Author

Adam Lamagna

My primary focus in my career is to help companies, organizations, and individuals find the balance between design, technology, and business.

My primary focus in my personal life...is to just find a balance!

Positive Thinking and the Biology of Belief

July 24, 2016
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Have you ever had those days where everything just seems to go wrong? From the morning coffee wrong order, to hitting every red light on your way to work, to your boss starting in on you from the moment you walk off the elevator. It’s almost as if the world found out where you were hiding and decided to follow you around with that cold, black cloud. Well…hold up…just one second. That’s actually not a black cloud, that’s just your negative outlook and I know what you’re about to say… “ohhh, not another one of these posts!” If you can’t hang, I get it…but that’s just your negativity outshining your positive thinking…or lack there of. It’s been proven that negative thinking yields negative results. So that means that positive thinking yields positive results, right? Freaking a big “hells yeah!”

If you ever come across a book by Bruce Lipton, Ph.D., entitled The Biology of Belief, make sure to pick it up , it’s a fantastic read. It kinda changed my life when I read it. But he starts by giving a bit of a biology lesson. Humans are made of cells. Cells are the smallest functional and structural unit of a DNA structure
human being, well…all organisms. Most of the cell’s structures are called organelles, we can think of these as tiny organs. Organelles are equivalent to our own organs and tissue of the human body. Lipton then goes on to compare the “biochemical mechanisms employed by cellular organelle systems are essentially the same mechanisms employed by our human organ systems.” Which is interesting if you think about. The smallest functional unit that makes humans human, are essentially little humans — ha! Each cell is an intelligent being that can survive on its own…like a human. Cells have systems that are equivalent to our respiratory, digestive, and nervous systems. Pretty neat, eh?

Well, I think it’s neat! And it starts to tell the story of how we as humans (and cells) interpret things. Cells are basically humans that can survive on their own. When cells are removed from the body, they will actually seek out environments (and other cells) that support their survival — like humans. We analyze all these different factors in the outside world and determine whether or not it’s capable of supporting our survival. It’s our biological imperative. For those of you who don’t know what a biological imperative is:

Biological Imperative — an organisms need to perpetuate its own existence. Things like survivalism, territorialism, reproduction, seeking a better way of life, etc. are all biological imperatives, it’s mechanisms that we are born with.

But the point I’m trying to make is that even the tiniest structure (the cell) has these imperatives, they can survive on their own, and they seek out environments that they feel helps them survive. But how does all this play in to positive thinking? Well…that’s a great question!

Forget about Darwin and survival of the fittest

Darwin only had some of it right! Survival of the fittest is something we’ve heard and believe over and over again. That the handsomest man will get the girl, the smartest woman will get the high paying job, Darwin portraitthe strongest dude can never be beat. But this way of thinking is flawed and it traps people, it traps them to lead the lives they believe they were born to lead. That who they are and what they’ll do is ultimately decided for them because of the genes that they were born with. We are not powered by our genes, but by our environments, and the way we choose to interpret certain factors.

If you’re sick, you go to your family doctor. He takes a look at you, he might take some blood work, but he can’t figure out what’s wrong with you. He sends you to a specialist. That specialist digs a little deeper, gives you an X-Ray and MRI, but can’t figure it out. But if we take a step back and look at your environment and the things that you’ve been eating, touching, or around, you might see the problem. Holistic healing is starting to get a bit bigger in the states and takes a look at not just you, but your environment and the stimuli you receive because that’s the more practical path to get healthy.

How many people do you know that say stuff like “I’m a ticking time-bomb, my father had a heart attack, I’ll probably die before I’m 50” or “Well..my mother was depressed, so it’s just natural that I am too, it’s just in my genes.” – Too many, that’s for sure. And I’m not saying that their concerns aren’t valid, but they’re definitely not helping their situations by believing it and repeating it over and over. The reality is is that single-gene disorders (like cystic fibrosis) affect less than 2% of the population. So, people born with genes that they think “aren’t good” are trapping themselves. Most of us should be able to live very happy, healthy lives, but we don’t because of the environments we seek out, and the way we interpret stimuli.

Back to cellular biology

Scientists made a huge breakthrough during the 20th century about the cell’s structure. If you know anything about cells they are made up of a nucleus, Golgi apparatus, ribosomes, mitochondria, cytoplasm, a membrane, and a few other things. For the longest time, scientists thought that the nucleus of the cell was its brain, but when they removed the nucleus (called enucleation) the cell still survived for a few months. You would think that the since the “brain” of the cell is removed it would die right away, like us humans. But it didn’t. The only reason why it died after a few months is because it couldn’t reproduce itself, so one could argue that the nucleus of a cell is it’s reproductive organ.

a cell

Then what’s the brain of the cell? Well, Bruce Lipton P.h.D, would say it’s the membrane of a cell. The part that separates the cell’s internal parts with the outside environment and also interprets that environment. If you remember above I said that each of the cell’s organs are called organelles, and they mimc a human’s reproductive system, digestive system, nervous system, and the like. And there are different types of cells; eukaryotes, prokaryotes, etc. A eukaryote is an advanced cell with many organelles. A prokaryote — not so much, it doesn’t have nearly as many organelles. So what is its intelligence? The membrane. The membrane is the only organelle found in every single cell. Pretty cool, right?

The membrane of a human is our skin. And what does our skin do? It interprets the outside world. Now, I’m not saying that our skin is our brain, I know that isn’t true, but it does play a big factor into our daily lives. The way a cell operates is molded by its interaction with the environment, same as humans! We are molded by our interaction with our environment. When we mess up a speech at a public gathering, we get embarrassed and never want to publicly speak again. When a child goes to the circus and sees a clown, some get scared and end up having coulrophobia for life. But this doesn’t have to be the case.

Humans, just like cells, are able to store prior stimuli and experiences into memory, which can affect the way you interpret new stimuli as well. So, if you think about it, the interpretation of one’s environment comes down to two things: your experience and your belief. What you know, and what you think. You can always change what you think.

Nocebos: The opposite of placebos

I’m sure everyone here knows what the placebo effect is. In medical treatment studies there are usually two groups of people; the control group, and the experimental group. The experimental group receives the real drug, whereas the control group gets a placebo (often times a sugar pill). But there are some really incredible outcomes of a placebo, people believe that they are getting the real drug and ultimately their disease seems cured. Doctors and scientists equate this with positive thinking or euphoria that comes from belief. Well, the opposite of that is the nocebo effect. Nocebos are detrimental effects on your health.

In 1974, a doctor by the name of Clifton Meador, had a patient (Sam Londe) who thought he was suffering from throat cancer (cancer of the esophagus). Now, in 1974, throat cancer was 100% fatal, so when Meador’s patient died a few weeks later, it was no surprise to anyone who was around him. But lo and behold, when they did the autopsy on throat cancer patient Sam, they found no signs of throat cancer. He didn’t actually die from cancer, then what did he die from? Well…no one really knows, but I’d make a strong argument that he died from the belief he was going to die. That’s not possible, is it?

Emotions, Chemical Communication, and the Power of our Minds

We have two minds as humans; conscious and subconscious. Our conscious minds are what makes us aware at the present moment. Our subconscious minds gives us accessible information. It enables us to drive on the highway and still talk to our passengers without stopping the car to converse.

As humans we have this unique function that converts chemical signals into sensations that can be experienced by all of our cells. Our minds tell our bodies that these signals are emotions. But as we’ve evolved over time, the portion of our forebrain is the seat of the “self-conscious” mind, which can observe our behavior and our emotions, and can also access our long-term memory. So as we move through our environments, we can make decisions based on all these factors — they way we feel, the way we think, and what we know.

emotional smiley faces

We can observe the behavior we’re engaged in, evaluate it, and then decide to change it if we want to. But we can also learn and acquire the perceptions of other people, which I find fascinating. Now all these things we learn or acquire, can become hardwired in our brain. How many times were you told that eating candy was bad for you as a child? Probably many? But is it bad for you — not in moderation, in fact it can be quite pleasing in moderation. We can change our “hardwired” beliefs any time we desire, we just have to start doing it.

The Biology of Belief

How many people with HIV don’t exhibit signs of being sick, or ever get full-blown aids? How many terminal cancer patients recover their lives through spontaneous remissions? Why do some people burn their feet while walking on hot coals and others do not? Well…because it’s the biology of belief. Beliefs control biology.

Take an example of one experience, let’s say your significant other breaks up with you, they dump you. And let’s say that that relationship you were in was awful, your friends kept telling how bad the other person was for you, they made you feel bad about yourself and all that stuff.  But you view the breakup as the worst thing to ever happen to you, and you can’t imagine living your life without this person (we’ve all been there!). You become depressed, you don’t feel good, your body starts to ache. You have to realize that our perception impacts our behavior and our bodies, regardless of whether or not our perceptions are accurate.

The point I want to make is that YOU have the power to believe what you want. And then that belief can control the way you interpret other experiences and you can shape the life you want for yourself.

Let’s go back to the placebo effect, there are pharmaceutical companies that test out their drugs on two groups, control and experimental. The control group gets a placebo, but there are lots of studies that show that control groups have the same rate of recovery as their experimental counterparts who are receiving the real drug (uh-oh pharmaceutical companies!!).

A Baylor School of Medicine study, published in 2002 in the New England Journal of Medicine, evaluated patients who were having knee surgeries because of debilitating knee pain. Dr. Bruce Moseley, who was the lead author for this study, stated that “all good surgeons know there is no placebo effect in surgery.”  This study separated patients into 3 groups.

  • The first group got their damaged cartilage in the knee shaved off
  • The second group got their knee joint flushed out, removing material thought to be causing the inflammatory effect
  • The third group got “fake” surgeries. Dr. Moseley made 3 incisions and simulated getting the real surgery

The results were pretty interesting! The two groups who received the real surgery improved, as expected. But the placebo group improved just as much as the other two groups, pretty cool, huh? Reporters flocked to the patients in the placebo group and got footage of them walking around and playing basketball, doing things they “never could’ve done” before the surgery. The placebo patients didn’t find out for two years that they had gotten fake surgeries. Tim Perez, one of the placebo group patients had a revealing quote after he was told about his surgery — “In this world anything is possible when you put your mind to it. I know that your mind can work miracles.”

Yes, your mind can work miracles…but so do you!

Your mind can do some pretty amazing things. If it can get your cancer to go into remission, or make you walk after a fake knee surgery, then it can by all means make your life better!

Positive thinking and the will to strive for more has been a huge player in my success.

Positive thinking and the will to strive for more has been a huge factor in my success. Notice how I added “the will to strive for more.” Positive thinking is super important, but you also have to do things to actively make your situation better. Learn something new, talk to someone new, put yourself in a place you’ve never been before….and think positively about it.

So, the next time they mess up your order at your local coffee shop, remember a few things. One — thinking positively about it won’t miraculously change your order to what you wanted it to be. Two — but it will send out a signal to the person who messed it up and they’ll be more open to fixing it if your positive attitude shines through. Three — positive thinking will lead to something better and more fulfilling, maybe even a refund for the mess up!

Belief controls biology, so believe in something great and control your life!

 

Working With Premium Themes

July 12, 2016
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We’ve all seen it — the vividly pictorial mountain landscape as the main hero image for the newest theme out there. It screams out professionalism and beauty all in the same sweeping breath. It entices us to click ‘buy’ or ‘activate’ and then…nothing…”wait..where’d the cool picture go?” Working with premium themes (and free ones) can be a discouraging activity, but it can also be a largely rewarding experience when you figure it out!

I recently redesigned my portfolio website at adamlamagna.com, and what I mean when I say “redesigned” is that I used a pre-made theme. It’s called Uncode – Creative Multiuse WordPress Theme, it was hard to use at first, but I’m going to shed some light on that in the following post. I’ve used several premium themes on a number of my digital properties. The ones I’m familiar with are Divi, Nexus, and Harmony by Elegant Themes, Brook by Korra, and Uncode by undsgn. I’m also familiar with some free themes like Sydney by aThemes, and pretty much the entire suite of WordPress.org’s 20-something series—TwentySixteen, TwentyFifteen, etc. Working with themes is a skill that should be learned by everyone (my little sister learned how to do it) so people can have the freedom to put there stuff out there!

First, the differences between free and premium themes…

I’m not sure if there is a huge difference working with premium themes versus free themes, both need to be configured (some more than others), most are compatible with the suite of popular plugins including page builders, and given an eye for design… sites can look downright professional regardless of whether or not they cost money. So, I would say this answer depends greatly on your budget because the only real difference I see is the cost.

