A blog by the Brick Factory The Brick Factory

Our New Website

We quietly launched our new Brick Factory website last week.  I’m really proud of it.  I think it is a true reflection of who we are and what we do, which is tough to pull off.

When web development firms build sites for themselves, the instinct is to show off.  To overdesign.  To throw in every bell and whistle.  “Let’s implement all the ideas!”  The resulting sites often look like they are designed for other web designers/developers, as opposed to the actual audience, prospective clients.

As a firm that preaches simplicity and talks a lot of audiences and conversions, it was important that our own site reflect the work we do for our clients.  It is a real tribute to the talent of our staff that we were able to create a site that is simultaneously simple, completely unique and beautiful.

The launch of the new site also represents the Brick Factory entering its next phase.

As a group, we’ve focused the last year on getting better at what we do a little bit every day.

We’ve embraced new processes and technologies.  We’ve fixed some structural issues we were having.    We’ve invested heavily in the development of some new products we will announce soon.  All while doing some incredible work for our clients.

So please take a look at the new site and let me know what you think.  Also be sure to check back in on us, as we have some great things in store for the rest of the year.

Email Rates

Five political emails that look nothing like political emails

As someone who works in digital public affairs, I paid close attention to the emails that were sent out by the Obama campaign during the 2008 and 2012 election cycles and am now closely watching what is being sent out by  Organizing for Action.  The reason I’m paying attention is simple: the Obama folks know what works.  Years of research is behind every email that gets sent.

Since the election, emails from Organizing for America seem to have followed two general templates:

  1. Emails sent from individuals (Barack Obama, Michele Obama, David Axelrod, Lindsay Siler, etc.) are almost always text-based and extremely simple in their design.  Images are rarely included.  Very straightforward formatting.  They are made to look like the emails you receive from your friends and family.  You can see an example here
  2. In contrast, emails sent generically from Organizing for Action are extremely visual and viral in nature.  They include pop culture references, infographics and animated gifs, and usually only minimal text.  You can view examples of these types of emails below.

I’ve been particularly interested in the increased frequency and complexity of the visual-based emails.  They have much more in common with product marketing emails than traditional political ones.  I think the rise of these emails is a good indication of how competitive the battle for email opens and clicks has become. 

When you send an advocacy email today you are fighting for attention.  You aren’t just competing against the opposing political party or issue group.  Your are fighting companies like Groupon, Amazon and Gilt for the attention of your supporters. 

In the case of Organizing for Action they are also fighting fatigue.  Many have been on the Obama email list for six or seven years and have gotten thousands of email from the various versions of the campaign.  Even is they don’t subscribe, you have to think many are tuning out the emails. 

The increasingly visual and share-hungry emails sent out by Organizing for Action are an attempt to win this battle for attention.  They can’t just inform, they have to entertain a bit too.

Having gotten through the throat clearing, here are five examples of visual and viral emails sent by Organizing for Action the last few months.  Click on the title or image to see the full email.

1. Fist Bump

Not a lot of explanation required here.  This simple, e-card style email was sent out as part of a list building campaign around the President’s birthday.



2. Infographic Email

This infographic email was sent out by Organizing for Action to celebrate their one year anniversary.  The 2012 Obama campaign has used this style a few times.  I love it. 



3. Cats

As a way of connecting the Affordable Care Act with Valentine’s Day, Organizing for Action sent out an email asking friends to share kitten photos with their Facebook friends that include health care-related messages.  The actual email template is actually pretty text-based, but I included this one due to the clear attempt to leverage the Internet’s love of cats for political gain.



4. Breakfast Club Gif

In-mid February Organizing for Action sent out an email asking visitors to take a pledge that they will help spread the word about the March 31 health care coverage deadline.  If you took the pledge, you are automatically entered into a contest that would give you the chance to meet president Obama.   Organizing for Action sent out this email featuring the Breakfast Club gif below.  The email is about a contest deadline, so, presumably, the animated gif is telling you to stop what you are doing right away and enter.


5. Prince Animated Gif Email

As a way of promoting the same contest as the Breakfast Club gif, this email included not one, but two, animated gifs of Prince presumably judging you for not having taken the pledge yet.  I actually felt a bit tricked here, as upon receiving the email I had assumed President Obama and Prince would be doing some sort of joint appearance.


Why to people share?

Explaining the Upworthy Phenomenon with Science

The last few months I’ve been a bit stumped by how popular Upworthy has become.  The site attracted 90,000,000 unique visitors in November 2013, which seems completely crazy to me.

I get that the site is really good at writing headlines that beg to be clicked and shared.  I’ve clicked on a lot of them.  The problem is that 90% of the time the best part of the story is the headline.  The actual content is usually disappointing.

This purse isn’t the “single greatest gift for a woman.”  This isn’t “the greatest anti-smoking video on the Internet.”  Neither is this. And I’m all for marriage equality, but this ad isn’t one of the greatest love stories I’ve ever seen.

