eNewsletters: Constant Contact vs. Mail Chimp

ConstantContactSome time ago, I researched the merits of eNewsletter tools for a client, narrowing the choice down to: Constant Contact versus Mail Chimp.  I also discovered a few other tools in the process, such as iContact, which looks good but it forces its logo on your newsletter with no removal option.

In the end, we selected Mail Chimp, which
has a learning curve but proved effective.MailChimp

For the benefit of others seeking a cost-effective and professional solution for external or internal communications, I’m sharing my findings here.  (Click on the table to enlarge and then save the file, if desired.) I’ve also included links to various sources I consulted.  (Caveat: As this initial research was done in early 2012, some things may have changed. So if you discover any needed updates, please let me know.)

CCMC Comparison

Sources:

8 DIY Tools for Visual Content Creation and Infographics

Since about 65 per cent of us are visual learners, it’s no wonder high quality infographics are 30 times more likely to be read than text articles (according to customermagnetism). Visual content is also noted for boosting SEO performance and consistently appears as a “must have” on content strategy checklists.

If you have the budget or an in-house resource, it’s best to have a data visualization specialist create top-of-the-line visual content but this isn’t always possible. Fortunately, there is also a growing list of free or nominally priced online tools you can access to visually depict data and tell your story.  Here are some I’ve discovered for creating infographics, as well as word clouds and graphic timelines.

DIY Infographic Creation Tools:

  1. EasellyEasel.ly – Provides drop-and-drag templates called “Vhemes,” which  give you a framework for creating infographics that feature Venn diagrams and traditional graphs, as well as maps and pathways. You can easily customize them further by changing backgrounds/colours and inserting shapes, lines or icons from a range of categories (including people of varied demographics) or uploading your own images.
  2. piktochartPiktochart – Offers a choice of six free templates (with more available for an upgrade fee). You can customize your graphic by changing colors, themes, fonts or inserting/uploading icons/images. You can also create charts manually or by uploading CSV files.
  3. InfogramChartsInfogr.am – Still in beta, this easy-to-use tool comes with six templates for creating your own infographic or standalone graphs. You can enhance it by editing data and text and uploading images. I find it stands apart with its incredible range of 14 adaptable graph formats, which include progress gauges, tree maps, and word clouds, as well as bar and other standard charts and tables.  However, unlike some of the other tools, it lacks pre-fab icons.
  4. VisuallyEgVisually – Offers a range of templates that enable you to create infographics but they must be based on Twitter or Facebook data. According to econsultancy.com,  you can also order Visually infographics, which start from $1,495 and take at least 18 days to produce.
  5. GraphicDriverGraphicriver – This tool is not free but offers a variety of intricately designed templates that you can purchase for a licence fee as low as $6.00 and then customize to meet your needs.

Word Cloud Tools:wordle-tree

  1. Wordle – Generates “word clouds” from text that you provide. The words are sized according to how frequently they appear in the selected chunk of text, with the largest point size used for words that appear more frequently in a selected chunk of text. You can tweak your clouds with different fonts, layouts, and color schemes.
  2. Tagxedo – Similar to Wordle, this tool gives you more control on what specific shape your text forms, as well as its colour scheme, orientation or font style.

Timeline Tools:

  1. Dipity – This tool enables you to easily create, share, embed and collaborate on developing a static or interactive timeline that can be integrated with video, audio, images, text, links, social media, location and time stamps. (An alternative, more sophisticated  tool for creating multimedia timelines is Timeline JS)

Some Cautions

The work however starts long before you open the tool, when you….

  1. Decide the purpose of the infographic and what you want it to inspire the viewer to do.
  2. Identify an angle that speaks to people beyond your organization or client. Ideally, it should tell a story and try to answer a question (or questions) that someone, somewhere has likely asked or wants answered. (News hooks like human interest, novelty, drama, proximity or conflict might be a good place to start.)
  3. “Google” the web to source ideas and check for infographics with similar themes to ensure you create an original.
  4. Gather and validate stats, which may show: a sequence/process, relationships, before & after, comparisons, map…
  5. Clean, refine and cull the most compelling data points.
  6. Storyboard, sketch ideas and try out formats for graphs or images offline that you can bring to life online.

I know many designers cringe at the thought of  over zealous “suits” and others creating abominable results (like early websites with mismatched “ransom note” text that blinked on and off). Fortunately, many of these tools have built-in features to keep you on the right design track but to play it safe:

  • Keep text to a minimum by making your graphs and illustrations tell the story.
  • Restrict your colour scheme to a maximum of three core colours, plus black but avoid white backgrounds.
  • Keep it simple, by sticking to a core message and using a conservative number of elements that leaves the viewer with some blank spaces to rest their eyes.
  • Limit yourself to two font types, if possible and use a type’s weight (bold or light), italics or colour to emphasize a point, instead of  all capitals or underlined text.
  • Draw the viewer in by setting illustrations/icons to move from left to right (or the direction your audience reads), versus featuring a graphic of a person/animal running or looking to the left side of the screen.

What tools have you used? How did you apply them to your business needs?

Note: In researching this post, the following sources were particularly useful and worth checking for more relevant insights:

Breaking Barriers to Get Your Message Online

YourHealthYourWagEx3Your organization’s website is likely its lobby to the world, with gateways to pages that convey its historical rise to its current value proposition. For brand consistency and streamlined access, the best practice is to have a single website but sometimes I don’t find this viable.