Premium themes do sometimes include premium plugins that you would have to pay money for if you didn’t buy the theme. They’ll also include pre-made templates (which is nice if you don’t have that eye for design like myself!), but some free ones include templates too. Years ago, a WordPress user would be browsing the themes repository and find a theme they liked, usually because they thought it looked cool. They clicked on the button to activate the ‘live preview’ and fell in love with the theme. But when they installed the theme and activated it, it looked nothing like the live preview! Now, that’s only sometimes the case. With many free and almost all premium themes, there will be pages, posts, portfolio pieces that are pre-made and configured for you. Most times, all you have to do is import the ‘dummy’ content with it, and you’ve got your site. Now just substitute your own content; images and text, and you can be up and running in a day or two depending on the size of your site.

The premium theme battle…

I’m torn between the premium themes I’ve used. For the sake of this post and not making it too long, I’m going to review 3 premium themes that I’ve used and have familiarity with. They are:

  • Divi by Elegant Themes
  • Brook by Korra
  • Uncode by undsgn

I’m also going to look at a few different factors:

  • Documentation
  • Support
  • Configuration Process
  • Ease of Layout/Intuitiveness
  • Responsive
  • Cost

Let’s begin…

DIVI BY ELEGANT THEMES

About two (or so) years ago, the Divi theme made a splash! It was released in 2013 as the most intuitive page builder and theme on the market. I personally know a lot of designers that use Divi to this day because Elegant Themes keeps iterating on it that improves the experience and the output. It is a cool and versatile theme.

Divi’s documentation is pretty vast and easy to understand, they also have video tutorials explaining the page builder and theme options. When I dove into building my first Divi website, it was pretty straightforward. All you do is click ‘Use The Divi Builder’ and you can start to create cool layouts.

Screenshot of Divi builder


It’s pretty intuitive right off the bat. As you can see from the above screenshot, it asks you to insert columns. You can choose how many.


Screenshot of Divi Builder columns


After you’ve decided how many columns that particular row will be, you can start adding modules, and the list of modules is pretty vast; images, text, headings, contact forms, call-to-actions, blurbs, etc.


Screenshot of Divi builder modules


Again, it’s pretty straightforward without having to read tons of documentation. So we click on a module, let’s create a ‘blurb’ – it’ll ask you for some information, like the title of your blurb, if you want to make your blurb a link, if you’d like to use an icon, etc. But the cool thing about the Divi Builder is that there’s instructions right in the module itself. See below:

screenshot of the blurb module on Divi


If you’re not all that familiar with modules or building websites in general, then those instructions really come in handy! What’s the end layout look like, though? Well, let’s see.

DiviBuild
The Divi Builder on top, and its output on the bottom

Now, it might not look like much, but it took me about 5 minutes to make that layout. And the more familiar you get with the modules and Divi Builder, the quicker you’ll be able to do it. Divi also has ‘Theme Options’ which are kind of like the global site settings. You can add your logo, favicon, integrate with MailChimp, enable social media icons and responsive shortcodes, fonts, smooth scrolling, and more. Responsively, the layout breaks down the way it should, with the left columns going above the right ones.

So, overall:

  • Documentation: Good documentation, easy to understand.
  • Support: Really great, quick to respond and informative.
  • Configuration Process: Relatively straightforward in the Theme Options
  • Ease of Layout/Intuitiveness: Super easy, build pages in minutes. Easy to get started without reading the documentation, but the deeper you dig into the modules, the more a beginner will need help and have to refer to the documentation or support.
  • Responsive: Works well on tablet and mobile.
  • Cost: Elegant Themes has a yearly (or a one-time lifetime) subscription model. I would recommend paying the extra dollars for the lifetime membership. See here for more details: https://www.elegantthemes.com/join.php

Overall, Divi is a pretty kick-ass theme!

BROOK BY KORRA

I find Brook to be a light and responsive theme that can’t be configured with a page builder (well…unless you add one in with a plugin, but let’s not!). Regardless, it does have a some good things going for it! It seems to me that Brook is geared toward blog sites, in fact this site that you’re reading now is done with the Brook theme! Again, it doesn’t have a page builder, so the way to configure the homepage is a little trickier. You’ve got to have your homepage as your latest post page, which you’ll find in WordPress core under Settings —> Reading. Now, you will need some content before this theme looks remotely close to what the ‘live preview’ looks like on Themeforest, and they give you an option to import the demo content. Right from the beginning the theme was a little more difficult to work with than the Divi theme, but I really liked the look of the live preview, so I knew I could get it to work.

But I had to read the documentation, and if it’s one thing Brook had going for it—it’s the documentation. It’s plentiful and easy to digest, from installing WP and getting the child-theme setup to widgets and theme options.


Brook Theme customizer


The Theme Options for Brook are in the native Theme Customizer seen above. It gives you options to add a logo and favicon in the General tab. You can change the layout of the header, sidebar, and footer. You can pick your own typography, color sets, and background and do a lot more.

One thing I noticed was that in order to get the carousel on the homepage to work properly, you had to crop all your featured images to be the same size. Otherwise the carousel will scale up to the largest sized photo in your featured images. But within a post, there are more options to add a certain sized featured image for different areas, the theme just recommends that you install the Advanced Custom Fields plugin. If your post was going to be in a widget area in your footer and you wanted to use a square image instead of a rectangular one, there’s options to do that. In fact, there are more post setting options to choose from when using the Brook theme and Advanced Custom Fields:

Back-end of Brook post settings


There are also different WYSIWYG formats and elements. So if you’d like to add a dropcap, like at the beginning of this sentence, you can! It adds a little more flavor to your site to be able to put cool elements in your post. You can also add different font sizes, icons, highlighted text, cool buttons and links, image sliders, Google maps, and more! I think it’s a really cool theme to use if you’re blogging about anything, but it’s not super intuitive, you have to read the documentation in order to get it!

  • Documentation: Plenty and easy to understand!
  • Support: Good support.
  • Configuration Process: Pretty straightforward with the Theme Customizer that is native to WordPress, but the homepage is a little more difficult to configure and the documentation will need to be referenced.
  • Ease of Layout/Intuitiveness: Not really easy. For beginners, this theme might be a little difficult to get right, but read the documentation and reach out to support with any questions.
  • Responsive: Works well on tablet and mobile, they even have a tablet and mobile screen option to choose from in the Theme Customizer, it’ll give you a break down of what your page will look like.
  • Cost: $44 on Themeforest.

Overall: This theme might not be for a beginner, but it is a super cool theme to use. I love it! People have commented to me that my blog looks really cool, and I agree. It’s simple, light, not too flashy, and it puts the content front and center (which is important!)

UNCODE BY UNDSGN

My new portfolio site that I mentioned above was done with Uncode, and I will say that this was the most difficult theme to use out of all 3 of them, and this one has a page builder. The page builder is Visual Composer, but Uncode’s customized version of it. When I downloaded Uncode and imported the demo content, it broke my site. I will say that this is a hosting provider issue, apparently I did not have enough memory space with my hosting provider, so that was an issue. Simple fix though, I just called up my hosting provider and they told me how to add more memory. I will say with all the themes I’ve used, I’ve never had one that has maxed out my memory.

When you install Uncode, it tells you to install about 9 different plugins to work the way the live preview does. It has two premium slider plugins included, Layer 5 and Revolution slider, so that’s cool.  And they also have upwards of 60 different layouts preconfigured with the Visual Composer (VC). Which was nice, because if I didn’t have those page layouts already configured, I’d have no idea how to create them. VC is pretty intense.


Visual Composer screenshot


It can separate the elements by content or structure, widgets or WooCommerce (if you have that installed, you don’t need it if you’re not selling anything). But then when you drill down, the options for a single element are super complex. Because there’s not only the element, but the container that it’s in. You can adjust the row settings, the column settings, the element settings. Divi was the same way, but not nearly as many options as Uncode, which could be good or bad depending on how much freedom you want with your layout.

Icon settings for visual composer
Element settings

Row settings - Visual Composer
Row settings

 

Column settings - Visual Composer
Column settings

So, for every element, you essentially have 3 different components to adjust. And you have to watch out for the overrides. Let’s say you leave a color blank, well it’s going to grab the default color that you have configured in your ‘Uncode Theme Options’ – it took me a while to figure out what was going on when I couldn’t get the text to be light on a dark background, even though I had those settings placed in the element. It was because of the default settings in Theme Options here:

Uncode Theme Options
Uncode Theme Options

There are a lot of different theme options, from typography to social media (connections) to individual pages, posts, portfolio pieces, and content blocks. What are content blocks, you ask? Well, they are Uncode’s very own custom post type. Built in to make cool headers, footers, or other content to be used globally if need be. But you have to make sure that when you are adding a layout, you either need to override the theme options, or the look will be what the defaults are set at.

Content blocks took me awhile to figure out too. When you look at a page from the front end:

Classic Agency page - Uncode theme


It looks super cool!! But then look at that same page from the back-end:

Classic Agency - Uncode - backend


You’ll notice that the Heading text in the back-end page is not “Thinkers & Designers” like the front-end page says it is. And the featured image in the right hand corner is not the featured image on the page, so how does this exist? Good question, it exists in content blocks. If you scroll all the way down on the back-end of the page, you’ll notice this little area:

Page options Uncode


Page Options —> Header, and you can select the type of header that you want, which will be placed at the top of the front-end output of the page. The page layout with Visual Composer will start below the content block header, unless you don’t have a content block selected. There are little intricacies like this across the entire site. I was pulling my hair out at times, but the support is really awesome! They also have a lot of documentation, I would strongly recommend starting there because even for a seasoned site builder, who’s used to configuring themes, this one took me awhile.

LAMA website - home page

Now, I will say that the end product looks really cool and the design is worth the hassle, but be prepared to connect with support if you are a beginner…and even if you’re not.

  • Documentation: Lots of it!
  • Support: Great support.
  • Configuration Process: Not straightforward, there are lots of interconnecting pieces to this theme and you have to be familiar with all of them to get stuff to work, and to troubleshoot.
  • Ease of Layout/Intuitiveness: Not really easy. The Visual Composer was not that intuitive for me because there are just soooo many options. After a few days you’ll get used to it and be able to design layouts quicker.
  • Responsive: Works well on tablet and mobile.
  • Cost: $59 on Themeforest.

Overall: This theme did frustrate me, more so than the Brook theme, which I thought was way easier to use. Uncode is big, it’s a lot of code, it’s got a lot going on. But the design is freaking awesome, so it’s definitely worth it in my mind. There’s a cool plugin called VC-Particle Background that I use on my homepage, check it out – adamlamagna.com

Continuing to work with premium themes…

I’ll most likely always work with premium themes, I do think they’re fun to use and can look really really good if configured properly. If you’re just starting out and not sure whether a premium theme is right for you, check out some of these links below!

How to Get the Most Out of a Premium WordPress Theme

Everything You Need to Know About Buying a Premium WordPress Theme

Enjoy your day!

Tarantino’s Film Ride

July 11, 2016
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I just finished watching The Hateful Eight and I had to write this post. I was NOT a fan of The Hateful Eight, it didn’t quite hit me like Inglorious Basterds or Jackie Brown did. Let me start by saying I think Quentin Tarantino writes and directs some really phenomenal movies! They’re hip and non-linear, a little violent and outrageous, and just plain fun to watch. Tarantino has directed 8 films (which, a few he also wrote, and acted in), they are the following in chronological (or linear, hehe!) order:

  1. Reservoir Dogs (1992)
  2. Pulp Fiction (1994)
  3. Jackie Brown (1997)
  4. Kill Bill: Volume 1 (2003)
  5. Kill Bill: Volume 2 (2004)
  6. Inglourious Basterds (2009)
  7. Django Unchained (2012)
  8. The Hateful Eight (2015)

Now, just so you know, Tarantino has written and acted in other films. True Romance being one of my favorite Tarantino-penned films, but also Four Rooms and Dusk til Dawn.

Before I get in to my top 3 Tarantino films, I’d like to talk a little about his style over all. He’s definitely over-the-top, but I find most of the time, it’s over the top in a good way. Either with the ultra-violence where you know a head would never explode like that or super long fight scenes where there’s no way any one could endure for that long, Tarantino’s films are novel, to say the least.

He also surrounds himself with a lot of controversy, mainly around a certain racial slur. I don’t think I’ve ever heard the N* word used more times than in his films Jackie Brown and Django Unchained. He’s gotten a lot of criticism from African-American film directed Spike Lee, who believes that Tarantino is infatuated with the N* word. Honestly, I think he might be too. But no matter how you look at it, Quentin Tarantino’s films are pretty damn good!