For me at least, Upworthy fails to deliver on what it promises.  As a result I basically tolerate it at this point.  The headlines show up in my feed, but I rarely click and never share or like Upworthy content.  I’ve been burned too many times.  I would just block it altogether, but reading Upworthy headlines is like taking a Master class in click baiting.

I’m clearly in the minority though.  While the site has experienced some traffic loss recently, it is still doing quite well and its content is shared at a much higher rate than any other publisher.

I recently came across a New York Times study, The Psychology of Sharing, that went a long way towards explaining Upworthy to me.  The whole study is worth reviewing, but I found these stats on why people share particularly relevant:

  • 68% share to give people a better sense of who they are and what they care about.
  • 84% share because it is a way to support causes or issues they care about.
  • 73% share information because it helps them connect with others who share their interests.
  • 69% share information because it allows them to feel more involved in the world.

If you look at a typical Upworthy headline you will see it checks off nearly all of these boxes.  Take this headline from today, “Dear Advertisers: Please Stop Portraying Women Like This In Adverts. Regards, Women.”  By sharing this headline, I am:

  • Saying I’m the type of person that doesn’t approve of the way advertisers portray women.
  • Showing my support for equality for women.
  • Connecting with others who support equality for women.
  • Engaging in a dialogue and feeling connected to the world.

That’s a lot to accomplish in just a few clicks.  The fact that the video isn’t that interesting or funny really doesn’t matter.

I think the other thing that is brilliant about Upworthy is that there usually isn’t any downside to sharing their content.  While there are exceptions, Upworthy allows you to take stands on topics that generally aren’t actually controversial.  By sharing the above article,  I am taking an extremely non-controversial stand (women shouldn’t be portrayed as morons in ads!) against a nameless, faceless entity no one is going to defend (advertisers).

I’m being political without the nasty business of actually getting into politics.  It is like taking a stand against cancer.

For Upworthy the message sent by the content is so great that it doesn’t matter that the content itself rarely is.


10 Tools We Can’t Live Without

Like a lot of companies, the way our Brick Factory team works has changed dramatically the last few years.   We have moved away from buying traditional software to using web-tools hosted in the cloud. In some cases we have moved from traditional software (such as Microsoft Office) to web-based tools (such as Google Apps).  In other cases we have started using online tools we weren’t even really aware we needed (Browserstack, Mockvault).

In the spirit of sharing what we’ve learned, below are ten tools we use every day to do our work.

Google Apps

Every since we started Brick Factory our company-wide email and calendar system has been powered by Google Apps.  Over the last year Google Docs and Sheets have become our word processing and spreadsheet programs of choice due to the ease of collaboration and integration with our Google accounts.  As a company with a distributed workforce, we use Google Hangouts every day for our team meetings.

Google Apps is an essential part of everything we do.


Basecamp is our primary project management tool at the Brick Factory.  We use it to manage projects internally and to share resources and collaborate with our clients.

We sort have a love/hate relationship with Basecamp.  It’s greatest strength (it’s simplicity) is also its greatest drawback (it’s too simple).  Our team at the Brick Factory consists of 20 designers, developers and strategists.  Given our diverse skill sets and personalities, it is pretty much impossible to find a project management tool that is going to thrill everyone.  Basecamp comes the closest.


As a way of filling in some of the functionality holes in Basecamp, we recently started using Workstack.  Workstack is workflow management tool that allows you to view the Basecamp To Dos for each of your co-workers on a single calendar.  It makes resource management and internal scheduling much easier, saving us time.


Planbox is an agile project management tool we’ve started using on some of our larger development projects in lieu of Basecamp.   It is a bit cumbersome for managing our smaller projects, but is great for our larger builds where we follow a more formal project management process.  If you are using agile, we would recommend giving Planbox a try.


The rise of mobile and tablets and the proliferation of browsers has made testing websites a huge pain.  Browserstack makes it easier for web developers to test the sites they are building in different browsers running on different operating systems.


Mockvault is a nifty tool that allows you to present your design comps in browser, track revisions and collect feedback.  We started using it around a year ago and love it.


UXPin is an easy-to-use tool that allows anyway to create good, professional wireframes.  Our UX and design team doesn’t use UXPin for wires, but our Strategists use it to put together quick prototypes for internal and/or client review.


For a long time we used a custom system to track our time.  At the beginning of 2012 we started using Harvest for timesheets and haven’t looked back.  It is user friendly and includes powerful reporting tools.  We looked at every time tracking solution under the sun and Harvest is by far the best for our needs.


We recently started using Pipedrive as our company CRM.  We use it to track our new business efforts and to manage our contacts. We used Highrise for years and never loved it – it didn’t fit into our workflow and was inflexible.  We then tracked everything in Google Docs for a time as well.  We started using Pipedrive a few months ago and I love it.  It is perfect for us – it has the features we need while also being extremely easy-to-use.


