A blog by the Brick Factory The Brick Factory

How to make people care about your boring content: election edition

Election day is one week away. That is a big deal for my clients.

My clients are non-profits and advocacy groups. They work in a variety of issue areas ranging from criminal justice to energy to foreign policy. And each one of them has something to gain or something to lose in this election.

So, it’s an important time to talk about the issues. You want your audience to understand how their vote affects policy and the work you’re doing.

But if your issue area is boring or complicated, how do you get people to care? Let’s look at four tactics:

  1. Make it personal
  2. Find your niche
  3. Tell a story
  4. Be concrete

And, today, we’ll use tax policy as a case study. Because, if there is one thing I find boring and complicated, it’s taxes.


Make it Personal

If you want me to care about tax policy, you have to make it obviously about me.

Will I have more money at the end of the month? Will the schools I send my kids to have better funding? How does your tax policy affect my everyday life?

Once you figure that out, the key is to make it clear/obvious/easy. If I’m on your site reading about your stance on taxes, immediately I should say, “Hey! You’re talking to me!”

This means you need to be specific.

Does this policy affect certain kinds of people? Veterans, parents, students, bike-riders, whatever. Say that!

How will this help my state, my city, my neighborhood? Be specific. Don’t say, “This will help your city.” Say, “This will help Washington, D.C.”

Here are some ways you could make your policy about me:

  • Create a calculator where I enter where I live and how much I make. Tell me how much money your policy will save me each month.
  • Make an interactive map of my city. As I navigate around, show how your tax policy will improve my neighborhood. Have pop-ups for local schools, police stations, and more.


Find Your Niche

So, maybe you can’t make everything relevant to everyone. Maybe your proposed tax policy doesn’t really affect the lives of everyday people. Maybe it’s super wonky.

As Kirsty Hulse once said, “There are pockets of weirdos interested in everything.”

If you have something to say about an issue, someone else in the universe cares about it.

You know who cares about super wonky tax policy? Accountants. And future accountants.

Facebook ads allow you to target by job title. You can also target by college major.

If you’ve got a great piece of content that explains why your tax policy is best, promote it on Facebook to this niche group of people. Typically, Facebook ads have a low cost per click so you don’t need to invest a lot to see results. And you’ll make sure your message is seen by the right people – people who are likely to care and act.

Speaking of great content…


Tell a Story

When I was at MozCon, Kindra Hall explained how stories change our brain chemistry. When someone starts telling you a story, two things happen:

  1. Cortisol increases in your brain. This chemical improves focus and attention. Once the story starts, you pay better attention to it because you want to know what happens next and how it will end.

  2. Oxytocin increases in your brain. This chemical increases empathy and emotion. You can see some of yourself in the main character of the story. You relate to their experiences. This creates an emotional connection, building a relationship.

This means that a story can make taxes less boring.

Here is an example:

Ashley is a single mom with three, wonderful young kids living outside of D.C. She’s working full time in the city at a nonprofit and is doing the best that she can to support her children. But sometimes her best doesn’t seem to be enough.

Her youngest, Michael, is only three. He is growing so fast! Everyday, Ashley is amazed by something new he does or says. But, living paycheck to paycheck, she just can’t afford to buy him new clothes as often as he needs them. Ashley had to swallow her pride and ask her church for donations to get him through the winter.  

And now she’s worried about paying for child care for him. Luckily, her two oldest children, Sarah and Daniel, are in school. But Michael is too young. If Ashley can’t even pay her full utility bills – can only pay enough to keep the lights on – how is she supposed to pay for child care?

Despite all this, Ashley does what she can to keep things normal for her kids. Ashley will tell you, “I do feel a sense of pride that my kids don’t know the struggles I go through.”

You write the ending. How will you tax plan help Ashley and her children?

Will your plan put more money in her pocket so she can afford to buy Michael a new coat?

Will your plan provide more services so that she doesn’t have to pay for child care for Michael?