Top 3 Tarantino Films

 

Jackie Brown pointing a gun

 

  1. Jackie Brown: I consider this film Tarantino’s sleeper film. It was an homage to 70’s blaxploitation movies like Foxy Brown and Shaft. The movie follows Jackie Brown (played by Pam Grier in a revival of her old roles of the 70’s), an airplane attendant who smuggles money for a man named Ordell (played by the charismatic and frightening Samuel L. Jackson), he’s a gun-runner. But Jackie gets picked up by the feds while smuggling in some money and cocaine, she gets arrested, and Ordell is afraid she might “roll” on him. He bails her out of jail using Max Cherry, a bail bondsman, who picks up Jackie and starts to fall in love with her. Jackie, being the smart woman that she is, devises a plan to double-cross Ordell, get the charges against her dropped, and keep most of the money for herself. Spoiler alert — she does just that! Ultimately this movie is about romance, a romance that was lost between Jackie and Max Cherry. But it’s also about a strong woman, who against all odds comes out on top, and finally gets the life she deserves. Jackie Brown is number 3 on my list of Tarantino films, if you haven’t seen it, definitely check it out!
  2. Pulp Fiction: Could you not see this one coming? Pulp Fiction gets a lot of praise and I’m about to give it some more. It’s one of those non-linear movies that Tarantino is known for. It follows a few different stories that ultimately intertwine in the end. Wikipedia calls it a “neo-noir crime black comedy” — I call it awesomeness wrapped up in 154 minutes. The opening Vincent Vega and Jules in Pulp Fictionscene to this movie is a couple (played by Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer) sitting in a cafe who decide to stick up the joint and rob everyone in it (the film cuts out, but it eventually cycles back to it). Then the film introduces Vincent Vega and Jules (two of Marsellus Wallace’s hitmen) who are sent to retrieve a briefcase. There’s an iconic scene where Samuel L. Jackson, who plays Jules, recites a bible verse then shoots a guy. They get the briefcase, but (and this is a recurring theme) no one knows what the briefcase holds. Every time someone opens it, there’s this gold-ish, red hue that illuminates from the briefcase. There’s been lots of speculation as to what’s in the briefcase, but you never really find out. Butch, a boxer, then meets with Marsellus, who is an L.A. gangster. Butch is told to take a dive in the upcoming fight, but ends up double-crossing the most dangerous gangster in Los Angeles. He goes on the run and the two hitmen are sent after him. Butch ends up killing Vincent Vega, who was the root cause of Marsellus’s wife overdosing on heroin. Vincent works with Jules and while they killed the man who stole the briefcase, they were also shot at several times but with every single bullet missing them, this makes Jules have an epiphany and he vows to leave the gangster lifestyle. The two hitmen end up in the diner while the couple at the beginning of the movie are robbing it. Jules let the couple go free, but not without retrieving his wallet that says “bad mother*cker” on it. I haven’t even gotten into talking about The Wolf, or Vincent and Mia winning the dance competition, or the gimp!! This movie is an all around adventure, and one that will most likely stand the test of time!
  3. Inglourious Basterds: That’s right! This is my favorite Tarantino film, it’s just really really well done. It’s well written and well-acted. This movie is about World War II, and a group of Jewish-American soldiers who travel light and kill any Nazi they see. They’re lead by the all-wise Aldo “The Apache” Raine (played by Brad Pitt), he manages this merry band of Nazi-killing troopers into enemy territory to hopefully end the war. The opening scene in this movie gets you right from Inglourious Basterds holding a knifethe beginning. There’s a man chopping wood at a tiny little farmhouse somewhere in rural France. Nazi jeeps are seen coming up the road and he tells his daughters to go inside. Then we meet Hans Landa (played by Christoph Waltz – he’s amazing!!), the Jew Hunter, who knows that the man chopping wood is hiding a family of Jews under the floorboards of his house. He orders SS soldiers to shoot them, but Shoshanna, the youngest family member, gets away. Years later (and the war is in full force), Shoshanna owns a movie theater where high up people in the Third Reich want to view a movie that depicts the Germans in a good light and killing a bunch of Americans. She starts to devise a plan to kill all the high-members of the Third Reich. Ultimately, this movie is not even close to being accurate surrounding the events of World War II, but it is quite entertaining. It’s a long movie, but there is excitement at every turn. The Germans have given the Basterds nicknames and there’s a violent scene where the Bear Jew beats a German with a baseball bat. Hans Landa strangles a well-known German actress for helping the Americans, and then Aldo carves a swastika into Hans Landa’s head (the end scene), it’s a great scene! In the end, the movie theater gets burned to a crisp along with all the top members of the Nazi party (they make great villains!) This movie is an up and down ride from beginning to end and Hugo Stiglitz is awesome!

Tarantino makes some really unique movies. I know not everyone likes his style of film, but I find them refreshing, fun, and edge of your seat good! However, I did NOT like The Hateful Eight, that’s originally why I decided to write this post. It’s in non-linear fashion, but I didn’t think the story line was that great and the use of violence seemed to be there because it could, not because it added to the movie. Of course, I won’t let one movie deter me from watching more of his films, I’ll continue being a Quentin Tarantino fan.

The Many Faces of Business Development

July 9, 2016
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Every time I tell someone what I do, they always reply with the same question — “what exactly is that?” What they’re asking is — what is business development? It’s sales, right? Or it’s about growing a business, right? Well…if you think about it, business development has many different faces. Numerous flocks of people think that biz dev is simply sales. It is not, I assure you. Sales is a part of it, but…not everything! Now if you scour the internet and Google “what is business development” – you’re bound to get different answers on every result you click on.

When you work for a services firm, business development is a process. Now I touch on services agencies because I believe building strategies for business development working for a web services company is different than web products. Why? Because products, often times, are tangible. Not in the sense that you can pick it up and touch it, but there’s a known feature that usually solves a client’s problem. Web services are intangible, and it’s challenging, at times, to get a client to see the value as you would a web product. Therefore, the process of developing business is slightly different.

The business development process is a continual cycle…

Biz dev needs to be cared for, looked after…you can’t wing your business development. Business development is not just sales, it consists of the following:

  1. Service or offering — what do you provide? How do you articulate this? This is why you are in business.
  2. Marketing — letting the world know that you have this service or offering.
  3. Sales — selling your offer and building your client list, as well as expanding on your current client accounts.
  4. Client advocacy & management — being there for your client and delivering what you promised you’d deliver. This helps retain clients and you can use that to your advantage to get more clients. Happy clients make for great references!
  5. Partnerships — teaming up with other firms that are complimentary to yours, not in direct competition.
  6. Networking — going to events, meeting industry people, building a network.
  7. Getting feedback — from your clients, from the prospects that you didn’t close, from your team and yourself.

This is an on-going process, and one that you’ll cycle through and tweak as time goes on, but let’s hop into it and talk about the many faces of business development.

Articulating your offer…

Why would a prospect want your service over another agency’s service? Let’s face it, there are thousands of web agencies out there that probably do exactly what you do. So, how do you differentiate? This is where business development starts. Articulating your offer is the first thing that needs to be done, it is the basis for which we build our business development plan. Now, the offer can (and probably will) 3d stick figure articulating the offerchange as time goes on, but fine-tuning what you already have is the quickest route to success.

Focus is the name of the game. Customers and prospects want an agency that has a deep understanding of one or a few things. Strategy, Web Design, Web Development. If you look at the agencies that have been in business for a while and are thriving (not just surviving), you’ll see that they have focus in one or two areas and companies specifically seek them out to do business with.

Articulating your offer is no easy feat, and for every agency out there, it’s going to be different. What makes you unique? Are they your services, do you have a deep and narrow focus in one area that beats out your competition? Maybe it’s your values? Your crew? Or maybe it’s a vertical that you know inside and out. Whatever it is, you need your audience to have only one response to it — “That’s what you do? I’d love to know more about that.” — Every time you tell someone what you do, you want them to be intrigued enough to ask you questions about it. This gets the conversation going.

I know, this is a tall order, but that’s why you have a team. Get their input, ask them how they articulate what they do. You can also look at the marketplace and how your competition is articulating their offer. My previous agency Oomph “crafts digital experiences with passion and purpose.” 10up, a WordPress digital agency, “makes content management easy, maybe even fun.” The agency my sister works for, Liberty Concepts, they are “building engaged communities and influencing conversations taking place online.” Now, these probably don’t get everyone they reach to say “really, tell me more…” but they do speak to their specific audience. And remember, your offer-articulation will change as time goes on as businesses and markets shift.

Marketing to the world…(or maybe just your users)

Marketing is the next crucial step and one, for a long time, that went overlooked in the business world. Sales was always the front runner, but ever since the dawn of the inbound versus outbound debate, marketing has got its fair shake. Of course, the reality is — is that sales and marketing are two very different disciplines and two very different mindsets. But they do work together, not in opposition like the long cold war it has been of the late (late) 20th century.

Marketing can either aid or handicap your sales team. You can have sales-focused marketing, it behaves as a function to grab those potential customers who are considering whether or not to buy. If you look at an entire client cycle from initial contact to the final launch of a project, you have a progression that goes something like this:

  1. Project idea
  2. Need to research firms (and pick the right one)
  3. Narrow the list of potential agencies to work with (the short-list)
  4. Get a proposal and presentation
  5. Negotiate contracts and sign
  6. Kickoff the project
  7. Delivery of the project (completed)
  8. Evaluate the end product
  9. Then start it all over again if there’s another project (which there will always be)

So, with all that in mind and looking at it from the shoes of your customer, what are the things your customer needs from an information standpoint to make solid decisions? What questions will they have? And at each of these stages, what are your customers thinking about?

Customer’s thought-process
  1. Project idea — This is going to be a lot of fun or this is not going to be a lot of fun, either way, how do I get this project started? I need to find a web agency. Where do I look?
  2. Need to research firms (and pick the right one) — what firms have what I’m looking for? Who do they work with, what do they specialize in? What verticals do they work in?
  3. Narrow the list of potential agencies to work with (the short-list) — which agencies impressed me the most? What case studies would I like to show my boss? Which firm do I get a good vibe from? Have they done really awesome work? Do they have good references?
  4. Get a proposal and presentation — how hard will this process be? What will I need to get them, what will they want from me? Will their proposal/presentation address my challenge?
  5. Negotiate contracts and sign — ugh, contracts! I know they’re necessary, need to get sign-off.
  6. Kickoff the project — what should I expect? Who will they need from my team? What information do I need to put together?
  7. Delivery of the project (completed) — will this go smoothly? Will there be any unforeseen obstacles? Will we get along with everyone, will I like what they build and design for us?
  8. Evaluate the end product — is this what I expected? Do I feel we got our money’s worth?
  9. Then start it all over again if there’s another project (which there will always be) – the last project went awesome, can’t wait to do it again. Or, the last project was awful, I don’t want to go through this process again.

Answering questions like these will help your sales team close more business. Now, obviously, marketing isn’t all sales-oriented. Marketing is also about brand reputation (which…will ultimately help with sales) that gets people to like you. And these are people that you may not even do business with, but they could become brand fans. And brand fans can be really good for business. They can advocate for your agency or a project you worked on that was super cool. Marketing can always reach a much wider audience than sales, you can use social media channels, automation and other technologies to get your value and brand out to the rest of the world. And remember, people and companies that are interested in buying from you will always research you first online and make assumptions and judgments without even speaking to you first — and that’s why marketing is uber important!

Sales — the cowboys of the business world…

I’ve written a few posts on sales and I’m sure to write more because sales its own special snowflake…and there’s a lot to it. Sales is demanding, very demanding. And if you’re not careful in business development, sales can eat up the majority of your time, because let’s face it — it’s the driver of more revenue. So what should we be focusing on in sales? Good question!

First, you need to look at the marketplace, what choices are out there that a prospect could potential make, what solutions are available to sell? Then you need to get serious about targeting your ideal client, who are they and what position do they hold, what types of companies/organizations do they work for? What problems or pain points can you solve for your customers? Who are your competitors and how might you lose to them?

Then the next step is establishing a sales process or refining the one you have now. You can be a sales cowboy, but even cowboys have a code. Don’t go out there and play things by ear, or ride the bullwanted: sales cowboy until you fall off. Get yourself focused on funneling prospects through a process that progresses the sale. Now, you may be progressing the sale to a ”no” but that’s ok. Rejection happens, but you have a process in place to make progress. The process won’t guarantee that you’ll close business, but it will guarantee that you get the “no’s” out of the way quicker, and get a better understanding of how your getting the “yes’s”

Look at how the sales process naturally goes, something like this:

  1. Lead generation / Prospecting
  2. Qualifying
  3. Scoping
  4. Proposals / Presentations
  5. Negotiations
  6. Contract signing / Closing

What are the things that you need to do in each of these stages in order to progress to the next one? What’s the requirement of each stage, what is the purpose of each stage, which team member will be a part of each stage, and what resources will I use for each stage? I have a table that outlines all these things, see below:

The stages of the buying process and their essentials

Having something outlined like this will help you on a couple different levels. The first one is obvious, it follows the stages of the buying process. When you have a legitimate lead and you know they are going to buy (maybe not from you, but hopefully), then you can progress the sale by getting the prospect to hit the requirement for each stage. The second level is that prospects will come to you at different stages of the buying cycle. They may be dealing with another agency and then something went wrong. Maybe there was a conflict of interest and they went searching for a new agency and found you. But, that prospect has already been though the qualifying stage with another agency and wants to hop right into scoping. Well, you just need to know if they meet the requirement to hop on in to scoping. Use this table as a guide or make your own so you don’t have to think about the next step, you can concentrate on your prospect.

