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November 14, 2013

LoudspeakerIf you’re posting content online, there’s a good chance you want people to share and talk about it. Discussion lets people feel more engaged and connected – and it also gives people an incentive to talk about it with their friends.

Managing a good space for conversation can be a lot of work, though. Online communities can be intimidating, as you’ve probably seen if you’ve read comment sections on popular sites. If left unsupervised, troublemaker visitors can post irrelevant, hurtful, or polarizing comments, and a discussion area that’s run amok may actually discourage people from visiting your site. As you’re choosing how to build your comments area, keep the following tips in mind.

Have a clear set of rules

It’s important from the start to write a set of rules stating what you will allow and what you won’t. How do you want people to behave? What would you consider to be over the line for obscene words or other content? It’s important to make a version of these rules public so that visitors know what to expect, but you may keep a set of examples or specific offenses private to guide you. Don’t be afraid to say that a comment may be deleted (or even that a user may be blocked) if they don’t follow your rules.

Here’s a quick note on anonymous comments. There’s been a lot of discussion over the years about whether sites should allow users to comment anonymously or pseudonymously (with a username they choose). Some sites use Facebook to ensure that there is some level of verification for the people who comment. Personally, I think it doesn’t make much of a difference as long as you have guidelines for your discussion. Keep in mind that removing the ability to post without your real name may exclude people from your discussion. Some people can’t or won’t comment with their real name because of a number of reasons: they may not want people to see their Facebook posts or friends, they might have a company policy not to publicly comment on topics, or they might not want to share a personal story.

Use consistent, objective moderation

With a set of rules for the discussion area in hand, it’s important to enforce them if a visitor violates them. Hide or remove a comment for first-time offenders, and try to reach out to them if possible to make sure they understand the guidelines for the discussion. Use your comment system’s blocking mechanism for repeat offenders; a few bad eggs can spoil an area completely if left unchecked.

If there is more than one person moderating the area, make sure that every moderator understands the guidelines and acts consistently. Visitors may be frustrated if some comments are allowed while other similar ones are removed by moderators.

Encourage and reward good contributions

Comments are supposed to enhance a discussion, not stop or derail it. Many modern commenting systems have some way for users to vote a comment up or down; these ratings let everyone feel like they’re part of building the community, and they reward people who write thoughtful, valuable comments.

Systems like IntenseDebate take it one step further by calculating a person’s reputation – that is, the overall value of their posts over time. People with a history of quality comments rise to the top of the discussion. It’s a great way to encourage people to contribute often and write comments that people will find valuable.

Comment areas can be a great opportunity for your site to become more engaging with the people who visit. But make sure you’re staying on top of what people post, or it may drive people away!

Justin is one of the developers at Sephone. He's interested in user-driven design, social media, and web services. He also enjoys learning and exploring new ways for businesses and people to use the web.
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October 24, 2013

Traffic JamYou’ve probably experienced it at some point: you go to a website, wait for it to appear, and then either get a blank white screen or an error message that politely tells you the site is not available. It’s frustrating, but you may not know that there are a few things that could be keeping you from accessing the site you want to see.

Even though there are more tools and techniques than ever to make sites more reliable, there are still occasional periods of downtime. And as more of the services we use every day move online, it’s easier to notice when a site you need isn’t available. Here are some of the most common reasons that may be causing your favorite site not to show.

Construction

Sometimes something goes wrong with how a site is built. This can be as simple as a mistyped piece of code, or it can be something entered incorrectly on a site’s DNS or domain name setup. More often than not, these kinds of errors happen when something’s changed on the site – and they’re usually fixed relatively quickly because someone’s right there to notice that something went wrong.

Connection

When you go to a website, the page address you type or choose – the request – actually bounces from computer to computer on its way to where the site lives (where it’s hosted). A single request may touch a dozen servers or more before it reaches its final destination. Even though there’s a pretty ingenious system to bounce around the world and back in the blink of an eye, sometimes there’s a problem along the path from your computer to the final server. (Maybe someone dug into the ground in the wrong spot and cut a cable, or maybe there’s a power outage where the server’s hosted.) If your request can’t get to the host server and back, you won’t be able to see the site.

