Monday, March 30, 2009

Not What You Expected?

We're in the business of getting customers to see you... and buy from you. How others see you or their perception of you really comes down to just two things; what was promised and what was delivered.

This is a large part of brand building: consistency.

Your advertising and marketing sets the expectation, your frontline staff deliver it.

When you run an ad, you make a promise, you set the expectation. This is typically done through the creative approach that a team like ours gives the advertising. We spend time learning about your business, finding out what makes you tick, determining your essence and character and pour all of that into a business card sized ad (hey, don't look at me - sometimes, this is all you run). There's a lot of info that has to go into any ad, even a small one. The information that is on the ad, the look, the feel - it's all part of the brand promise and sets the expectation for what the customer is in store for.

As a creative agency, we have to introduce the personality and essence of a company to new eyes, make it appealing and comforting - all in a short period of time and sometimes with limited space. This is why font selection, colour, image selection and words are so important to the success of an ad.

Getting people to like your company can be easy, but, we also have to get them to buy from you, and that can be a challenge. The expectation that your advertising sets, this promise you make to consumers needs to be backed up by real world delivery on the expectation.

Too many times I have seen an ad with a glossy stock photo of a great service interaction in a spotless retail setting only to go to the actual store, fight for parking, dodge 'wet floor' signs, and empty skids in the aisle only to be greeted by service staff that are more interested in each others activities after their shift than my order.

Now, if that's the reality, that's fine, just don't promise a palace when you operate out of a shed. If you have a shed, use it in your marketing - tell people, "we ain't fancy, but that's how you save!" If the shoe fits, wear it, and flaunt it for all it's worth.

Your frontline service is the great equalizer. Before you go and make promises your staff can't keep, do a little shopping of your own. Find out if what you want to promise is actually going to hold up to the real world.

If it doesn't match up, there's but two choices; change the message so that it does or explain the expectation to your staff. In either case, you should probably contact us after you've figured this out to save yourself some trouble and some hard earned money (really hard earned if the expectation and delivery aren't lined up).

When you are firing on just these two cylinders, you will likely make an impact positively on your sales. Sounds simple, but look at your operation closely see if what you are promoting, is what your customers are getting.

Baby steps. Next time we'll talk more on building your brand.

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Saturday, March 21, 2009

From the Ashes...

Two thousand and nine started out great, but the last two weeks we have begun to see things slow down with our existing clients as a result of the economic recession we are facing.

I believe we are in a pretty good position to weather the storm, our pricing is still well below the majority of competing advertising agencies and we operate very efficiently. But, this position is only good if we have work to do and clients to do it for.

Luckily, we have a terrific reputation in the marketplace and finding new customers has never been hard... it's never been a focus though, until recently.

Aside from some minor technical challenges that have plagued us recently (accounting system crash + bosses system crash = lot's of wasted time) we have still managed to bring in some new clients in the first quarter. New clients are great for a number of reasons: they invigorate staff, stimulate fresh thought and give us new projects to focus on.

Now, more than ever, is a great time to be a new client, believe me on this. Here's why: when I first set out to create Francomedia, my vision was to provide clients with a professional team to offer a creative approach to their projects and as we grew (doubled twice in two years), we slowly became more deadline focused and had little time to collaborate and flush out ideas to their fullest potential. Now, don't get me wrong, we still did great work, we were just unable to put an entire team on every thought. As we slow down with our existing clientele, we have more time to work together again on projects/issues, for new clients and for existing clients. We can 'blue sky' everything and will - removing the boundaries on creative thought is what got us to where we are today and a renewed focus on creative approaches will be just what our clients are looking for in this economy.

It's also a good time to be an existing client of Francomedia, for many of the same reasons. Our staff are very familiar with your brand and your market position, believe me when I say, just because we're not working on something for you at the moment does not mean you are not being discussed and thought of on a regular basis. We are always uncovering opportunities and pitch ideas internally and this is a direct result of a understanding your goals and objectives as a client.

So, here we are, back into problem solving mode, creative ideas will abound and focusing on what we are best at will generate the results our clients are looking for. Each of our staff are very talented in different areas, I didn't just hire them to make me look good, I hired them to make our clients look good - and they never disappoint.

I am excited about this spring and the influx of new work as well as a renewed focus on our existing customers.

We are happy to be working with the following new clients: Noise Solutions, Laura Schlosser Real Estate, Beautiful Blooms and the United Nations (Calgary). Welcome to Francomedia.