Customer satisfaction and delivering on your promise…

During the sales process, the sales cowboy always makes promises. Make sure those are communicated properly to the project team. If a client is expecting one thing, and the project team doesn’t deliver on it, then that makes for an unhappy client and bad word of mouth. Which, in the world of small business, goes a long way!

Good communication and continuing to build client intimacy and advocacy will have a drastic affect on your customer base. Clients want to feel like they are the only client, so when your account managers or project managers connect with the client, there needs to be cohesion from the sales team. The sales people have been dealing with these customers and then once a sale is made, they hand the customer off to the project team. Make sure there’s continuity there that usually comes in the form of a project handoff meeting between the sales team, PM, and the new client.

But as a business development person, you’ll want to check back in with the client to make sure things are running smoothly, that the client is getting value out of the process and project, and you need to look for more opportunities. Relationships are a huge part of agency business. Don’t be afraid to leverage those relationships, even if that means getting a case study out of it. At the most, you can get more business through other projects within that customer’s company, or good referrals for other organizations that might have a project in mind. When you’re in the midst of a project, the focus is on delivering great work, but you still can’t neglect finding opportunities, or being oblivious to them.

Navigating the world of good partnerships…

There are different types of partnerships out there; formal ones, informal ones, referral partnerships, hand-shake partnerships, ones that have contracts and ones that don’t. The only thing I’d really like to touch on with partnerships is this: In today’s business world and with the ever-growing list of customer needs — partnerships help with being able to give a client a full experience.

Your agency is really good at a few things, right? Like web strategy and design. Another firm specializes in custom web development and the templates you design need to be developed with custom code. That makes for a decent partnership. Where the waters can get muddied is in ownership. Who owns the client? How will meetings be handled? This is all something that you’ll have to work out with the other 3d stick figure partnerships putting puzzle pieces togetheragency to see what the best experience is for the customer. Maybe the customer only wants to deal with one entity. If that’s the case, you can communicate things through from your partner agency.

Partnerships are also good to reach a wider audience for leads. This is why you’ll see many hosting providers like WP Engine, Pantheon, Acquia, etc. have many partners. In essence, they all help each other out. Now, a lot of these bigger hosting companies require that you pay a certain amount of money each year to be a partner. That’s not right for every agency, but it may be right for you, it all depends on revenue, growth, and the ROI you think you’ll get from being a preferred partner.

As a biz dev person, you need to seek out, research, and evaluate different partnerships. Partnerships should add to your business and your partner’s business, they should be mutually beneficial. If they aren’t, then it really isn’t a partnership.

Network…don’t business develop with business development

Networking has been around for a very long time, but they didn’t always call it networking. It’s been called schmoozing, rubbing elbows, social climbing, mingling, and many other names. But networking plays a big role in business development. It’s meeting people, it’s being seen, it’s playing the game.

But there are a few things I want to point out about networking. The first is that it isn’t about the company, it’s about the individual. As a business development professional you attend events to network, but you need to network wisely. When I first started out, I was the guy that would hand out my business card to everyone, and that just doesn’t work. Nobody wants to talk to the guy who wants to talk to everyone.

And when I first started out, I didn’t have much of a network. I only had my friends, and that’s where I started. I asked them to connect me with someone they knew who was in my line of work that I could get advice from. People love giving advice, so go talk to people. Listen to people. When you go to an event, go there to meet one or two people, but make solid connections. Learn what they do, have good networkingconversations, have impactful conversations. Make impactful impressions by making strong connections.

The other thing I want to touch on is the trap of networking. Don’t go out there and attend every event that you can, you’ll get burned out on that, quickly. The thing you’ll notice as you start to go to more networking events is that there are soooo many business development professionals at these events. And most are there because they want to sell something. Pick out the events that are focused on a certain vertical, like say your agency works in the healthcare field. Search for healthcare/digital events — I know you can find plenty. And pick the ones that have an expert speaker in that particular industry. There are usually a lot of industry (remember, healthcare) people there that can either connect you to the right people in there company or are the right people. But you don’t go there to sell them anything. There’s nothing people dislike more than being at an industry event to learn something and a salesman walks up to them to try and earn their business, it’s a turn-off. So, when you’re at these events, listen to what the speakers are saying, learn about the subject, and tell your prospect (or whoever you meet) that you are there because you have an interest in the subject matter. Have organic conversations, don’t push a solution down someone’s throat at an event, it hardly ever works.

Networking is about consistency, the more you go to industry events, the more you’ll be recognized as someone in that community. And then when prospects at those events have a project they need done, if you’ve left a good impression and made an impactful connection, they’ll remember where they put your business card and give you a call.

Feedback improves the process…

I can’t stress the need to get feedback from your clients. It will really help you improve the process. You’ll also want to try and get feedback from the prospects you lost during the sales cycle, that will help you improve your sales process.

With prospects you lost, think about putting together a quick Google form and sending out a survey that has 5 to 10 questions with input fields. It’s hard enough to get people to give you feedback, let alone someone you didn’t sign as a client, so don’t make it too daunting. But if you ask nicely and tell them it would improve your process, many will comply. Certain questions could be:

  • Did you understand the solution we recommended implementing?
  • Was there any part of the process that confused you?
  • What was your favorite part of the process?
  • What did our competitors do better than us?
  • What was the ultimate deciding factor for choosing / not choosing us?

Remember, you can give these to anyone who went through your sales process to better that particular process.

For clients that you did work for, they’ll go through a different feedback review and it should include sitting down with your client to get feedback. Put aside 30 to 45 minutes, a week or so after the project is all finished and review the project. And just listen to their answers. Certain questions could be:

  • How would you say the overall project flow went?
  • Was there any part of the project process that you didn’t like?
  • Do you feel like everything was communicated to you properly?
  • How would you describe your feeling toward the end product?
  • And many more….

And remember, just listen, don’t offer excuses or argue with them, just listen. Get the feedback to the team and the leadership, and tweak the process if it needs tweaking (which…it always will!).

Then, if appropriate, ask for testimonials or case studies. Ask if you can use them as a reference. I can’t point out the importance of having a number of references on hand. When a biz dev guy is in the middle of selling something and the prospect asks for a reference, it’s nice to be able to pull from a pool of happy clients. And then also, look for future opportunities. Communicate with your clients after the project is finished, check in with them and keep that relationship strong.

Wrapping up business development…

Let’s cycle back to the beginning, what is business development? Well, it’s all of these things — you’ll wear the marketing face, the sales face, networking and partnership face, and the customer advocacy face, all the while trying to articulate your offer just right and getting feedback throughout the process.

If you look up the exact definition of business development, it probably goes something like this:

The process of experiencing growth through acquiring more profitable clients and expanding existing customer accounts.

– which, if you think about it, encompasses many things, many faces. Business development is a discipline and one that should be given the proper time to work for your agency. Believe me, it will take time. The role of business development is a jack of all trades, but still a master of one. Kudos to all the biz dev people out there — the unsung heroes of the business world!

Performing Keyword Research

June 27, 2016
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Google only loves you when everyone else does.

I forget who said it, but it’s true, Google takes notice when everyone starts to love you. SEO has been around ever since search engine rank pages (SERPs) have gotten more and more competitive. And as the world wide web continues to scale, I imagine seeing results off of your SEO efforts will become harder and harder to recognize. The reason I’m interested in SEO is because it’s kind of like a game of chess. It doesn’t matter how much money you throw at it or how much you sweet-talk it, good SEO is a long and strategic game. And good SEO implementation always starts with one thing — research. Specifically, keyword research.

Keyword research is the foundation to any good SEO campaign. Now for those of you new to the tech world and SEO, it stands for Search Engine Optimization. It’s a methodology of strategies, techniques, and tactics used to increase the amount of visitors to your website by obtaining a high-ranking placement in the search results of a SERP. You don’t have to be born of royal blood to have good SEO, you don’t need to be the daughter of a hip-hop mogul; you just need to outsmart the competition.

Search terms to search for…

To start, you’ll want to have a keyword in mind. A keyword that you’ll want your website or your web page/post to rank for. Let’s start with an easy example:

My father blogs about wine at TheWitIsOut.com and he wants to rank for terms like “red wine” and “best wine” — only issue is that these search terms are extremely hard to rank for. Why? Because they are considered ‘head’ terms or terms that are most frequently searched which usually carries with it some steep competition. But head terms can also be ambiguous and not as relevant as other terms. When deciding what keywords you’d like your site to rank for, you want to look at 3 different areas:

  1. Relevance: the keyword needs to accurately reflect the nature of your product, services, or offerings
  2. Volume: the number of searches per month for a particular keyword
  3. Competition: the number of websites or web pages competing for a particular keyword or search term

Ideally, you’d like to find a keyword or search term that has a high number of searches (volume) and a low number of competing websites (competition), and is highly pertinent to your offering (relevance) — if we can just find that keyword, we’ll be all set – LOL!

Tools for searching for search terms…

Although SEO can be a bit of trial and error because search engines (and their algorithms) constantly change, Google does offer some really cool tools to aid in our keyword research. Remember earlier when I talked about head terms and how they are the more frequent terms that are searched. Keywords like ‘red wine,’ ‘car’ and ‘Mac’ – Well, there are also terms called long-tail terms, these are the terms that we’ll be looking at.

Head vs. Long-tail

  • ‘red wine’ —— ‘2003 red wine cabernet’
  • ‘car’ —— ‘2013 Hyundai Accent’
  • ‘Mac’ —— ‘ used Macbook Pro’

Just a few examples – but we can test all these examples for volume and competition with a little tool called the Keyword Planner. Now, you’ll need to sign up for an account with Google Adwords, but don’t fret, you don’t have to spend any money if you don’t want to. The thing that we’re interested in are the tools.

The Keyword Planner will ask you where you’d like to start, and just click on the “search for new keywords” which will pop open a form that looks like this:

Keyword Planner form

Now, if you’ll notice at the top you can enter in certain phrases or keywords. You can also select a product category. Or target a certain region or state or city, and you can change filters to show only closely related keywords or broadly related keywords. Let’s type in ‘red wine’ and see what comes back.

Keyword Planner results for 'red wine' search term

 

As you can see, the average monthly search is about 110k searches. In the graph, we can see that December is the month with the most searches (most likely because of the holiday season) and surprisingly the competition is only at a medium right now, not high! So, that’s interesting. But it does give us a number of other keyword ideas that could potentially help in our SEO efforts.

Keyword Planner keyword research ideas

The Keyword Planner suggests different keywords for us. Look at the first one in the list ‘best red wine’ – this one has got a lot of volume (which is good), but it’s also got a boat ton of competition (which is not so good!). But let’s go down to ‘types of red wine’ – this volume is also pretty high at 12k average monthly searches, but the competition is pretty low. You can download this list into an Excel or Google sheet to get more accurate information. Let’s do that.

Keyword Planner Google Sheet keyword research

As you can see, we get a complete list of recommended search terms and actual numbers to go with their competition, not just a level of high, medium, or low. Now if we look at ‘types of red wine’ we’ll see that the average monthly searches is still at 12k, but the competition is .04 – that’s super low! Super low! So, before you go and use this as your keyword, you have to put yourself in the shoes of your user (or the searcher). Would this search term be good for my dad to use on his blog? I’m not quite sure yet. I always get a little weary when the search term seems relevant and there’s a high number of searches (volume), but the competition is really low. So let’s dive deeper.

My dad blogs about wine; wineries, vintage wine, wine reviews, wine ratings and the like. His ideal visitor is someone who is interested in wine and wants to get good recommendations, but also someone who is just starting to get interested in wine—the novice wine taster. If you put yourself in the shoes of the person searching for ‘types of red wine’ what do you think they are looking for? Probably types of red wine – lol! But the issue is this — we don’t know their intent. Maybe they are searching for types of red wine because they want to buy some, or maybe they just want to learn what types of red wine are out there. If you look at the next search term down ‘benefits of red wine’ – it’s the same thing (high volume, low competition) but my guess is that people searching for that term are concerned about the dietary or health aspects of wine. But still, it could be a good term to try and rank for if you have a wine blog. Either way, I think both of those would be good for my father’s site.

Another tool you can use is Google Trends. Google Trends will show you how often a particular search term is entered and compare it to search volume across various regions of the world and will compare it to different search terms as well. One thing I like to do is singular vs. plural. In the example ‘types of red wine’ we can see if the keyword phrase ‘type of red wine’ is searched more often. Let’s take a look:

Google Trends comparison

As we can see, ‘types of red wine’ are searched more often than ‘type of red wine’ — so I think it’s safe to say that we can go with ‘types of red wine’ as our keyword phrase.