Visitors

Imagine you’re driving down a busy highway at rush hour and find yourself in a traffic jam. There are so many people trying to move at once that it overwhelms the road, and you’re not able to move. Website hosting computers are the same way; there’s a limit to the number of people a server can handle at once. If you’re trying to reach a news station’s site during a period of breaking news or if you’re trying to order a brand-new product in the first few minutes it’s released, you’re competing with hundreds or thousands of other visitors for the server’s time. (There are many ways to let more people access a site at once, but they take more time and money to develop and maintain. That’s why large sites often don’t have problems when they receive a lot of visitor traffic!)

Visitors, part II (the non-human kind)

Sometimes a site will receive a heavy burst of random traffic from all around the world, even if there aren’t a lot of real people visiting the site. This is called a distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack, and it’s often caused by thousands of compromised computers (something called a botnet) flooding a site with traffic. (Remember back in the days when viruses or malware would wipe your computer’s data? These days, a big goal of these bad kinds of software is to allow other people to control what the computer does – and in many cases, that’s trying to bring down a site with a lot of traffic to prevent real people from being able to access it.) These attacks are hard to stop because they’re so random; it’s difficult to tell which visits are from real people and which are from compromised machines.

If you’ve run into a roadblock while trying to access a site, sit back, grab some coffee, and wait a few minutes before you try again. If you’re feeling particularly helpful, send a bug report to the site owner – but be sure to include the right information!

Thanks to Keng Susumpow for sharing the photo in this post with a Creative Commons license!

Justin is one of the developers at Sephone. He's interested in user-driven design, social media, and web services. He also enjoys learning and exploring new ways for businesses and people to use the web.
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October 10, 2013

It’s hard to believe that one of my favorite times of the year is back already. It’s peak fall foliage season here in Maine, and that means that leaf-peepers from around the region are cruising around the state in hopes of finding some great color.

Maine foliage around a bridgeFor photographers and other autumn lovers like me, it used to be really tough to figure out when the best times to head out to see the leaves changing. Luckily with a little creativity, the web makes it easy to figure out the best spots for your drive.

Starting points

In Maine the best starting point is the state’s official foliage site at mainefoliage.com. They’ve made this into a great resource over the years with weekly reports and a photo gallery of shots submitted by seasonal shutterbugs.

Searching for local businesses is also useful; a lot of hotels, bed and breakfasts, and general destinations will post photos of the local scene on their site and Facebook page. You can find a host of places to visit around Maine from our friends at the Maine Tourism Association.

Search away!

If you really want up-t0-the-minute details on color around Maine, do a little searching. People love to share their photos and travels, and you can make use of what they’ve posted!

  • If you’re looking for photos, head to the recently-redesigned Flickr. Do a search for “maine foliage” and sort by date to see the latest photos from people around the world.
  • As we mentioned in a post a few years ago, Twitter’s search is not only a great way to find details about foliage, but you might also find a few fall-related deals or trip ideas in the process.
  • Instagram is also a great resource for colorful photos. Try a search for foliage to see what you find.

Don’t forget to share what you find, too! Happy travels.

Justin is one of the developers at Sephone. He's interested in user-driven design, social media, and web services. He also enjoys learning and exploring new ways for businesses and people to use the web.
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September 5, 2013

Depending on your business, you may see customers face-to-face or talk with them over the phone every day. But a lot of companies don’t see social media in the same way; they’ll use their accounts on Facebook, Twitter, and other networks just to post information instead of interacting with their followers (and potential customers). Social networking is actually an amazing opportunity to build relationships with your customers.

When we work with a company on their social media presence, we try to apply the Golden Rule when it comes to posts, replies, and mentions from people around the web; in other words, if we were writing something about a company on social media, how would we want them to respond? As Alan mentioned in his post about responding to negative feedback, it’s important to (almost) always acknowledge a person when they mention your company, no matter if they’re saying something great or if they had a bad experience. Sometimes that’s as simple as liking their Facebook post as your page, or sending a quick tweet of “Thanks!” Sharing or retweeting posts can also be useful for people who obviously really like your company or brand; it shows that you’re listening and that you think their thoughts are important enough to share with others.