If you’ve  ever tried to “renovate” or add an item/page to your website for a valid purpose, only to be halted by a rigid platform, a tight budget, limited resources or a backlog of other priorities — you know what I mean.

Blogs are noted for their flexibility and capacity to go into overtime when a crisis occurs, while your website or traditional channels may be too slow or inaccessible. The same premise applies to using a blogging platform to create a “pop-up” micro site, for a short-term need or a “workaround” to the main website.

TrilliumHallEgWhen do you need a pop-up microsite?  What about when…

  1. You need to promote an event in a tight time frame (such as a first-time public information event targeted at local residents)
  2. You need to launch an unconventional application or brand extension for your product or service (such as a multimedia venue a hospital wants to market to “healthy” people)
  3. You anticipate multiple updates for a quick pace build or a tiered campaign roll-out (such as a conference assembled in an insane time frame with fluctuating abstracts and speakers joining at a staggered pace)

For mavericks who “dare to challenge” convention, a pop-up site can also serve as a workaround for the above or other scenarios when your main website is:

  • Governed by an umbrella organization and your initiative is sure to exceed the pages, resources or customizations allocated to your division, department or franchise.
  • Hopelessly hard-coded and long overdue an upgrade
  • Managed by limited resources, with many requests ahead in the queue.

SustainPlantExI’ve turned to WordPress to quickly and efficiently build a micro site as a central communications conduit for some of the above scenarios and more.   [Here are the steps I’ve followed to create a pop-up site in WordPress but you can likely do the same in other blogging platforms.] Be sure however to check WordPress.com policies before you start to ensure you conform and there’s no surprises.

Have you created a microsite to meet a short-term or other need? Have you had success in other platforms? What challenges did you face? When do you think a pop-up site can prove invaluable and when should it be avoided?

Efficiency Links for a Desert Island with Wi-Fi

Truth be told, working as an independent consultant is sometimes like being on a desert island. Fortunately, there are plenty of online tools to make business and personal life more efficient.

Here are my top picks (in Letterman order) and most are free (unless cited):

10. You Send It – When everyone has access to an FTP site except your client (or employer) and you need to send a massive video, conference call recording (done that), presentation or the like — it’s indispensable and free for files up to 100 MB or 1 GB per month.

9. Mapquest – I’m chronically direction-challenged and even some well meaning GPSs can throw me off. So getting step-by-step directions in advance can make my day.  Even with a high navigation IQ, you may still find value.

8. Jacquie Lawson ($12 CDN or US per year) – Personal niceties are good and near the top of the list is remembering a birthday. Sending an eCard is wonderful but your intentions may backfire if you hit them with a ton of ads. This site offers an array of watercolour animations set to classical and original music. Great if you’re a pet lover or even if you’re not.

7. SurveyMonkey – Dependable online survey development tool for external questionnaires to internal peer evaluations. There is a free version but to stop the ‘hard sell’ to your users, the $20 (US) monthly fee is worth it. [As an aside, I’ve just discovered Fanappz for somewhat hassle-free Facebook quizzes.]

6. morgue File – Sounds morbid but this is my site for a good range of free, downloadable stock photos you can legally copy, distribute, transmit or adapt. (You just can’t use them as standalones to profit by.) Ideal for small iconic photos for blogs and Facebook pages (e.g. events) and I’ve yet to see a corpse pop up. And you can make a donation to help sustain this site for the long-term.

5. Twellow – Good tool for identifying Tweeter users (tweeps) that cite a specific topic in their profile and you can use it to narrow to a specific geographic region [e.g. Search: Toronto, Within: Dogs (selected from available topics)]. Wefollow and Listorious are also helpful. None is perfect but you need to start somewhere.

4. Klout – Once you’ve found them, Klout measures the size and strength of a person’s sphere of influence on Twitter in terms of: True Reach (real people followers & friends not robots)Amplification (likelihood their messages will be re-tweeted or spark dialogue); and Network (if their engaged followers are influential). Would I bet money on its accuracy? Definitely not, as it has me pegged as a Montreal Canadiens fan, for one thing. (As a Toronto native, I’ll always hold a candle for the Leafs.) But it does offer some insights.

3. Bit.ly – Even before Twitter, URLs were like octopuses always getting tangled and truncated at the worst times but with the 140 cutoff, something had to give. Drop your URL in the gigantic blue field, release mouse and a short URL appears. What’s more, it can track clicks to this URL and even create a Quick Response (QR) code. (Click Info Page+)

2. Alexa The Web Information Company – Comprehensive tool for navigating the web to find relevant blogs and discover their DNA (inbound links, origin, Alexa ranking, traffic ranking within various countries, etc.). You can even set it as a widget on your toolbar to assess sites on the fly.

1. Snag-it ($49.95 US one-time purchase) – More an application than an online tool — but I keep it open 24/7, so it might as well be. It captures small sections of a screen that you can then “copy” and “paste” or save in almost any file type. (Guess how I made the collage on this post?) Invaluable for copying sections of a reference document or website that refuses to print the regular way.

That’s my list. What’s yours? And what have I missed?

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