Many of my clients will tell me that they don’t have a story to tell. But that’s not true – they just don’t know where to look.

If you need to find a story, the easiest thing to do here is to talk to your base. Maybe they’ve been hurt by policies in the past. Maybe their lives would improve under a new policy. Ask them to share.


Be Concrete

Details make a story successful. Knowing Ashley’s name or Michael’s age makes the story real for your reader. Details allow a person to visualize and see parallels between their own experiences.

But even if you’re not telling a story, concrete details are very important.

For example, you tell me that my taxes are going to go up. If you want me to care, I need to know by how much. $10 a year isn’t really a big deal. But $1,000 will make me sit up and pay attention.

When you use exact numbers, you take something complicated and turn it into something simple. Exact numbers work well in infographics, headlines, and on social media.

Another example: you say your plan will lower taxes for 45 million people living below the poverty line. 45 million is a big number, but I don’t know what it means. I can’t visualize it. Try saying your plan will lower taxes for 45 million people, which is more than the population of California. Now, 45 million people is a tangible number.

A comparison puts your numbers into context. You not only make your numbers easy to understand, you show why your argument is important.


Wrapping it Up

A lot of policy is boring or complicated. But that doesn’t mean people won’t care about it. Use these four tactics to connect with your audience:

  1. Make it personal
    Show people how this policy will affect them.

  2. Find your niche
    Make sure the right people are seeing your content.

  3. Tell a story
    Grab someone’s attention.

  4. Be concrete
    Use numbers to simplify complicated policy.

Email Marketing Platforms: Which One is For You?

Email is still important.

Of all the marketing tools available to you, it’s got the highest return on investment. According to Salsa, if you spend $1, you’ll get $40 back. And, if you’re a nonprofit, it drives a third of your online fundraising revenue.

Especially for a non-profit, choosing the right email platform is essential. But there are so many to choose from. Where do you start? How do you know which one is good for you?

There are plenty of articles out there that will grade the top platforms. Like this one from PC Mag. Or this one from Top Ten Reviews. They do a great job of breaking down all the features available so you can easily compare.

But I’m going to do something a little different. As someone who deals with this stuff everyday, I’m going to share some of my own real experiences with three popular, but very different, platforms: Mailchimp, NationBuilder and Salesforce Marketing Cloud



Good for: a nonprofit just starting out

Here’s the big thing about MailChimp: your account is free – yes, free – up to 2,000 contacts. For that fact alone, MailChimp is the favorite of any nonprofit on a budget. Once your list grows beyond 2,000, their prices are reasonable and they offer nonprofit discounts.

But it’s not just the price that’s good here.

MailChimp is one of the easiest email platforms to integrate into your website. Integrations are the hardest part of building a website because you’re depending on another company’s code. But many CMS, including WordPress, have an easy, out-of-the-box plugin you can use to integrate Mailchimp. This means you can connect your website to your MailChimp account very quickly and in some cases without a developer.

And MailChimp easily integrates with many other tools. For example, if you’re using Stripe for your donations, MailChimp offers a free tool that lets new donors automatically sign up for your email list. Fair warning, though – some of the integrations, like PayPal, are paid.

MailChimp has some great pre-fab templates with easy, drag-and-drop functionality. Even the most low-tech person on your staff can create a beautiful email. If you want something custom, you can create an effective template with lots of flexibility.

templates.PNGdrag and drop.PNG

And the reporting isn’t too bad. The interface is clear and intuitive with a nice graph showing your open and click rates over time. A plus here – you can filter the graph to specific lists. But a downside – you can’t filter to segments of a specific list. Another plus – industry open rate data is right in the graph so you can see how you stack up. But another downside – you’ll have to do some math to see what your own average open rate is.


Overall, MailChimp is a good, solid, all-around option. But if you want something a little more robust…



Good for: a nonprofit getting most of their donations from their email list

NationBuilder is an “all-in-one.” It doesn’t just do email. It’s a site builder, a donation platform, an event registration system, a CRM, and more.