But remember that your response is often the first interaction a potential customer will have with your company. How can you leave the best first impression possible? Spend an extra minute to see if you can…

  • Give them (a little) more information than they need. If someone asks when you close, don’t just reply with a time; try something like, “We close at 8:00 tonight. If you can’t make it in, we’re open 11-8 all week and 11-4 on Saturday. Hope to see you!” If they said they liked your cookie dough ice cream, try to suggest something else they might like on their next visit: “We’re glad you liked it! Next time you might want to try Cookie Blast – it’s a new flavor this year that’s a cross between cookie dough and cookies & cream.” (I just made that up for this post, but it actually sounds really, really good right now.)
  • Make your reply relevant. Take a look at the profile and latest posts of the person who is talking with you. Can you use that information to make a better reply? Imagine you work at a Bar Harbor restaurant, and a man asks about where you’re located. If you notice that he’s from around Bar Harbor, you might use landmarks he may know: “We’re just off Route 3 next to the Village Green.” If you see that he’s been posting about how excited he is to be going on a cruise around New England, it might be a good idea to tailor your reply accordingly: “We’re on the road across from the town pier, two blocks up the hill on the right.” You might even include a link to a special page on your restaurant’s site geared to cruise ship visitors. (Of course, as with everything online, there are limits; keep in mind that it’s great to be helpful, but not great to be creepy.)

Social media is often your first interaction with a potential customer. Be fun and approachable, but also be empathetic when people have a problem. Whether they have a question, a concern, or a lot of praise, write back and leave them smiling!

Justin is one of the developers at Sephone. He's interested in user-driven design, social media, and web services. He also enjoys learning and exploring new ways for businesses and people to use the web.
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August 16, 2013

The 2013 American Folk Festival appThe American Folk Festival returns to the Bangor Waterfront from August 23rd – 25th, and we’re gearing up for it here at Sephone. As we have in years past, we’re happy to have the opportunity to both sponsor the Festival and develop their official mobile app and website.

We’ve kept the popular features from last year’s app – auto-updating schedules for every stage and artist, an interactive map of the Festival grounds, and an easy way to submit photos to an official Folk Festival album on their social media accounts – and added a brand-new look for this year.

But this year’s update is more than just a new look and feel. We’ve added push notifications and favorites this year; tap the star next to any performance to receive a reminder alert that the artist you want to see will be playing soon. You can also star any artist to receive additional information and alerts.

When you star a performance, it’ll be added to a personal schedule made just for you. Tap “Your Schedule” on the app’s home page to see a list of all the performances you’ve marked that you want to see over the course of the Festival. It’s a great at-a-glance look into where you want to go!

If you installed the app last year, getting the new features is as easy as updating the app. If you’re running iOS, head into the App Store app and go into the Updates tab. If you’re an Android user, the app may update automatically, or you may need to go into the My Apps area of the Play Store for the new version.

Before you head down to the Waterfront, be sure to download the app for free on Google Play or the iOS App Store, or visit americanfolkfestival.com for even more information about the weekend. See you at the Festival – and don’t forget to donate to support it in the future!

Justin is one of the developers at Sephone. He's interested in user-driven design, social media, and web services. He also enjoys learning and exploring new ways for businesses and people to use the web.
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August 1, 2013

We’re thrilled to announce that Waterfront Concerts, the company that brings great music and more to Bangor, Maine’s waterfront, has a new home on the web – and now on your phone!

WaterfrontConcerts.com

We’ve been working with Waterfront Concerts over the past few months to build an updated online resource for thousands of fans of everything from country to comedy and rock to radio. We wanted to make it really easy for people to find information about the shows they want to see: a full schedule, ticket and seating information, and lots of rich media to let them learn more about the show. The new site lets fans see the latest show announcements and find the perfect ticket package, whether they’re coming to the waterfront from across the city or across the country.

