end users and to help Motorola grow its mobile platforms.

  • Custom House Maritime Museum
    Launched just last week, the Custom House is an all-volunteer museum located in downtown Newburyport, just a hundred yards from iMarc's offices. iMarcians Christian and Patrick took on this project on a pro bono basis. The museum has had some tough times over the past three years, but it has recently re-opened, revitalized and better than ever! Check it out when you're in town!

  • Starwood Resorts and Hotels Worldside
    Last but not least, Starwood has been keeping us busy. iMarc has worked with Starwood since inception, when we created an asset management system for them. Over the years they've asked us to take on more and more projects, and not a week goes by that Starwood isn't on our project list! They keep us pretty darned busy!

So, that's what we've been up to. It's been a busy year with lots of growth.

But before you go, if you haven't met Team iMarc's new 2007 members, please meet designer and InDesign wizard Melissa Maguire, innocent-looking developer Craig "Ruks" Ruksznis and suspiciously quiet developer Dan Collins. They've made it through the hazing more or less intact and are making great contributions to our clients' projects!

You're the Expert: Don't Do What I Tell You To Do

Posted by Dave Tufts on September 19, 2007.

In a recent planning meeting, Nils mentioned, "never mind the solution, what's the problem". It's pretty common for a new client to have strong ideas of how something should be done. However, it's our job, as professional service providers, to figure out the problem, often times ignoring the client's perceived solution.

Recently, I played the role of client and fell into this same trap. As mentioned in a previous blog, my fireplace chimney needs some work. I just got three quotes from three different chimney repair services.

Not surprisingly, depending on what I asked for, the quotes were dramatically different. Generally the more technical my question, the more expensive the quote and the less useful the end result.

Chimney Guy #1

My Question: When we moved into this house, the home inspector noticed cracks in the chimney lining. I need to get my chimney re-lined.

The Quote: Very expensive. Re-lining a chimney involves removing all the old clay liners (stacked on top of each other) and replacing every one.

Chimney Guy #2

My Question: I've been told that there's a crack in our chimney lining. How much will it cost to fix so I can use my fireplace?

The Quote: 1/3 the price of the previous quote—instead of re-lining the entire chimney this guy recommended retro-fitting an aluminum liner inside the chimney.

Chimney Guy #3

My Question: I've been told that there's a crack in our chimney lining. How much will it cost to fix so I can use my fireplace?

Notice I asked the same questions as #2, however this guy dug deeper. He didn't care about my solution of fixing the lining. He got me talking about the problem—the fact that I couldn't use my fireplace.

Our conversation went like this:

  1. Chimney Guy: Do you really want to fix the lining? That's a pretty major job.
  2. Me: I'm not sure, I just want to use my fireplace.
  3. Chimney Guy: Do you want to use your fireplace just for romantic ambiance or to actually heat your house, because an open fireplace just sucks heat out of the house.
  4. Me: I know...I definitely don't want a gas insert, though. I have tons of wood out back.
  5. Chimney Guy: What about a wood stove insert or hearth stove? That will be much cheaper to install. We just run a small aluminum pipe up the current chimney. A number of manufacturers make large wood stove inserts that give off lots of heat. You'll certainly save on your oil bills this winter.

The Quote: The cost of buying an insert or hearth stove and installing it was more than quote #2, but still cheaper than re-lining the entire chimney. Of course, when you consider that this option, once installed, actually saves money instead of sucking out heat, it's the obvious choice.

The Moral

I, the consumer, have no idea how a chimney should be fixed. When I said that I want to re-line the chimney, #1 should have voiced opposition based on his expertise in the field. Chimney Guy #3 took the time to identify what I saw as a successful end-result and presented a smart plan to get there. Chimney Guy #1 just gave me a quote for exactly what I wanted.

Never mind what I (the consumer) perceive as the solution. You (the expert) are better served figuring out the problem—then the solution will present itself.

A $5 Fix for Fuzzy Photos

Posted by Christian Keyes on September 11, 2007.

When you're known for working in Photoshop for the majority of your day and often into the night, you get asked a lot of questions. One such question that comes up very frequently is, "How can I make my photos sharper?". Just the other day, my cousin was asking me what he could do in Photoshop in order to make his blurry shots look better. I filled him in on the typical sharpening techniques, but it was only after our discussion that I realized it would probably be in his and everyone's best interest to avoid taking blurry photos in the first place.

However, for even the most avid photographers, this isn't always an easy task. Under certain light and with long shutter speeds, even a neurosurgeon will take a streaky, blurry picture from time to time. Having recently upgraded my camera, I found myself in this very predicament. Most people would go out and buy an expensive tripod to carry everywhere they go. This is a fine solution, but as anyone who has ever wielded a tripod knows, they're extremely annoying and cumbersome, especially for taking spontaneous shots.

Sure, you can pick up a mini-tripod for $30 and take some photos of...well...anything small enough to fit conveniently on a table. Fellow iMarcian Craig Henry uses a monopod (ladies) for shooting weddings. However, even the most affordable monopod will run you about $40 and will only eliminate 2/3 of the overall hassle. Rob's lens spins gyroscopically to stabalize his photos. Incredibly cool if you have solid gold toilets in your palace and can afford such luxuries.

Without further ado, I present to you a solution to this problem that will cost you less than $5, is insanely portable, and extremely clever.