If you’re using NationBuilder for more than just email, you can get crazy-specific with your targeting. You can filter your users by a number of criteria including what lists they’re on, their gender, whether they clicked a link in a particular email, the average amount they’ve donated in the past, and more.

Think about it. It’s #givingtuesday. You sent out an email early in the morning asking people for donations. The following day, you want to send a reminder email that people can still donate all holiday season. Well, if you sent the reminder email to everyone, you might seem desperate and spammy. However, with NationBuilder you can target only people who did not open your first email and people who have donated in the past. These people want to get your reminder email!


Talk about a good return on investment.

There is a downside to NationBuilder though. Email isn’t their focus. So, from a strictly email perspective, it’s not the best product.

Most of my clients copy and paste their email content from a word document into their email platform. This always has it’s share of headaches, even if you use a “paste from word” function. However, because the WYSIWYG in NationBuilder is so limited, this can be a real headache. Nearly every week, I’ll have a client using NationBuilder call me because they can’t understand why their paragraph is magically in the same font as their heading. If you don’t know HTML, this can be a real pain.


Additionally, the email analytics are the most bare-bones I’ve ever seen. It should be simple to find your average open and click rate for your emails over time. I hope you like spreadsheets, because you’ll be exporting and manually calculating nearly everything.


How much does NationBuilder cost? It depends on the size of your list and what features you want. Assuming you don’t need much beyond email and donations…The low end is $29/month to email 1,000 people. The high end is $539/month to email 35,000 contacts.


Salesforce Marketing Cloud

Good for: a nonprofit with a huge, complicated database

If you have a huge database with hundreds of lists, it can be difficult to keep them organized.

Salesforce is primarily known for being a CRM, or customer relationship management platform. So it makes sense that their email platform, which is a part of their marketing platform, really stands out when it comes to list organization and segmentation.

Say you ran ads sending users to a series of landing pages with email sign-ups. You can create a folder for advertising, and then have a separate list for each of those landing page sign-ups.

And then, you have local branches of your non-profit. You can create a folder for local branches, and then have a separate list for each branch.

But say you want to reach people across different lists. For example, maybe you need to reach everyone in your database who lives in Ohio. Easy. You can filter all your lists for particular profile attributes and save it as a group.

And just like with your lists, you can organize your groups into various folders.

Salesforce email kinda has it all. Great analytics with data visualization. A/B testing. A powerful editor that doesn’t require HTML. And, if you’re using Salesforce for your donations, an easy integration.

salesforce analytics.PNG

email creation.PNG

The downside to Salesforce? It’s not very intuitive. It’s easy to get lost in the admin interface and difficult to figure out how to do what you want. The learning curve with Salesforce is one of the steepest I’ve seen. And also, it’s one of the more expensive platforms out there. Pricing starts at $400 a month.



MozCon 2016: 10 Key Takeaways

1. You can eat anything at Pike Place.

Turns out there is only one direct flight from DCA to SEA on a Sunday. And Katie was on it. She arrived in Seattle at 10am and had nothing to do.

After a bit of googling, she booked an afternoon tour of Pike Place with Savor Seattle. Two or three bites at seven different restaurants equals an afternoon well spent.

Turns out Pike Place has more than men throwing fish. It also has amazing fresh donuts, Filipino sausage that melts on your tongue, and clam chowder that lives up to a Boston girl’s standards. The highlight? The best Greek yogurt in the world at Ellenos. Once you taste their yogurt, you’ll never look at Chobani or Fage the same way again.

yogurt chowder



Preventative maintenance: the key to keeping your website healthy and safe

Life is full of things we do because we have to. Trips to the DMV.  Jury duty.  Paying taxes. Dental appointments.  Oil changes.  These things are no fun.  But as painful and tedious as these tasks are, the consequences of not doing them are far worse.  