Keyword distribution…

You’ll want to distribute your keywords appropriately across your website and the easiest way to do that is in a spreadsheet. Ugh, not another spreadsheet! Yup! Map out your entire site and list these categories:

  • Pages
  • Keywords
  • URLs
  • Titles (preferably under 65 characters)
  • Meta-descriptions (preferably under 65 characters) – these don’t so much help with SEO anymore, but they will help with your click-thru rate. And being under 65 characters, you can be sure the search engine won’t truncate any of the text that’s viewed to the user
  • H1’s (the biggest header on your page or post)

You can populate a spreadsheet with your existing content, this’ll make it easy to spot duplicates. Search engines want unique and relevant information. Unique and relevant…

Things to remember with keyword research…

Remember, you have to look at the keyword attributes of relevance, volume, and competition. Relevant keywords are much more likely to drive conversions on your site, than ones that are broadly related. Volume is the number of average monthly searches and you can find this using Google Adwords Keyword Planner, as well as the competition, which is the number of other sites trying to rank or compete for the same keyword phrase. You can download the Keyword Planner results to a spreadsheet which give you a much better reflection of the competition in numeric results.

The other thing you need to remember is that SEO is an on-going process. It’s a long and strategic game. So, you need to evaluate your SEO and keyword research continually. The industry changes constantly, the market changes constantly, the competition changes constantly. You need to be able to adapt to the change as well, so evaluate your keywords on a quarterly basis, see if traffic or conversions on your site are going up or down and re-adjust. More to come on the topic of SEO.

Is Netflix Taking Over The World?

June 27, 2016
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The summer of 1995 was a good summer! I was 14 and I mowed lawns all summer long. Every Friday my mom would drive me down to Blockbuster Video, so I could rent a boat ton a movies to keep me busy for the entire week. Honestly, I must’ve spent over $1,000 that summer. Oh, the memories….and the hours spent watching movies. As a sidenote—for those of you who were born in the mid to late 90’s, I don’t expect you to remember Blockbuster Video, but bear with me and I’ll explain.

What is a netflix?

In my last year of high school I remember hearing about this service called Netflix, it would drop a movie in your mailbox and then you could return it when you were finished watching it. I remember thinking “man, that’s the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard of, people will just keep the movies and not return them, ha!” – Boy was I dead wrong, of course, I was also 17 and knew nothing about technology or innovation.

Then this little company took root and got traction. More and more people started using it, people like my parents. I can still remember the first movie we got through the mail (it was Zoolander) and we slowly started to scale back on going to BlockBuster Video as much.

What were you thinking, Blockbuster?

The interesting thing is that in 2000 Netflix was offered up to Blockbuster for $50 million! But, little ol’ Blockbuster declined. So Netflix came out with an IPO, or initial public offering in 2002 selling 5.5 million shares of stocks at $15 a pop. And for those of you who don’t know—an IPO is when a company goes public and offers shares of the company to the public.

Now, for those of you who remember Blockbuster, you’ll remember the sections they used to have. Obviously there were the New Releases, there were Action, Comedy, Horror, Drama, the list goes on…and you might remember the “employee’s recommendation” section. At my Blockbuster, there was Dave. Dave always made the best recommendations. Movies like True Romance, The Big Lebowski, and Heat. But what Netflix did was virtualize that whole process and made it custom to you—the user! Pretty neat, eh?

Basically, Netflix maintains this system of reviews and ratings. They have an algorithm they dubbed “Cinematch” – clever, very clever. Users can rate a movie from 1 to 5 stars (1 being bad, 5 being fantastic), then Netflix will pull out (or mine) the data. Based on a user’s prior movie preferences and the ratings that they give those movies, Cinematch will predict what movies a user is more likely to want to watch and serve those movies up. It’s kinda cool, but then there’s that part of me that thinks I might be missing out on something if this experience is super personalized. Of course, personalization is what most users want. And Netflix has given it to us!

“The problem with binge-watching Netflix…is that you lose 3 days of your life.”

Then Netflix came out with “streaming” and this revolutionized the way humans watch TV. Netflix (and Amazon Prime) made things like cable, commercials, and network TV not as glamorous. If I can quote Wikipedia – “By 2010, Netflix’s streaming business had grown so quickly that within months the company had shifted from the fastest-growing customer of the United States Postal Service’s first-class mail service to the biggest source of Internet traffic in North America in the evening.” — That’s pretty crazy! Being a member of Netflix, I know you are allowed to have different profiles on your account. Profiles make it easy for you to share your Netflix account with your girlfriend (or whoever) and have different streaming experiences. Again, experiences that are personalized and tailored to you.

In 2013, Netflix started its own award ceremony called The Flixies. The ceremony honors the viewing habits of its users. Certain categories include Best Bromance, Best Guilty Pleasure, and Best Marathon TV Show to name a few. Haha – that’s all I have to say about that!

Now with the advent of streaming, Netflix had to finagle some pretty interesting and expensive movie/tv rights to the shows it’s allowed to have on their service. They had to make exclusive “pay TV window” deals with both major and midline studios that offered certain streaming rights, which (mind you) are different than distribution rights.

Now we see Netflix start making their own films. They first started out with House of Cards starring Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright Penn as the “thick as thieves” husband and wife political duo and Americans went bonkers over it. Then came Orange is the New Black and Americans went bonkers over that too. Then shows like Daredevil (which I went bonkers over!) and Jessica Jones, Bloodline, and Marco Polo. They also came out with comedy like the series follow up to Wet Hot American Summer, and Fuller House. Netflix has a boat ton of kids shows that are all original. They also picked up a few series that got canceled like Longmire, The Killing, and Arrested Development. We also see Netflix making feature films as well.

What’s next for Netflix?

So…what is next for Netflix? As of right now, Netflix services over 190 countries world-wide. They have over 70 million subscribers. They are also coming out with about 70 or so new TV shows and about 30 new feature films. Wow! And that doesn’t include documentaries, specials, or mini-series. So, wow, again!

In my opinion, Netflix is taking over the world, but that’s not it. They’re taking over cable TV, all I watch on cable is the news, but there are so many other channels/outlets for that. They’ve taken over Hollywood, well kinda, they are making a lot of movies and TV shows, and quite frankly I can’t remember the last good movie that came out of Hollywood. So, Netflix started as a mail service, it would drop a DVD in your mailbox and you could return it whenever you were finished watching it. Now, Netflix is a global company that’s worth more than CBS. And I don’t think this monolithic multi-media giant has any intention of slowing down. Hey, it works for me as long as I can watch my programs!!

The Needs of Web Proposal Writing

June 25, 2016
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Casting a wide net, web proposal writing is probably one of the most daunting yet creative activities one can do in the tech space. Proposals can be the gateway to a super awesome project that soars to success and makes the client very happy…or it can lead to a resounding “we’ve gone with another agency, but thanks for all the time you put into this” reply from your prospect. Proposals can also be the beginning of revision after revision to get the prospect’s challenge mapped to the right solution through hours of project scope development. Ahh…the possibilities…I’m not sure I’ve ever met someone that’s liked proposal writing as much as I do. 

For some, proposals are merely an estimate of what it would cost to get a project done. For others, it’s a templated document where little changes are made except for the company name and date. For me, proposal writing is a journey. It’s a journey of discovery, understanding the challenge, mapping the right solution, building a relationship, and finally presenting that journey with conviction and delivery. 

Many agencies churn out proposals like a shoe factory because they feel proposal writing is just a formality, a number, another template, a means to an end. But it’s not. A proposal is the gift one gives to a company or brand to solve their problem. And that needs to be done with thought and care, strategy and information, good design and presentation, and maybe even a little love. I am not an expert by any means, but I have years of experience writing proposals for web agencies. I wanted to share my evolution of proposal writing and how the actions that proceed the proposal writing process are of the utmost importance.  In order to write strong proposals, you need to ask smart questions.

Proposal writing starts with a question…

As many biz dev people know, proposal writing starts with a single question:

“What is the challenge that needs to be solved?”

This starts the conversation! Now, often times, companies and the people who work for those companies may not know the true answer to this question. And that’s where things like qualifying and scopingQuestion Mark  really help in identifying a few things.

The way I would usually start the process is by having a phone call with the prospect to understand their needs and objectives. One question I always liked asking or opening with was “what do you want the world to know you succeeded at when this project is finished?” – it’s a great way to get them jazzed about the project and get them feeling good about the conversation they’re having. Keep in mind, they are probably having similar conversations with other biz dev people at other agencies, so anything that’s a little different might surprise them and make you stand out.

The absolute must-knows when writing web proposals..

  1. NEEDS — every company has a need (maybe many) that should be addressed and this may require some digging on your part to really understand those needs. There’s nothing worse than writing a proposal and totally missing the mark on the objective!
  2. AUTHORITY — establishing this is very important. Who is the true decision-maker? But this can be tricky in the beginning stages of scoping a project. Since big brands/orgs will usually send those lower on the totem pole to vet agencies, this may take some prying (and some demonstration on your part that your agency is good) to get to the right person.
  3. TIMELINE — understanding expectations around when a company wants their project to be finished can make or break the proposal writing process. If they have a huge project, but want it done in 3 weeks, that would put the fire out instead of lighting a fire, catch my drift? Onto the next proposal.
  4. BUDGET — getting a sense of what your prospect is willing to pay for their desired outcome is really important. Many people don’t want to give you a number and say “well, just write the proposal with the price tag you think should go in it” – ugh!! That’s a sure-fire way to failure. So, make sure you get some sense of what they are willing to pay, even if it’s saying “projects like that typically fall somewhere between $30k and $50k, does that sound like it would be within your budget?” – anything’s better than no number at all.

Now that you’ve taken care of the absolutes, you can move into the decision making part of the proposal writing process. That’s right…you need to decide whether or not this fits within your parameters. That’s something only you can answer, but I would look at a few things:

  • Lead source: where did your prospect come from? Are they a referral or did they find you in a Google search? I’d opt to go for the one who came in from someone you know than the one who just searched “web agency boston” and came to your site.
  • Project Challenge: is this project challenging for your team and their skill levels? How long would it take them to do, are there any aspects of the project you’re unsure of?
  • Timeline / Budget: is the budget where it needs to be for the project? We all know different agencies charge different prices and can deliver projects at different paces. Does the prospect have a reasonable timeline?
  • Project Match: is the project good for your agency, your brand reputation? Would it be something you’d want to put your name on? I know many agencies who won’t work with the cigarette companies or adult entertainment companies because they don’t want to put that out in the world. So…ask yourself if this is something you’d be proud of when the project is finished.
  • Location: is this company nearby? Can you meet with them in person? In the age of digital, many projects are all done online, and that’s ok. But maybe you’re an agency that likes to meet face to face. Or maybe the client is in Shanghai and you’re located in New York, that’ll make for many a late night!
  • Gut feel: I think this is a good one to mention. Your instinct — how do you feel about the project as a whole, the people you’re engaged with, the company’s objective? Do you think you have a shot at winning? That’s always a tough question to answer (I never thought I’d lose any bid, lol!).

Really scoping the web project and minimizing the creep..

We’ve all heard it—Scope Creep—the infamous added feature that sneaks its way in after the project discovery session when a new stakeholder rears their head and says “hey, but what about this…”

Well, sometimes scope creep is inevitable, but if you can minimize that while you’re scoping, the web proposal writing process will be a little easier.

There are really only two ways to mitigate against scope creep. One way is to understand the full breadth of the project, which can be really difficult, right? Sometimes things just pop up or change happens due to a shift in business, market, or whatever. The second way is to use parameters or boundaries in your web proposal writing. I like to do a combination of both.

Obviously, every project you encounter is going to be different, so depending on what needs/objectives your potential client has, it will guide the questions that you follow up with. If a prospect tells you that they want you to do a branding and logo design, are you going to ask them if they want to use a membership plugin or module? Probably not. So, instead of articulating what to ask on every type of project (that might be impossible, or entirely too long of a blog post), I’m going to type out a mock call so you can get an idea of where to take things.

I’ll set the stage for this scope call…

The potential client wants to do a redesign of their website — they are a travel blog that want their users to sign up for their newsletter and they offer readers ratings and reviews of travel destinations. You’ve spoke to them one time and have gotten the logistical stuff out of the way (Needs, Authority, Timeline, Budget). Here’s the email you were sent with information from Tony at TotallyTravel Blog (fictitious blog..or so I hope!).

Hi Adam,

Thanks for the intro call, I liked learning a little more about your agency and your approach to a website redesign. Here's a little more information on our project. We have TotallyTravelBlog.com that's a custom PHP homegrown content management system. We have about 5 writers that write content for us, but would love to have more. We also have a newsletter that goes out once a month and our goal is to build our subscriber list. We offer travel ratings and reviews on our site and we would like to improve our SEO. We can definitely hop on another call to go over any questions you might have.