QR code for the Waterfront Concerts appIn addition to the new site, WFConcerts now has free apps for iPhone and Android to keep the latest information about Bangor’s concerts at your fingertips. The apps extend WaterfrontConcerts.com and give you a personalized view of your music schedule. After you download the app, you’re two taps away from marking a show as a favorite, giving you access to instant updates about show information and ticket sales. You’ll also automatically receive the latest announcements about the Waterfront Concerts season. You can even buy your perfect ticket right from your phone. Head to the App Store for iOS or Google Play for Android – or scan the QR code to the right with your phone – to download the app for free!

We’re fortunate to work with a number of companies who are doing great things for the Bangor region, and we’re excited to add Waterfront Concerts to the list. And we’re not done yet! We’re on track to offer great new features for concertgoers in the future. Hope to see you at a concert!

Justin is one of the developers at Sephone. He's interested in user-driven design, social media, and web services. He also enjoys learning and exploring new ways for businesses and people to use the web.
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June 14, 2013

A pair of old shoesOne of the biggest stumbling blocks we often find in the design process is something that doesn’t sound like a bad thing: you know everything there is to know about your business. That’s a huge advantage from an administrative perspective, but when you’re designing a site for customers, it makes it easy to overlook some basic information they may need.

Go back to basics while you’re designing your site. If you’re a business with a storefront, what are your hours, and are you closed on holidays? Restauranteurs, is your full menu available and up-to-date (and bonus: is it viewable on a mobile device in case someone is debating options with their friends at the last minute)? If you have a hotel, what’re your rates (and do you offer club or affiliation discounts)? What’s the best way for someone to reach you if they have a question or problem?

Still having trouble thinking of what to include? Try these tips.

  • Make a list of questions your customers have asked you. What are the top ten questions you (or your customer-facing employees or representatives) are asked about your business? Are the answers to those questions easy to find on your site? (This is a great way to come up with ideas for blog or social media posts, too, by the way.)
  • Walk through your site with a couple of your best customers. Do you have a good relationship with some of your frequent customers? Sit down with them for a few minutes and ask what they’d like to see on your site. It’ll give you feedback from people who care about your business – and it shows your customers that what they think is important to you!
  • Go to a competitor’s site and act like a customer. Pretend you’re going to a similar business for the first time. What information do you want to know? Can you find what you need? Now go to your site and look for the same things. Are they there?

Keeping your users in mind shows that you respect their time and their patronage. Create a design for your site that’s tailored to your shoppers, even if that means explaining the basics of what you do to them. They’ll appreciate the time you take for them!

Justin is one of the developers at Sephone. He's interested in user-driven design, social media, and web services. He also enjoys learning and exploring new ways for businesses and people to use the web.
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June 7, 2013

A month or so ago I read a story on The Onion that I had to share: “Neighborhood Flocks To Coffee Shop Bulletin Board To Read About Fun Upcoming Events“. Of course, stories on The Onion are meant to be funny, but this one rang true with me; if you’re pinning a poster to a bulletin board and expecting that you’ll reach everyone in your area, you’re going to be disappointed.

When we launched our newly-updated event site, eleventary!, we wanted to make it easy for people who organize events to market what they were doing and reach a larger audience. After all, the more people who know about what’s going on, the better chance you’ll have a great event.

Here are a few tips to help you reach a larger audience for events.

  • Promote your event online. If you’re not promoting your event on the web, you’re missing out on a huge (and free) opportunity to reach attendees. We hope you’ll use eleventary! to spread the word about your events, of course, but there are plenty of options available. Check your area to find sites focused on your town or region as well.
  • Make a Facebook event. In addition to listing on event directories, Facebook events are great because they’re easy to share (and people will see when their friends are going to an event). It also lets you see who plans to attend to an event.
  • Tell people details about the event on its page. Is the event family-friendly? Is it open to everyone or does it require membership in an organization? Is registration required or will you have ticket sales at the door?

Advertising your event for free online takes a little more time, but it has the opportunity to really expand your reach. Start today!

Justin is one of the developers at Sephone. He's interested in user-driven design, social media, and web services. He also enjoys learning and exploring new ways for businesses and people to use the web.
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