Spending $50 and an hour of your life getting an oil change sucks.  Having your car break down and paying thousands for repairs sucks worse.

In the web development world, updating your site’s software and server operating system are the equivalent of getting an oil change.  It is preventative maintenance done to mitigate the risk of future failure.  And given the lack of an immediate, tangible benefit, it is something that many are tempted to skip.  

Most of the sites we maintain are run in LAMP/LEMP (Linux Apache/Nginx MySQL/MariaDB PHP) environments and powered by Drupal or WordPress.  We typically recommend clients perform preventative maintenance on their sites once a quarter, speeding up the timeline when critical security updates are released.  There are a number of reasons why keeping to a regular, preventative maintenance schedule is important:

  • Security.  Platforms like WordPress and Drupal are extremely popular and widely used.  Given their ubiquity, malicious users are constantly working to hack or hijack sites powered by these platforms for personal gain.  If you don’t perform security updates regularly your site runs a high risk of having major security holes that hackers can exploit..  
  • Bug fixes.  No platform as large and complex as Drupal and WordPress is 100% bug free.  If you have worked in either platform there is a good chance you have stumbled on a small bug that impacts your work.  By performing regular updates you get access to bug fixes made by the community.  
  • Access to new features.  Hundreds of developers are constantly improving Drupal and WordPress  through the release of new features.  You can only get access to these new features if you update to the latest software version.  You have access to the latest and greatest version of the platform.  
  • Preventing obsolescence.  If you keep up with updates, the time investment is pretty low.  On most sites a few hours a month are all that are needed to maintain a site.  If you put things off for years, the problems pile up.  The updates become difficult or even impossible in some cases.  A neglected site can get so behind on updates that it is obsolete.

While we try to communicate the need for preventative maintenance to our clients, we’ve been involved with a number of projects where it wasn’t a priority.   In some cases the client has skipped updates for long periods without any negative consequences.   But we’ve seen other cases where clients have suffered disastrous losses as a result of neglecting updates.

Recently we had a client with a site built in WordPress who hosted and maintained their site themselves.  They got behind on updates on one of their core sites and a hacker got access to their administrative tools as a result.  Likely in effort to improve SEO on a site they were affiliated with, the hacker quietly inserted links to third-party sites on highly trafficked pages and created a bunch of new, spam pages.  The hacker exploited the site for months before they were detected.  As a result of the attack the client’s SEO rankings for the keywords they are taking took a big hit and they spent tons of time trying to expel the hacker and manually cleaning up content.

We came across another example recently when talking to a prospective client.  The organization was years behind on Drupal updates and were targeted by a malicious hacker.  The hacker defaced their website, deleting content and hijacking their homepage.  In addition to not updating the site, the client also wasn’t performing regular backups.  As a result they had to rebuild their entire site from scratch and rewrite a great deal of content.  It was a disaster.

Businesses and organizations spend untold time and money building and maintaining web presences.  Given the investment and importance of web programs to most organizations,it is dangerous and short sighted to not invest in preventative maintenance.  

design system

How to generate a style guide using Hologram & Gulp

Why do I need a style guide?

Let’s be honest, I code differently than you.  And you code differently than the guy sitting next to you with Cheez-it crumb fingers playing Pokemon Go when no one is looking.  So how can we (front end developers) make sure we are providing consistent high quality code across a team?  Enter the style guide!  This post will walk you through how to setup a build system using Gulp.js, Sass and Hologram to generate a living style guide.

Where we started

When our Brick Factory team first began using style guides they consisted of 4-5 HTML files that we maintained separate from the site itself.  We would set up the style guide statically at the beginning of a project to make sure it contained all of the base components and HTML elements . This was all fine and dandy, but after a few months (or weeks) it became out-of-date simply because it was “separate” from the code we were writing.

I started doing some research on how we could get a style guide that generates automatically, and lives somewhere easily accessible.  There are some great options in this space, but after much deliberation and testing we landed on Hologram by Trulia. (more…)