Best regards,

Tony

Ok — first and foremost with a prospect like this, they will almost always send you some sort of RFP RFP on blackboard(request for proposal), so you’ll have information of the basics and maybe even a little bit more. I’ve never read an RFP that’s given me everything I need to write a proposal. So you’ll need to get on a call.

But, right off the bat, we know a few things, right? They are in the media space because they blog about travel, and they have subscribers, so what does that entail? They also have writers (so think WordPress roles), and they’re concerned with their SEO (what does that look like?). Here’s a mock call:

Begin Conversation

Adam: Hey Tony, it’s Adam calling from Being AJiLe, how are you?

Potential Client: Good, good, Adam, and yourself?

Adam: I’m fantastic, thanks for asking. So, I’ve received the information you sent over on the project and I do have some questions. The first one is about the PHP CMS, how much legacy data do you have? I imagine there’s going to be quite the migration involved with this redesign, correct?

Potential Client: Yes, so all the posts will need to be migrated to the new CMS.

Adam: Ok, cool. But just to clarify, the posts aren’t all that need to be migrated, correct? I imagine there are images, authors, tags, categories, and other content types that will need to be moved over as well?

Potential Client: Yes, yes, all that stuff will need to be migrated as well.

Adam: Ok, awesome. What would be super helpful is if we could get an idea of how many content types you have and maybe we could even get a sample of the content types to get a gauge for how relationships are set up? (Sidenote: how many content types are important to know, usually content types (or post types in WP) are going to have different outputs, which could mean unique designs. Also relationships between content types can get tricky with migrations. On this one, more than likely, certain scripts will have to be written to map relationships to content types)

Potential Client: Sure, no problem, I can get that for you.

Adam: Perfect! Now you said in your email that you have about 5 writers? What does their workflow look like with the current CMS? (Sidenote: this will give me an idea of what permissions might look like, and if there’s any way to minimize steps to make things easier for them)

Potential Client: Yeah, so this is big problem internally. We actually have our authors write the posts in Google Docs, they share it with our two editors that approve the posts and then work with our web admin to put them in the current CMS. It’s been quite the hindrance, so that’s why we’d like to migrate CMS’s. We’ve heard good things about WordPress.

Adam: Yeah, so WordPress has got certain user roles written into the CMS. So, your whole workflow that you have right now could be done a lot smoother with WordPress. We could assign your writers roles of either contributors or authors depending on permission levels and they could work right within the CMS instead of outside of it. Editors and admins, also WordPress user roles, would be able to approve things in WP and could push content live. The whole workflow would be much easier to handle.

Potential Client: Ok, that’s great and exactly what we’re looking for.

Adam: Cool, yeah I think WordPress might be a really good fit for you guys, but you also said that you offer certain ratings and reviews? How is that currently done?

Potential Client: We integrate with TripAdvisor

Adam: Ok, interesting. Do you know if it’s just a snippet of code that’s pulled from TripAdvisor or are you using some sort of API?

Potential Client: I believe we just take snippets of code that TripAdvisor offers and insert it into our website.

Adam: Ok, I’ll have to do a little digging into TripAdvisor and see what technologies they offer, they could have a widget or plugin that might work with WordPress. If not, then we’ll have to take a deeper look.

Potential Client: Ok, sounds good.

Adam: Awesome, ok so since you’re in the media and publishing world, I have to ask about ads, will there be any ad-serving on the site?

Potential Client: Oh, yes, absolutely. That’s our biggest money generator. We use Double Click for Publishers.

Adam: Ok, cool, I know of a good DFP plugin for responsive sites and ad-serving, so that should be pretty straightforward. But you said that ad-serving was your biggest money generator, what other revenue do you get off of the site?

Potential Client: Oh, yes, we syndicate our content to a few other blogs in the travel industry.

Adam: Ok, and is that done through an XML or RSS feed?

Potential Client: Yes, they go out through a simple RSS feed that other travel blogs can grab on the site and we have certain agreements with them.

Adam: Ok, that makes sense. Another question I have is around your subscribers. Are these subscribers to your blog, or are they members of your site, do they get certain perks, or are they just subscribing to an email list?

Potential Client: Yeah, so we don’t have any members on our site, although that’s something that we’ve been thinking about doing and offering perks. But right now we only have subscribers through our email list for our monthly newsletter, and users also sign up to get updated blog posts.

Adam: Gotcha, so your readers can sign up to an email list to get blog posts or the monthly email newsletter, do you use a certain email newsletter provider like Constant Contact or something similar?

Potential Client: Yes, we use MailChimp. That’s what we use to send out our monthly newsletter and blog posts to users who subscribe.

Adam: (Sidenote: awesome, MailChimp is pretty easy to integrate with. There’s a plugin for that!). Ok, that’s fantastic. Now you said earlier that your team was thinking about maybe doing some kind of membership on your site, can you talk a little about that?

Potential Client: Yes, so there’s been some talk internally about offering tiered memberships where members could get access to travel deals. But I don’t see that happening for at least a year or more, we’d like to get this redesign done first and then maybe do something a little more with memberships.

Adam: Ok, cool, it’s just good to know because before anyone starts building the platform in WordPress, it’s something that we could potentially prepare for. It would obviously cost more money, but I know there are some pretty cool membership technologies that work well with WordPress like MemberMouse or Membership 2 Pro from WPMUDev. So, that’s good that we’re talking about it, I could send you some more info on those membership technologies to see if it’s something that your team might want to think about implementing sooner.

Potential Client: Yeah, that would be great, I’d definitely take a look and at the very least will have the information for if/when it happens down the line. Thanks!

Adam: Sure, no problem! Ok, I just have a few more questions. Since this is a redesign, I have to ask about actual design. Is there any rebranding initiative involved with this like logo design, brand guidelines or standards, or will all that stuff be provided?

Potential Client: Yeah, we went through a rebranding initiative about a year and a half ago, so we have everything that you need there.

Adam: Ok, great, and in terms of information architecture, would you like to revise the menu? Maybe do a little user testing to see if the terminology connects with your users?

Potential Client: Yeah, you know, I didn’t think about that. That definitely sounds interesting and something worth doing.

Adam: Ok, great, and you mentioned that you wanted to improve your SEO. Are you looking for an on-page SEO specialist or were you just talking about the technical aspects of SEO? Making sure your tags are all set properly, alt image text and meta data is setup, etc.?

Potential Client: Yes, that’s what I mean. I think we have good content, but I’m not sure what goes into SEO on the technical side, so we would be looking to our agency of choice to help us out with that.

Adam: Yeah, fantastic, so we definitely design and build with SEO best practices in mind.

Potential Client: Ok that sounds good!

Adam: Well, Tony, it’s been an absolute pleasure, thanks so much for giving me all this information. I think I have a good handle on things and I’ll start putting together the proposal. Sometimes as I’m putting together the proposal and discussing it with the team, more questions arise, will you be available to discuss if I have any more questions?

Potential Client: Oh, yeah, absolutely. Just give me a call or shoot me an email and we’ll connect.

Adam: Thanks, again!

End of Conversation

Let’s breakdown the call for the web proposal writing process..

First thing I wanted to know about was the migration, that could end up being a big piece of the project depending on how much legacy data there is, and remember that scripts will most likely have to be written to migrate all the content, but 301 redirects as well from legacy content because they still want to maintain (and improve) SEO.

I also asked about author workflow, this won’t be too difficult because it’s already a part of what WordPress does natively, but it’s good to get clarification. Noticed how I kept repeating what the Potential Client (PC) said, that just reinforces things. I also got the PC to uncover a pain point that they are having internally — remember that when you start to write the proposal — challenges to solutions!

Then I talked about the ratings/reviews, and the PC revealed that they integrate with TripAdvisor. You would have to do a little more digging here. I would search if there were any plugins that do this TripAdvisor owl eyes(honestly, I’m not sure if there are), but if not then TripAdvisor might have snippets of code to use. But keep in mind, with any 3rd party, that there might be some speedbumps that could slow down the project. If you use any 3rd party, you need to play by their rules, and that means things aren’t entirely within your control. So..I would put some buffer time (and price) in the proposal for this implementation.

I also asked about ad-serving. Often times, people in the media publishing world will just consider this a part of the package and not mention it. Remember, that these things are so ingrained in their heads as just being a part of their world that sometimes they’ll forget you’re not a part of their world. And the PC also said something that caught my ear – he said “our biggest money generator” – so that means there’s got to be other “money generators” right? Well, looks like there are, good thing I asked! I always err on the side of caution on things like this and ask. I’d rather end up looking a little stupid in their eyes than having an unhealthy project down the line. You can always play off the “looking stupid” part by saying “yeah, I thought that was the case, but just wanted to be 100% sure.” Ask, ask, ask—you’ll thank yourself in the long run and so will your team!

Then we got to the subscribers, and in Tony’s (PC) email I wasn’t sure if he had members on his site or just email list subscribers. But I asked him about members and uncovered it was something that they were thinking about internally. Now, this could be an opportunity to potentially upsell or increase the scope. I said I would get him the information and he’d take it from there. Now, you can get that info to him pretty quick and you can reach out to him in a few days to see if it’s something he’s had time to discuss with his team. He might not have, but it’s always good to get out in front of that stuff because when you’re in the midst of a project and another stakeholder enters the picture who wants the membership piece to the site, you can say “hey, we talked about that, it’s going to be $XX amount more.” You never know when the opportunity will arise. I sold one of the biggest projects of my career after I thought I had lost it! (Story for another day)

Then just to finalize, I wanted to make sure there wasn’t a rebranding initiative along with the redesign, believe me, there are people out there who will get that messed up. It’s just a matter of semantics sometimes and it pays to be clear. And then we talked about SEO, because let’s face it, SEO is a beast within itself. Many people who have homegrown CMS’s don’t have great implementation on the technical SEO. Things as simple as setting up their H1 to H6 tags could be poor. Often times they don’t have meta-descriptions or tags, alt image text, an XML sitemap, or a robots.txt file. And if you want to get really fancy you can talk about microformatting, schema.org might have certain microformatting tags that it can classify their content as. Oooooo.

The needs of web proposal writing..

Now, that was obviously a mock call, but I did have very similar conversations and I went more in-depth than I did in this post. But notice how I left the communication lines open. I told him how when writing the proposal and talking with the team, often times, other questions arise. Set the expectation that they will be hearing from you again before they receive the proposal. That will also set an expectation that they’re not going to get the proposal in a day or two. Remember to leave the door open.

The trick to writing solid proposals is asking smart questions. And more importantly, it’s about asking the right follow-up questions. I know many people think web proposal writing is just a formality, but I think it’s one of the most creative activities one can do in the tech world. Why, you ask? Well…I’ll show you on the next post when I write about my web proposal writing evolution.

 

I know I’ve used this clipart before that’s in the featured image (maybe I like it!), but because the Guy Fawkes mask has become synonymous (thanks to Anonymous) with web hackers and in turn with website security, I found it befitting to use once again.

This post is in direct relation to the talk I am about to give this Thursday for NIM on helping people overcome their website security insecurities. I will post the slides by the end of the week.

A little background…

Ever since I’ve been in the field of website security, it’s taken me a while to understand it. Working for Sucuri definitely helped in understanding it —but when I first started I did NOT get website security. It made no sense to me. And I’m a guy who comes from the agency world. I used to do front-end development work, I know design process, development process. That makes sense, you take one step forward and get closer to your goal…hopefully.  Not in website security, you side-step constantly. Because it’s not about control. Website security is a combination of technology, process, and people. You can’t control all those things, you can assess and mitigate risk in those areas, but you can’t control.

Helping people overcome their website security worries..

The motivation I have for giving the talk is two-fold:

  1. I really do want to help people overcome their worries and fears. Website security can be frustrating, befuddling, scary, complex, and down-right incomprehensible. And to preface, this is a post about website security. Not web security, not IT security, not PC security, or network security. This is a post on protecting your website. Although, all those other layers of security do sort of play a role in website security, that’s why it can be super confusing.
  2. Is to let people know that as website owners and managers, we have a responsibility to not only our sites, but our visitors, the world wide web as a whole. We need to be good stewards of the internet and that starts with the properties that we manage online. Our posture needs to be strong, solid.

So…I guess you could say my hopes for this post/talk are that the audience picks up one (hopefully more) tidbits of information that will make them more diligent online. I want people to understand website security a little better and to give them a plan of action to get their website security and online posture in order.

Let’s begin

The first thing I need everyone to understand is that website security involves several things. It involves Technology, Processes, and the People:

  • Technology – you have a local computer – you have a hosting environment, the different systems that you use that are integrated with your website, social media, the list goes on..
  • Process – Protocols that are used to transmit data (HTTP/HTTPS), protocols you use to recover your site once it’s been hacked, the process for updating your website or storing a password, the list goes on..
  • People – This one’s the hard one, the wildcard. We have hackers, that are getting better by the minute coming out with new technology. There’s us – the website owners – maybe we don’t have enough education. Then there’s the people that visit our website, maybe they have malware on their computer and upload something to your site, the list goes on..