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Friday, March 20, 2009

Combating Spam (part 6 of 6)


In addition to the aforementioned ways to combat spam, there are some other popular methods to achieve a lean spam-free diet. Keep in mind though, that popularity doesn’t always equate with user-friendliness or accessibility.

Black Lists

If you’re a Web Administrator you can keep track of IP addresses from known spammers and add them to a black list. Spammers usually spam from the same IP, so this is fairly effective. In some cases, spammers will use dynamic IPs, but this is not as common.

This is a well-known method of reducing spam and is quite effective, but only part of the solution.


This method has gained a lot of popularity in recent years as well as some scrutiny. Basically what this method does is ask you to type what letters/numbers you see in the image provided. If correct, the message will be sent; if not correct, you have to refresh the page to get a new image. In some cases you may have to enter the information all over again. This would prove tiresome and annoying especially if you made a mistake because you couldn’t make out the letters/numbers in the image.

The scrutiny is well justified as issues of accessibility and user-friendliness come into play.

Skill Testing

A more recent method I have been seeing is one which involves the user answering a basic skill-testing question, one that a spambot wouldn’t be able to answer. For example: “What color is an apple?” or “What is 12 divided by 2?”

Again, while potentially effective, the question of accessibility and user-friendliness comes up. Users don’t like having to answer extra questions just to submit a simple contact form.

Note: This method works just like the hidden field method described earlier, but in this case it is ok to have data in the field. The chances that an automated spambot can answer the question correctly are slim. And even if somehow spambots figure it out, you can always change the question.


No E-mail Addresses in HTML

An obvious, or should be obvious, consideration is to avoid hard-coding e-mail addresses into your web pages. This is one of the first things spambots and spammers look for. A general rule of thumb is if you can view the source code to your web page, so can a spambot!

Don’t Reply to Spam

You have to realize the majority of spam is automated. It in no way is a personal attack on you. So don't start replying to all your spam with death threats. If you do reply what this effectively does is tell the spammer that your e-mail address is active, resulting in, you guessed it, MORE spam!

Besides, a spambot is a cyberNETic organism - it has no feelings. Threats are futile.


There are many ways to combat e-mail spam. Applied correctly and in tandem, you should see a significant reduction of junk mail. Unfortunately some people like leaving the back door open, wide open.

Keep in mind that the volume of spam is directly related to how long your website has been on the net, how well known it is, how many e-mail addresses there are, etc. If your business website falls into the large and popular category, I hope for your sake your web guy isn’t asleep on his keyboard.

I hope you have learned a thing or two on the nature of e-mail spam and how to combat it effectively.

"Knowing is half the battle..."

Part 5
Part 4
Part 3
Part 2
Part 1

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Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Combating Spam (part 5 of 6)


In most cases client-side validation is not enough, or even adequate. Spambot programmers always seem to find a way to shove their useless crap into your mailbox. Luckily, there are some clever ways around this.

At this point, I don’t think it’s necessary for your server to validate every field all over again. You have already done this on the client-side. At this stage, anything violating the validation is spam anyways; so if flagged, simply abort the mail.

The last thing you want to do is allow spam to cause a strain on your server because of constant validation checks from never-ending junk mail.

Hidden Fields

Spambots typically search FORM pages for available fields to fill out. (This is easily accomplished via the HTML “name” attribute) Knowing this, you can create a hidden form field that is not available to the user, and then do a simple check to see if anything has been entered. If so, a spambot must have filled it out, so abort the email.

Note: The field must be made hidden via CSS and not HTML because smarter spambots can easily check if the “hidden” HTML attribute has been set. It can then decide to bypass the field.

Access Denied

Most spambots search the net for common page names like “contact.html” or “contact.php” and spam them directly via HTTP requests.

Pages with contact forms should only be accessed via the navigation of the website. Any attempt to directly access a php page is a security violation and in some most cases attributed to spambots or curious minds (a.k.a. hackers).

The solution for this is to set a variable in the calling page for the contact form and pass it as a parameter to the form page (set the variable to something other than “yes” or “true” as these are common) In the contact form page do a check for this variable, and if set, access is granted, otherwise, display an error or authorization warning.

Illegal Characters

This, once again, is the most important check you can do, especially on the server side of things.

Using a regular expression, check ALL fields for illegal characters. This is similar to the client-side validation process. Simply check for illegal characters, and if any field has them, abort the email process.