6 Feet of Chain...and an Eye Bolt

Gorgeous. What you see is a 1/4-20 eye bolt attached to 6 feet of light chain. The eye bolt can be purchased at any home improvement or hardware store for around 50 cents and the chain goes for 45 cents a foot. I've used a spare keyring to link them together. From here, just screw the bolt into the base of your camera and make sure everything is threaded securely with the bolt. Hold your camera and let the chain down to the ground. Once the camera is at the right height for your subject, just step on the end of the chain and pull up gently. This will work as a sort of reverse monopod, allowing you to take much steadier shots. No messing with screws or telescoping legs, and no more streaky, blurry photos! When you're done, the chain coils nicely into your pocket or camera bag. Have a look at a shot taken with a shutter speed of one third of a second.

Blurry Crisp

Although this isn't applicable in all situations, I hope you find it useful enough to keep in your camera bag of tricks.

Beware the snake oil, stick to the content

Posted by Nils Menten on September 6, 2007.

I just had a pretty funny encounter on the phone with a guy prospecting for business. His company does search engine marketing, and in his first sentence he observed that my company wasn't coming up in the first page of search results in Google. Sacré bleu! How have we flourished for 10 years without this! OK, all sarcasm aside, here's where I'm at on this. For starters, let's just get over the hysteria on just how important search engine 'placement' is for a professional services firm in the first place. iMarc is at best medium sized at 17 people among interactive agencies. There's plenty of folks smaller, probably less that are larger. That said, we don't need, nor could we handle, another 100 customers in addition to the 100 or so that we currently serve. We're past the point of taking every project we come across, in part because we don't have to and in part because we want to reserve our capacity for projects we can be very successful with. From a marketing perspective, our own web site is not so much the point of our spear, it's more like the shaft. That is to say, we don't expect it to be the primary way we make first contact with a prospective client, but once we do make contact with the right prospects, the site acts as the delivery mechanism for the most relevant and up to date content and information we can put together about us, our experience and qualifications, and how to find out more about doing business with us. And like so many other professional services firms, we find that our new customers arrive at our site from a variety of referrals, mostly from our own direct marketing activities, quite a few from referrals from existing clients, some from seeing our work on awards sites, and yes, even a few from more or less 'blind' searches at Google. Would I turn down more qualified, relevant new business prospects from Google? Certainly not. But even without a lot of lead generation generated from the search engines, our site is still the single most critical ingredient in helping prospective customers to judge us capable and professional and qualified. And that's because of the good content that we serve on it, and the strategy that shaped it. But back to the fun :-). This poor unsuspecting guy that called today fumbled his way through his telemarketing script, expressing his concern that I wasn't on page 1. Leaving aside the fact that he never did say what search term he was searching on, or qualifying my interest in being found by him on that particular search term, as soon as I heard him pause for a breath, I asked him, "What is it your company does?". "Page 1 search engine placement on Google and Yahoo" was his reply. "And what is your company's name?", I asked. "", he told me. "OK, let's see where shows up in Google's search results when I search for what you do, as you describe it in your own words". Of course there would be no punchline if he was anywhere in sight of the first three pages, and indeed, he was not. And in this case, I didn't even bother to ask him to take me off his calling list, because I'm pretty sure he's not calling back :-). Don't get me wrong, I'm not knocking Search Engine Marketing, nor would I downplay the importance of SEM (including natural search optimization, which this guy was peddling) for consumer facing web sites, or for companies trying to reach a wide audience. And that includes a few of our customers. We spend a fair amount of time and energy building our sites carefully, with strictly valid code, machine-readable content, and we limit the use of javascript to create links to other content, all in an effort to facilitate indexing by the search engines. We create tools that let clients manage the meta tags and insert keywords into the urls. And we help clients with keyword analysis to understand what phrases potential site visitors are using at the search engines that would be relevant to their web sites. But I personally believe that the importance of this effort is a distant second to the importance of developing and maintaining useful, relevant content, updating it frequently, and perhaps most importantly, employing a user-centered approach to site strategy and design so that the right audience will find the site useful, informative, and relevant. In the long run this is the best path to ROI for any web site, and any site building effort that doesn't include a commitment to developing and maintaining good content is destined to underachieve.

More: Business Benefits of Web Standards

Posted by Dave Tufts on September 6, 2007.

Recently, Rob wrote a blog about Business benefits of web standards.

I just ran into a real-world scenario where standards compliance actually saved money. Our home needed some work done on the fireplace chimney. I got an estimate that broke down the cost of materials and labor. At the bottom of the estimate was a note about code compliance.

*Note: Quoted price assumes that chimney has been built according to Code with the required airspace around the tile liner, thus allowing for relative ease of removal of the tiles.

If the tiles are improperly "mudded in", resulting in extreme difficulty in removing them, then a supplemental charge will be involved.

Though this example has nothing to do with the Internet, the same concept is applied to any web re-design project. Whether the developer actually makes note of it or not, any decent web developer will look at the current state of the website, figure out if it's built with valid markup, and charge more if the content and markup are improperly "mudded in".

Business benefits of web standards

Posted by Robert Mohns on August 13, 2007.

BusinessWeek has published an excellent article on web standards this week. Short, readable and understandable, author Jessie Scanlon has managed to distill the evolution of web coding into meaningful business benefits:

“For companies with a Web presence—needless to say, most companies—CSS means "You can control you branding, your image, and still deliver content to users in the most appropriate style," [web standards advocate Jeffrey] Zeldman says.”

iMarc is absolutely committed to web standards; we produce completely valid XHTML web sites and applications. And that article really explains why this is of benefit: One site, all audiences, future-compatible, at a lower cost.

Of course, it's not a perfect world. We still have to work around browser-specific bugs. But when I look back on the sites I worked on in the late 90's and the hacks I put together to get them to render correctly on both Netscape and Internet Explorer, it's clear how very far we've come.

And from a business viewpoint, one of the greatest benefits is that valuable development hours aren't wasted on making variants for different browsers, but on implementing useful, informative web sites.