When you work at web development firm, managing your online passwords is a huge pain.  You literally have hundreds of passwords to track and keep updated.  Passpack is a secure way to organize and share passwords among teams.  I would guess using Passpack saves our IT team a few hours a week that would be spent helping people track passwords down.

Do you have a favorite tool we should check out?

Drupal 8

What You Need to Know About Drupal 8

Drupal 8 is coming soon.  For those of us that work in Drupal every day, the release of Drupal 8 will be met with a mix of excitement (great new features!) and trepidation (learning the new version and converting old sites is a ton of work).  In an effort to help folks understand the impact of the release of Drupal 8, we have put together some quick answers to the most common questions we are getting.

When exactly will Drupal 8 be released?

The truth is that we don’t know exactly.  My best guess is that it will be released some time between March and June of 2014.  Drupalcon Austin starts on June 2nd and I suspect the Drupal community will push hard to release Drupal 8 prior to that conference.

Let me explain the reasoning behind my estimate.  Like most software platforms, Drupal follows the Alpha/Beta/Release Candidate software release life cycle.  For Drupal 7, there were 7 Alpha releases, 3 Beta releases and then 4 Release Candidates prior to the official launch of Drupal 7.

The most recent release of Drupal 8 is Alpha 7.  Given that there were 7 Alpha versions of Drupal 7, it seems likely Drupal 8 is very close to entering the beta phase.  Drupal 7 was officially released four months after the release of the first beta version.  Assuming the first Drupal 8 beta is released in January, I would guess Drupal 8 will be released at some point in May 2014.

What are some to the key features in Drupal 8?

You can find a good overview of the key new features here.

Here are some of the improvements our Brick Factory team is most excited about:

  • Drupal 8 is designed to be responsive and mobile friendly.  All built-in themes and the administrative pages are all designed to work well down to mobile.
  • For our Drupal 7 builds the Views module has become a vital tool.  In Drupal 8 Views will be part of core and much more integrated with other functionality as a result.
  • Content editing has been improved dramatically, with CKEditor built in as the default WYSWYG editor.  This should make Drupal much more user friendly.
  • Moving from Drupal 5 to Drupal 6 or Drupal 6 to Drupal 7 was/is a huge pain.  Drupal 8 will include content import tools that should make this process much easier.
  • The configuration management system in Drupal 8 is much improved over previous versions.

There is a bunch more.

How soon after the official release will you start building new client sites in Drupal 8?

We will probably wait two to three months after the release of Drupal 8 before we make it the default platform we use for new Drupal builds.  There are three main reason for our caution in transitioning to the new platform:

  1. While Drupal 8 will have been tested rigorously prior to its official release, it is still a new piece of software that will inevitably have bugs and security holes.  We typically like to wait a bit for these key issues to be addressed before building mission critical sites on a new Drupal version.
  2. When a major new Drupal version is released it usually takes awhile for modules to be updated to work on the new platform.  And some extremely popular modules in Drupal 7 will simply go away altogether.  Given this, we like to wait a bit for the module situation to sort itself out before starting to build in a new Drupal version.
  3. Developing websites in Drupal 8 is going to be really different from building in Drupal 6 or 7.  While we have already started learning Drupal 8, it will take us some time to develop the level of knowledge we have in Drupal 6 and 7.  We want to spend some time mastering the new platforms before we build client sites in it.

When Drupal 6 was released in 2008, we immediately adopted the platform and used it for some ambitious new site builds.  This turned out to be a big mistake.  We wasted a lot of time learning the platform on the fly and ended up having to do bunch of custom development work to make up for the lack of available module.  This experience has taught us caution.

My site runs in an older version of Drupal.  How will the release of Drupal 8 impact me?

It depends.

The Drupal community typically supports the two most recent versions of its platform.  When a Drupal version is supported new updates continue to be released that plug key security holes in the core platform.  Currently, Drupal officially supports Drupal 6 and 7.  Once Drupal 8 is released, versions 7 and 8 will be supported.

If your site is built in Drupal 7 you can expect Drupal core and key modules to continue to be updated for three to four more years.  So there is no pressing reason to move to Drupal 8 unless you are super anxious to take advantage of the new features.  I would advise you to look to migrate as part of your next site redesign.

If your site is running in Drupal 6 I would make plans to migrate to either Drupal 7 or 8 at some point in 2014, assuming security is a concern and your site is mission critical.  With the release of Drupal 8 you will officially be running on an unsupported version of the platform.  No new security patches will be released for Drupal 6 and modules will stop being updated, which means you will be vulnerable to security issues.

If your site is running in Drupal 5 or below this won’t impact you much.  You are already running an obsolete version of Drupal and exposing yourself to a variety of security problems.  The release of Drupal 8 won’t really change anything.