TIP: Make sure “magic_quotes_gpc” is disabled in your PHP.ini. If not, the server will append a backslash to things like apostrophes and quotes. This makes it a pain to do validation because it sends these backslashes in the mail message.

Part 4
Part 3
Part 2
Part 1

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Thursday, March 12, 2009

Combating Spam (part 4 of 6)

... Client-side Validation continued ...
Empty Spaces

This should go without saying. If you have empty fields, the form should not be submitted, and an error should be displayed. You don’t want empty data being sent to your mail now do you? Sometimes empty email is far worse than those persistent Viagra ads. With the latter, at least you have something to read and curse at. ;-)

You could create a class called “required” and assign it to all fields that require data. Then validate and check all “required” fields for empty data. Keep in mind “empty” data could mean many things. It could mean a null value, an empty string, single space or series of spaces, or even a carriage return. You should test for all these conditions.

Testing for empty spaces is also a great way to promote data integrity, especially if you are collecting information and storing it in a database.

Phone Number

Usually people don’t like entering phone numbers into contact forms. If you require this information, then you better validate the field so that, at the very least, you don’t get random letters and numbers.

Checking for valid phone numbers not only prevents garbage text from being entered, it is also another way to slow spammers down, if only for a little bit. It also forces persistent spambot programmers to adapt their code.

... generally spammers and hackers are kind of lazy. They like to do as little as possible with the highest possible gain. So, rewriting spambot programming is not always in their best interest. They would rather take advantage of people who are careless enough to leave the back door open...

Make sure your phone numbers are in the format of ten digits, including area code.

TIP: A common practice for user friendliness is to separate a phone number into three fields and auto-jump to the next field. A hidden field can be used to concatenate the values for easy validation.

Postal Code

Much like the validation for a phone number, correct syntax will slow spammers down. This really aggravates them because they don’t care about entering postal codes. The great thing about the World Wide Web is that it is all one big postal code! An e-mail address is an e-mail address regardless of where you live.

Having to enter letter-number-letter-number-letter-number is really annoying, even for regular users. Therefore, by forcing spammers and spambots to do this, you are cutting down on invalid data as well as trimming the spam.

Canadian postal codes must be in the format T0T 0T0.


E-mail validation is fairly important because you want to ensure your visitors leave a valid return address of their choosing. Usually people don’t want you to reply to the e-mail address provided by their web server. Furthermore, you want to annoy your spammers by entering valid data.

Hey, it’s not like a spammer or spambot is going to leave you a return address so that you can exchange in witty banter. But, at least you have fired one more torpedo at the little buggers.

This field must be in the correct format of having a minimum of one “@” and one “.” Furthermore, the “@” must not be the first character, and the “.” must not be the last character. This is a simple check to do, and goes a long way.

Part 3
Part 2
Part 1

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Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Lights! Camera! Artwork!

You like picture shows? Of course you do, everyone does. Me, I like em more than you, but that's neither here nor there...

I believe the film biz to be one of the deepest apexes of creativity. You've got hundreds of people furiously pouring their everything into one entity. Actors, writers, editors, set designers, makeup artists, conceptual artists, costume designers, sound engineers, visual effects artists, animators, musicians... you're hard pressed to find a type of creator not involved in a movie's production at some point or another. These people and positions are all imperative to the film's success, but there's one person (or persons) that often time get the shaft once the lights go down and the credits roll. And they were there first, wetting your appetite and giving you fodder for the water cooler months before you bought your ticket. I'm talking about the movie poster designer, of course.

There's no doubt that movie posters are engraved in the walls of time and pop-culture. Some are as recognizable as the golden arches and "Just Do It". Movie poster art is branding to the extreme; not only does it have to resonate with you, it has to entice you, engage you, and make you invest your money, your time, and your imagination. I think a lot of people don't give nearly enough credit to just how wonderful and creative these pieces of art can be. But in a time of floating heads, the movie poster seems to be a fading art form... but every once in a while we see one that makes us do a double take.

Here are a few of my favorite movie posters from throughout the years. This is in no way a definitive list of the best designed posters of all time, these are just some that have caught my eye as some really epic work (click each image to enlargesize it).

Mean Streets - A wonderful use of color, negative space, and type.
Dirty Harry - Love the depth in this one combined with the jarring bullet hole leading to the title.
Funny Games - The portrait itself is phenomenal. It truly captures the essence of the flick. The typography and placement is perfect too.
The Thing - One of the legendary Drew Struzan's best pieces. It's so "pulp" and terrifying and beautiful.
Lord of War - One of the most innovative portrait-style posters ever created.
The Dark Knight - This one completely steps out of the typical stuff for the action-hero genre. It's totally inventive and unsettling, and shows a tremendous amount of work.