Technology, Process, and People

So, the point is, we can’t control everything, but we can mitigate the risk.

Let’s talk about the people, mainly hackers…

hack·er ~/ˈhakər/ (noun): a person who uses computers to gain unauthorized access to data.

Originally ‘hacker’ was a term of esteem, used to describe someone who tinkered around with systems and could break things down, reverse engineer, someone who was really good at understanding their system (whatever it was).  Now it’s used to describe someone who wants to do malicious harm online.

HACKERS: White-hat, Black-hat, Grey-hat , Blue-hat. There are different types of hackers.

  • Script Kiddies – usually computer novices who take advantage of hacking tools, vulnerability scanners and the like
  • Hacktivists – groups like Anonymous, hacking for a cause, usually to expose information, get someone out of prison, expose a corrupt official, things like that.
  • Cyberterrorists – hackers that go after government entities. Experts say World War III will be fought online, I whole-heartedly believe that.
  • Organized Criminal Hackers (Hacking rings) – groups that take down targets like Home Depot, the MySpace passwords that were recently stolen, etc.
  • Security researchers – the good guys (or the in-betweeners – Grey-hats) that try to get ahead of the bad guys or find a vulnerability before it’s exploited.

Motivations of hackers:

  • Revenue/Money
  • Resources
  • Just because they can / or the challenge of it.

Attack types and distribution..

For the most part you’re going to see two types of attacks. Automated, which make up the vast majority of the attacks that are out there. Then the less frequent targeted attacks. The targeted attacks are the ones we hear about and read about in the news headlines. But the ones we really need to worry about are the opportunistic or automated attacks. Given enough time, attackers can sit back and have their networks work for them, and have their scripts slowly find, test, and attack every available target on the internet. Malicious automation has gotten increasingly sophisticated and shows no signs of slowing down.

You can download Sucuri’s Q1 report on hacked websites here: https://sucuri.net/website-security/website-hacked-report

It’s pretty scary stuff, but to give you a precursor, Google reported in March of 2015 that 17 million website users had been greeted with some form of malware warning that the websites visited were either trying to steal sensitive information or trying to install malicious software on the users’ computers. In March of 2016, that number jumped to 50 million!! I imagine next year that number will grow to triple, maybe quadruple that. You can see as the internet grows, so does malware distribution. Google, alone, blacklists over 20,000 websites per week, over a million per year. That’s pretty staggering.

But what are some of the vehicles for distributing malware? There are a lot, almost too many to name, but I’ll name a few that’s seen quite often:

  • DDoS attacks – it’s an attempt to make a website unavailable by overwhelming it with traffic from multiple sources.
  • Brute Force Attacks – this is a trial and error method used by hackers to crack passwords through exhaustive efforts, not strategic ones. We see this a lot with Content Management Systems.
  • Software vulnerabilities – a weakness in a website or system that allows a hacker to gain access and/or infect it with malware. These are usually due to people not updating their systems.
  • Drive-by Downloads – refers to the unintentional download of a virus or malware onto a personal computer or mobile device
  • Phishing Lure – an attempt to acquire sensitive information (passwords, usernames, etc.) by masquerading as a trustworthy entity online.
  • Malicious Redirects / SEO spam – this is the manipulation of a website’s SEO and/or links to get traffic to a certain page. Often times a pornography site, or pharma page like Cialis or Viagra.

There are others like XSS (Cross-site scripting), SQLi (SQL injections), RFI (Remote File Inclusion), LFI (Local File Inclusion), and more. So we need to be very diligent, things are already working against us.

But what do we control as website owners?

A few things, right? Right now, we control our website (well, hopefully if you haven’t been hacked and locked out of your site), and what goes on it — things like themes, plugins, modules, extensions, add-ons…

We also control our hosting environment. And I want to make a quick note on how hosting plays a role in website security. Here is a picture of my CyberDuck (the FTP client) – I’ve blurred out a few of the domains I have on there (for security purposes).

interface for cyberduck ftp

 

The thing to note here, is that all these 6 sites, all these properties, they sit next to each other in your hosting account. It doesn’t make a difference to me if you have a dedicated server, a VPS, or a shared server. Most people have shared servers. Why? Because they’re cheap and they offer unlimited domains. I don’t think it’s much of an issue that people sit on shared servers with other people and “share” the resources, that’s not really the problem. Hosting providers will have their infrastructure set up so that it would be very difficult for malware or a virus to jump from one account to the other. But the issue it within our own hosting account.

Take the above picture. Say the two sites that are not blurred out – BeingAJiLe.com and AdamJamesLamagna.com – say these sites were really important to me (they are), but let’s say those are the only two I cared about on my shared server. The other 4 sites that are blurred out, let’s say I don’t care about them. Let’s say I never update (I do, but for argument sake). That means that those sites are susceptible through software vulnerabilities, or weaknesses in the code. If one of those sites gets infected, it could infect all the other sites on my server through an activity called cross-site contamination. I wrote a post on it. But remember this — your web host / server is only as strong as its weakest link.

Your web host /server is only as strong as its weakest link

And that’s how hosting plays a roll in website security. People put development or test sites on the same server as production sites, and then forget about those sites. Take a count of how many sites you have on your server, and do a little cleanup if there are sites on there that you don’t care about.

What do we do to actively protect our sites??

This is the thing, there’s really only 1 thing you can do to protect your site. And that’s to install a firewall, specifically a website application firewall. A firewall is a catch-all phrase, right? There are network Firewall stickmanfirewalls, server-level firewalls, local computer firewalls, they all protect different things. You can read up on the Differences in Security Firewalls, it’s a good post. But a website application firewall, also known as a WAF, will protect your site from malicious incoming web traffic. What it does is inspects packets of data and compares it to known vulnerabilities and known trusted sources. If it matches a trusted source, it passes through, if it matches a vulnerability, it doesn’t.

But Firewalls, as all security technologies, are not infallible. They make mistakes, not very often, but maybe there’s a new virus that it hasn’t seen yet. It won’t pick up on it and block it from your website. But that’s the reality and why having a good online posture comes in handy.

Understanding the security state of your websites…

Another technology you can use to get insight into what is going on already on your website is called a scanner, or monitoring device. There are a few free ones out there like these:

All pretty solid technologies, but again they’re fallible. They’ll check the source code and files and compare it to known vulnerabilities. If a vulnerability has not been discovered yet, it won’t pick up on it. But that’s just the way it is, so we have to be strong in our online posture to be able to react accordingly, and hopefully prevent infection from ever happening.

Essentials of good online posture for your website security..

A few things (and let me preface this by saying ‘I don’t want to tell you what you already know’) that I want to impress upon you that are essential to good online posture.

  1. Backups – this one should be pretty obvious. You need to backup the files and the database (both of these!!). If you don’t change your content all that often, backup once a month. If you blog everyday, backup daily. Now for each specific CMS, there will be tools you can use. For WordPress, I use BackUpWordPress – it lets me automate backups on a frequent basis. But, what it will end up doing is placing the .zip file and .sql backup on the server. Remember what I said earlier about servers. You need to remember that once your backups are complete, to remove them from your server. Put them in a safe place on your local computer or somewhere in the cloud. Otherwise, your backups could become corrupted if your website gets infected.
  2. Updates – another one that’s pretty obvious. You need to update your site. Along with cool new features also comes security patches. This is what we care about – security patches. Now WordPress has been really great at backwards compatibility, meaning that when you update, it’s rare that thing break on your site. Well…as long as it’s not super customized. For those sites that are super custom or other CMS’s that aren’t great at backwards compatibility (ehem…Drupal), then the only way to really protect against this is to get a website application firewall – what I talked about earlier. Most firewalls will stop those vulnerabilities at the edge before it even gets to your site. Known security patches will get written into a firewall’s ruleset to help protect. Otherwise, I would make plans on fixing your website to be able to do updates.
  3. Passwords – I believe people are getting much better about their passwords, I think… Use a password manager like LastPass or 1Password. I bought 1Password for $50 for my lifetime, it’s totally worth it. Password managers will generate strong passwords for you, you don’t have to memorize them (you only have to memorize one – the one that gets you into 1Password). It will open up a particular website and autofill for you, which is super nice! And you can also share passwords via vaults with team members through a service like DropBox or Google Drive.
  4. Access Control / User Access – this ones always a tricky one. You have a CMS, and other users need to be on for whatever reason. Maybe they put new products on the site, or write blog posts for you, or make updates to plugins. Whatever the reason, users need to get on your site, you can limit their access through things like user roles, which WordPress does really well. But the other piece is authentication. Authentication is huge in the CMS world. I wold strongly suggest enabling something called two-factor authentication. You can do this pretty easily in WordPress and I’m sure other CMS’s too. You need to download Google Authenticator in the App Store using your Android or iPhone. Then I used the Google Authenticator plugin. When you install the plugin and go to a User (you can have a different code for each user, which is ideal) it will ask you to enable it and a QR code will pop up. On your iPhone/Android, you just scan the QR code and then miraculously it’s synced up. Now, every time you go to log in, it will ask you to put in your 6-digit code from Google Authenticator. The system knows it’s YOU who is logging in, and not someone else coming through a Brute Force attack. Now, if you don’t have an iPhone or don’t want the hassle, you can always install CAPTCHA or ReCAPTCHA, which will authenticate that the user logging in is not a robot/bot by asking it to spell some hard to read text or doing a math problem. I prefer Google Authenticator, but CAPTCHA is at least another layer of security.

So, where do I start if I don’t know where to start…

You start with an asset inventory list:

  1. Create a list of all the sites you own or manage:
    1. Where are those sites hosted?
    2. What plugins, modules, extensions, themes, 3rd-party systems are on or integrated with my website? Are they necessary? If not, remove them.
    3. Make a list of all the people who are allowed access to your site. Evaluate their permission levels, stress strong passwords, and enable two-factor authentication.
  2. Make a backup of each site:
    1. Files and Database – remember to take them off your server and store them some place safe.
  3. Make sure your site is updated:
    1. Core files, plugins, themes, modules, extensions, etc.
  4. Scan your sites for malware:
    1. Use one of the free DIY tools offered by Sucuri or other companies.
    2. Or use a scanner specific to your CMS, see below.
  5. Actively protect your site using a Firewall or CMS specific technology.

Here are a few tools for you to put in your website tool DIY basket:

Platform Agnostic Scanners:

CMS specific scanners (HackTarget has got some cool tools):

CMS specific scanners will compare your install to a trutsted install of the specific CMS to see if things have changed much, etc. It’s good to see if files have been changed or if there’s something on your site that just shouldn’t be there.

Reasonably priced Firewalls:

If you absolutely can’t pay for a Firewall and need something free, then I’ll use a combination of Cloudflare’s free CDN service, and Wordfence (this is only for WordPress users) – they bill the plugin as the “most downloaded security plugin for WordPress” – I feel like I’ve heard that before. But either way, this combination works really well for my sites, but keep in mind, my sites aren’t super high traffic. I imagine if you have a super high traffic site, that you can pay for a reasonably priced firewall.

But if you can’t, the above combination works for me. I use Wordfence’s automated scanning and Firewall, in conjunction with Cloudflare’s free CDN network (which will speed your site up regardless) and their security features. I also have two-factor authentication on my site and I use Login Lockdown which will limit Brute Force attempts.

In closing…

I know this is all a lot to take in. Website security just isn’t one thing, it’s many. We were told that putting up a website is easy, and that’s true, it is easy. But managing and protecting and keeping your site/visitors secure on a daily basis is the hard part! It’s a constant battle, but I hope this brought a little clarity to securing your website and being a more responsible steward of the internet.

A few more resources if you’re interested..

If you have any questions, please feel free to reach out! Many thanks!

Revised Listserve… and the Hamster Wheel

June 18, 2016
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It is not true that people stop pursuing dreams because they grow old, they grow old because they stop pursuing dreams.

I wrote a post a while ago on what I would write if I won the listserve. It’s a cool community of about 25,000 people, all over the world, who are on an email list. Every single day a new winner emerges and gets to write a single email to the ever-growing subscriber list. That email can say whatever you want it to say, you can write and inform and inspire and vent and reminisce as long as you don’t add any links of any kind. So, no links to your business or website or blog or whatever, but you can promote yourself or your music or your art or your creativity or whatever, any way you’d like.

Communities that captivate…

I’ve been an avid member of this community for over a year now, I’ve never won…..bummer. Yet there is still hope that I will one day have my time in the spotlight to speak to the other members of this community.

The Listserve in textI’ve been captivated by people’s willingness to share their lives, it’s as breathtaking as it is depressing. And I mean that in a way that connotes true deep sadness from my own life. Because…. I think I’ve forgotten the meaning of my own life. People talk about certain moments in their life that changed them, parents discuss their child being transgender, or how saving the life of a stranger morphed them, or how their job could either help or destroy a life, or a high-schooler contemplating his options for college and how it’s such a dramatic decision. People take these moments, they take their lives, and they need to attach a meaning to it, because meaning is what we are all here for.