Again, this is merely a fraction of pieces that I adore... what are some of your favorites? Leave a comment after the beep.

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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Combating Spam (part 3 of 6)


You want to do as much client-side validation as possible before sending the data off to the server. Let the spammer’s machine do the legwork of validating everything, before you place a load on your server and eat up precious bandwidth.

This type of validation, if done correctly, can also enhance the user experience by providing contextual error checking. This means error messages appear exactly where the corresponding error occurred, and in this manner can provide more detail about the type of error.

Typical forms merely display a single error message and put red asterisks next to erroneous fields, without any information on why the field is incorrect. In some cases you have to hit the BACK button, forcing the server to re-POST the data. This not only puts unnecessary load on the server, it can sometimes result in loss of data. You know how the internet is. Furthermore, do you really want your users clicking back and forth if something is wrong?

With client-side validation you can do a lot of good and save yourself some headache. You are making your forms more accessible, promoting data integrity, reducing spam, reducing bandwidth, and overall, adding some extra value to your site.

The next section covers the most common client-side validations to perform.

Illegal Characters

If you only do ONE type of validation let it be this one! This alone will eliminate a lot of spam. Failure to comply will result in a very bloated spam-filled diet, possibly requiring therapy and counseling afterward.

The reason this is so vital is because the mail() command in PHP has a vulnerability which allows spammers to inject (add) extra headers. In other words, a spammer could add extra recipients, e-mail forwards, HTML code, and links to malicious websites. Smart hackers could even access your PHP files, leading to all sorts of nastiness that would make even Bill Gates cringe. Sound dangerous? Indeed.

Left unchecked, this kind of security hole can cause a lot of problems and misery. You must eliminate, scratch that, disallow these ILLEGAL characters from being entered into your input fields in the first place.

Check ALL input fields for illegal characters. Don’t just check the MESSAGE field. All fields are equally vulnerable, disregarding their maximum character length.

Below is a list of the curious character culprits in question.

%, \, <, >, www, http, /, php?, to:, cc:, bcc:

[ % ] - used for manual URL encoding
[ \ ] - used for things like \r \l \d which allow extra email headers. This is dangerous!
[ <, > ] - used for manually embedding HTML content
[ www ] - used for website links
[ http ] - used for website links
[ / ] - used for website links
[ php? ] - used for direct access to php pages; variable contents can be changed
[ to: ] - used for adding extra recipients
[ cc: ] - used for adding extra forwards
[ bcc: ] - ditto

Part 2
Part 1

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The Branding Story

Everyone talks of branding these days, well, that and social marketing, experience marketing and the like.

But why is branding so important to your sales? Because it is, that's why. I don't mean to be short, but you don't have all day to read a blog, now do you? So let's assume that it is important to the success of your product for now.

Developing a brand is much like developing a character for a movie script or novel (except you need a logo for your character), first you need a good name then you need to define the character - how does it look, act, respond and what is it's back story. To develop this you need to understand who will be reading your script - who will your customer be and will they want to be interested in your character?

All of this back story and character development should be reflected in the design of the logo and treatment of the promotional/advertising materials but is not limited to these items - your brand messaging should be in everything you do from your stationery to your invoices to your cheques to your e-mail signature. Further to graphic design, your brand must carry a voice and be heard on your phones when people answer a call, on your voicemail, what your sales force says & promises even your on-hold messaging - all of this helps solidify your characters role (by character, I mean brand).

A lot of companies think that a brand is just a logo, it is way more encompassing than just an icon, and the brands that are successful understand this. Don't get me wrong, a good logo can be an icon, but it needs some collateral, it doesn't become iconic without a back story.

Everything a company does is reflected upon their brand and impacts their customers perception of the brand. Because when it all comes down to it, a brand is about perception and what customers believe you are. This perception is built over time, as your story develops, it is not written all at once - I don't think that's even possible. Perception is reality.

By saying this, I don't want to give the impression that a brand is an illusion, far from it. A brand is a carefully crafted story with your product as the main character. So, invest some time into developing your character. Create a character that people can identify with, learn to love, trust and aspire to. Your character will eventually influence a customers decisions and become a part of their life (or at least intertwine with their ongoings) and result in some sales for you.

The bottomline - branding is way more important than most people believe, companies should invest more time into developing their brand story and character.