We all have meaning…it’s the reason we do things we don’t necessarily want to do.

We all have meaning (or at least I hope we do), it’s the reason we get up in the morning, it’s the reason we do things we don’t necessarily want to do. But without that meaning, life is lost. I feel as we grow older, that meaning changes into something we didn’t necessarily mean it to change into. I get that dreams fade, or disappear, or you tell yourself you’re an adult now, so your dream of being an artist has just got to be a hobby. And that’s ok, except for when you resign yourself to the fact that “this is it” — that’s a horrible place to be.

People say get a job you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life. But as most of us know, that’s hard to do. If you had millions of dollars and never had to work another day in your life, what would you spend your time doing?

The heartbreak that I feel sometimes and this dysphoria inside makes me gaze back on my previous years, the ones that are long behind me, yet still dance around my mind like party-goers on a mischievous night. I’ve had moments too that change me. Moments that add meaning to my life. Moments that are so meaningful you segment your life into two sections: before this moment, and after it.

It makes me want to search again, to find anything that’s meaningful, to feel anything that isn’t the numbness of my everyday life. But I’m here, writing this post, instead of out there, trying to live.

inspiring sunset over an island ocean
Random Sunset Image
Hopefully that cheered you up from my depressing rant!

I glimpse inward and realize that my life has come to a cross-roads…as many lives do over the course of a natural life-span. I am not close to where I want to be. I am living on the edge of a precipice that is miles outside the inner warmth of my most prized possession—my happiness. And I believe I’m not alone.

Technology and its correlation to our lives…

I recently wrote a post on the affects of technology in our culture and I’ve briefly searched the internet to find a lot more on the subject: We are not obligated to build our lives around technology and Technology is changing how we live, but it needs to change how we work. And the list goes on and on… The point to make here is that many of us, and I do mean many, use technology as their crutch or their excuse. I know I do. To not live a life that you truly want. It’s gotten so easy to be distracted by technology, and work, and emails, and Facebook, that I have to wonder to myself if we’re all really living anymore. And I think there’s a direct correlation to people’s (I don’t want to called it unhappiness, but..) uneasiness of their current situations. Many people live to work, right? Find a good job, find a career, get married, have kids, stability, savings, retirement….oh retirement, now I can pursue the things I want?? I know people say “well…that’s just life..” but I ask — “does it have to be?

Sustainable living versus the hamster wheel of life

I recently started looking into articles about people living off the grid. I know, we’ve all heard that term, and do we really understand what it means? Well, off the grid means you live a sustainable life, which means if something happened to the city water supply or electricity went down for an entire county, you’d be comfortable! I found this article about the off-the-grid guy and how he went from paying thousands and thousands of dollars every year on things like sewage, water, and electricity to paying only $300 per year in bills, that’s pretty awesome! If you want to read his story, check it out – http://www.vice.com/read/a-guy-whos-been-living-off-the-grid-for-20-years-how-i-can-live-more-sustainably

And he’s not the only one who’s done this, there have been others. And now what we’re seeing is that “living off the grid” is being banned in certain areas. That’s right, parts of Canada and the U.S. are now banning living off the grid. Which seems really crappy to me. Because if you take the guy who “lives off the grid” and see what he was paying for bills every year, and what he now pays, that’s a significant decrease. Yet people trying to be sustainable and leave a smaller carbon footprint on the earth, are being banned to do so. Why is that?

I don’t want to call it conspiracy, but we live in a hamster wheel most days. Get a job, buy a house, workCartoon business guy running on a hamster wheel to pay off that house (it’ll only take you a lifetime!), spend money to live in that house on extras like water, electricity, cable, garbage disposal, lawn treatments, repairs, and the list goes on. And this is why humans work constantly, to pay for the American dream that really doesn’t feel like a dream anymore. It feels like a trap.

So….what IS important? I guess my guess is as a good as yours. What’s important to me? I mean, when I really sit down and think about it? My relationships. With my family, my friends, the people I’ve connected with over the years. The things I’m passionate about are important to me like music and writing. The dreams I still have that I won’t let die. I’m also really interested in technology, that’s why I blog about it and work in it. But I can’t use it as a crutch anymore, it needs to be used thoughtfully and not all the time. Otherwise, I feel like my life will just pass by and the days of feeling like I’m really living will be over. I don’t want that, I don’t think anyone does.

And just to be clear, I’m not telling anyone they need to live off the grid or not be on the computer as much. What I’m saying is this… when the road ends for you and you look back on your life, what regrets will you have? What will you wish you would have done? Do that thing….NOW!!!

Top TV Shows Ever!

June 17, 2016
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And the top T.V. shows list continues…

Only this time, it’s the top tv shows ever, of all time! I know, I know..how can you really tell what the greatest tv shows of all time are? Well…I’ll start by saying this… these TV shows are the ones I love the most and have watched them over and over again.

So, a few guidelines for this:

  • The TV shows have to be over, that means no more episodes to come, otherwise it could end up sucking well after this post is already written
  • There will be no sitcoms in this list, not to say there might not be comedy (actually there probably won’t be), but no sitcoms
  • This can be both cable network TV shows and premium channel TV shows, obviously channels like HBO and Showtime have some really kickass shows

That’s it for the guidelines. But one quick note, I couldn’t get the ordered list to go from 5 to 1, so it goes from 1 to 5, however, this is a countdown. Out of my top five favorite TV shows, number 1 here, is actually my number 5, get it? Ok, cool! Without further ado, let’s just get right to it.

The Top TV Shows Ever

  1. Sons of Anarchy (2008 – 2014): Hands down, the best motorcycle club TV show ever. I actually think this might be the only motorcycle club TV show ever, but I’d have to think about it. Well, there is American Chopper and CHiPs, but those don’t compare to the ultimate motorcycle club show. SOA was just awesome! It follows the lives of the men of SAMCRO (Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club Redwood Originals), yeah…it’s a mouthful. Sons of Anarchy Everything rotated around a little town called Charming (a fictional town located somewhere outside San Fransisco), it’s where SAMCRO was headquartered and their fearless leader, Jackson “Jax” Teller (well, not until season 5), took care of business. This show had just about every known criminal element in it: Motorcycle gangs, the IRA, the Mexican Drug Cartels, street gangs, white supremacists, and more! As the seasons progressed, we see a lot of crazy shit happen. The club kills its own president, Jax kills his own mother because she killed Jax’s wife. Oh, the bloodshed! But it was well done, and well worth the hours I spent watching it! Bravo, FX, bravo!
  2. Carnivàle (2003 – 2005): This is one you may not be familiar with because it was only on HBO for 2 short seasons, but man, it had quite the impact on me! Carnivàle takes place amidst the Great Carnivàle tv show Depression and Dust Bowl era. It follows one lone carnival team of misfits, weirdos, bearded ladies, psychics, and more (aptly named Carnivàle). In the first episode, the carnival stops in a town called Milfay where they pick up a young man named Ben Hawkins. Ben is a healer, but doesn’t understand the magnitude of his power until Management (the unknown entity that runs Carnivàle) tells him what’s he’s capable of. The other story line follows a preacher that has his own special powers, which are seeing people’s darkest secrets and bringing them to light. The ending episode brings these two stories together and culminates in a show down between good and evil! It’s just a super cool exploration of the powers that man could possess if they weren’t actually men, lol! And the fact that it’s got Carnies, and takes place during the Great Depression, just makes this show so much worth watching. It’s cool, creepy, suspenseful, and has an awesome ending!
  3. Dexter (2006 – 2013): Ah — the killer of killers, the man of all men, Dexter! Yeayah! This show was awesome for a couple of different reasons. 1). Dexter gets soooo much justice. I mean, he really does. He goes after the bad guys!! Granted, he’s a bad guy, but not really. 2). Dexter is a serial Dexter's face wrapped in plastic wrapkiller…with morals, he’s got a moral code. Granted, his father had to instill that into him over years and years of practice, but he finally got it! The show really does make you root for the serial killer. Dexter works as a blood spatter analyst for the Miami Police Department, where each season he encounters new enemies and serial killers. He also has to keep an eye out for his crazy sister, played by the lovely Jennifer Carpenter, and his girlfriend who has her own baggage as well as some kids that love Dexter. But every season brings another overarching story line, while Dexter still manages to kill on a weekly basis. Scouting out killers, he gets absolute proof of their ungodly deeds, and then wrapping them in plastic on a murder board where he usually yields a weapon that’s fitting for that particular prey. All in all, it’s provocatively suspenseful and wonderfully amusing. And I must say, I didn’t mind the ending. Everyone seems to have hated this ending, but not I! I actually thought it was rather befitting. Everyone thinks Dexter dies in the hurricane, but he fakes his own death and gets to continue doing what he does best…kill killers!
  4. Breaking Bad (2008 – 2013): Say my name…I’m the man that killed Gus Fring.  Walter White, the most deadliest chemist to ever have graced our living rooms! This TV show was almost number one, almost! When it first started, I didn’t know what to think of it. Here’s this high school chemistry teacher diagnosed with cancer, and he wants to leave his family with some cash before he dies. Well…we all know how that turned out. Instead of doing what he set out to do, Walter White became the meth kingpin of Albuquerque. Going up against mid level dealers first, then taking on the cartel themselves, and finally ending in a hail of gunfire with the white supremacist gang he hired for muscle. Wow, was this show just fantastic. The acting was phenomenal. WalterWhite&JessePinkmanBryan Cranston was superb in his role as the unassuming chemist morphing into the bad-ass Heisenberg. And then there was Aaron Paul, as Jesse Pinkman, so conflicted about his role in Walter White’s transformation and the bodies that start dropping, he starts using and abusing the drug they’re cooking up. The dynamic between the two of these characters really made for great television. I believe they both won some Emmy’s, as well they should! I’m not sure America will ever have a show quite like this for years, if not decades, to come.
  5. The Wire (2002 – 2008): And the number one spot goes to…..The Wire! If you haven’t seen this series, then you really have no idea what you are missing out on. This TV show is by far, hands down, the best television show ever written in the history of TV. I know, bold statement, right? Just watch the show. It’s an in-depth character study of the people and life on the streets of big bad Baltimore. the police of the tv show 'the wire'All 5 seasons follow the players of the West Baltimore drug trade and the street level dealers. But each season is a different aspect of Baltimore infrastructure; Season 1 is the police, season 2 is the Baltimore port (the docks), season 3 is the politics, season 4 the school system, and season 5 the newspaper. So each season we see new faces and new characters among the old ones. Major characters will die off halfway through a season, it’s crazy. But for the most part it shows the efforts the police take to stop the drug dealers and the discipline the dealers adhere to to not get caught. It’s written by a guy who used to work for the newspaper in Baltimore and report on the police beat. It’s such a realistic view of life in Baltimore (actually, I have no idea because I’ve only driven through Baltimore), but from what I’ve heard The Wire hits really close to home for Baltimore street life. The series even uses real reformed criminals as some of the characters. There are literally dozens and dozens of characters in this series to name. But here are a few: McNulty – the hard drinking and whoring police detective that constantly pisses off his bosses; Bubbles – the drug addicted street merchant with a heart of gold who runs around all day selling whatever he can to get his fix; Omar – actually based on a real person, is the homosexual stick-up artist who robs drug dealers and whistles “the cheese stands alone” as a mantra when he’s on the warpath; Herc and Carver – the two street busting cops who are stupid yet smart at the same time; Avon Barksdale – the drug kingpin of West Baltimore whothe drug dealers of the tv show 'the wire' gets sentenced to prison time in season one; Bodie – one of Barksdale’s soldiers; Ronnie – the pretty DA woman who litigates the drug dealers and falls in love with Lieutenant Daniels, the African-American rising star of the police force, but still has a little dirt on him; Kima Greggs – the lesbian cop who isn’t ready to settle down; Stringer Bell – the gentleman business gangster and the right hand man of Avon; Lester Freamon – the real police who got put into the “evidence unit” after he ran afoul of his bosses; Marlo Stanfield – the young kingpin who takes over the Barksdale territory; Snoop – the weirdest talking Baltimore woman gangster you’ll ever hear; and the list just goes on and on and on…. But as the seasons tick by, you’ll be surprised at every turn because those who deserve it in this show, rarely ever get it in the end, but isn’t that how life goes? I’ve watched this series a few times and every time it gets better and better! Oh, and Method Man’s in it and he plays a real prick….he gets it in the end!

I know what you are thinking, it must have taken me a long time to watch all those episodes, and you’re right, it did. But every hour sure was worth it! I live vicariously through the characters on these television shows as I imagine most any of us do. I hope you enjoyed the list I put together for you and I hope you agree with at least one of these TV shows being on your top 5 list of all time! Let me know!