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Friday, March 6, 2009

Combating Spam (part 2 of 6)

Harsh Reality

Before you enter the battle zone you have to acknowledge a fundamental truth and accept a harsh reality:

There is no 100% sure-fire way to blow spam out of the water!

You can launch as many torpedoes at it as you want, but somehow it will manage to crawl out of its charred cesspool and find its way back to you. This reminds me of a song and a cute animation of a very persistent cat. “… I thought he was a goner, but the cat came back... the very next day...”

Unfortunately there is nothing cute about e-mail SPAM. It is at best, irritating, and in my opinion, the bane of the internet.

Ultimately though, the more torpedoes you launch at spam the farther you will send it, consequently taking it longer for it to make its way back to your inbox. I make all this sound like a war of epic proportions, when it's more akin to a plague that you try to keep from entering your house. From a developer's standpoint, it’s almost like a game of chess, where you have to think a few steps ahead of your opponent. You have to think like a spammer and figure out ways to counteract any attempts to exploit the weaknesses of your contact forms.

The bottom line is, the more combinations of spam-eliminating strategies you utilize, the longer you will live a spam-free diet. You have to realize that programming automated spam isn't that difficult. In most cases spammers rely on ignorance and laziness of the common internet user. The same goes for developers. Ignorance is NOT bliss. To truly be spam-free you must employ a comprehensive two-pronged approach:

Client-side Validation and Server-side Validation.

Part 1

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Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Combating Spam (part 1 of 6)

Bad Taste in Your Mouth

Are you sick and tired of SPAM?

No I’m not talking about the processed puke in a can. I’m talking about the bane of the Internet, e-mail SPAM.

I’m sure you, like billions more around the world, get a little queasy every time you open your inbox. You cross your fingers and hope you don’t have to look at another Viagra or penis enlargement ad.

Well thankfully, if you’re a web developer, there is a lot you can do to control, if not eliminate, 99%* of the spam in your inbox. But let’s be clear that we are talking about spam originating from vulnerabilities in your website’s contact form.

Aside from having spam filters on your mail server (which is a MUST), there are some very practical and well-known methods to trim the spam from your diet. There are some lesser-known (more effective) methods, which I cover as well.

After implementing most of the methods that I will divulge over the next few weeks, I was able to eliminate 99%* of the spam from my inbox, as well as the spam from our customers' inbox.

*Why 99%? If spammers know your email address, the only thing you can do is change your email address. Well, that, and stop visiting websites which contain questionable material. ;-)

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Monday, March 2, 2009

Our Expedition Launch

Well, we launched our corporate blog today amidst much celebration and fanfare. OK, well, at least you've come to read our propaganda, and for this, we thank you.

For this, our first posting, should set the tone for what you will expect on this blog. That, I can promise you. So, put aside your odd curiosities and lend me your reading eyes for a few minutes as I explain what you are to expect from these writings.

Our journey, this expedition, will be documented here by the very members of our crew and our fearless captain. It shall offer insights into what we've learned along the way, things we've picked up, things we'll put down, here... on the blog. When we cast our customers' nets looking for the big idea, there's a lot we bring in with the trawl, and we plan on sharing some of these nuggets here with you, in this intimate setting we have come to know as the internet.

But first, a message from the corporation: A long time client of, Spindle, Stairs & Railings, won the Marketing Award of Distinction at the Alberta Chambers of Commerce Gala. This prestigious award celebrated the marketing success of the Build-A-Stair Workshop program that we designed for the web site in 2008.

Phew... bloody adverts, always getting in the way of good content.

Things you can expect on this blog... oh yeah, well... I should point out that this blog will have many contributors, all of which are staff members at Francomedia, so their opinions are very important and should be read with reverence and a grain of natural, organic sea salt.

You see, everyone at Francomedia has specialties and expertise in different areas of this thing, this profession, the job we collectively and respectfully call 'creative'. And, as such, each of our team has opinions, waxings and musings on said field - this is an outlet for that angst and pent up knowledge.

If you have read this far, you obviously don't have anything better to do with your internet browsing time, in which case, I would like to point out that you can subscribe to the RSS feed of this dribble without further delay. This great service will interrupt you at unannounced times throughout your life with equal to or lesser postings. You can do this quite easily by clicking the little 'subscribe' pill on the right... but you already knew that, didn't you.

So, without further adieu, welcome to Tales From the Expedition, our stories, opinions and learnings as we make our journey through the vast sea of marketing.

(place emoticon of fish here)

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