While in his Late 20s, Benjamin Franklin came up with a list of 13 virtues, which he thought were areas in his life where he could improve. He wrote these virtues down in a book and kept notes on how he was addressing them in his life. He chose a different virtue to focus upon each week, meaning that he would revisit each one 4 times a year.
Franklin was one of the first Americans to write about self help and self improvement, and the 13 virtues that he listed appeared frequently in his writings to the public. The virtues that Franklin focused upon were temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity, and humility.
I remember when I first started working on a web site, and recall how much that site changed as I learned more about HTML, graphics, usability, marketing and other topics. Looking back, I’ve been wondering if it would have helped to have a list like Franklin’s, that I could have used to focus my efforts on building, maintaining, and promoting a web site, and that I can use in the future.
I tried to come up with 13 areas, because I like the idea of spending a week on each, and coming back to them 4 times a year. I would guess that if you asked 100 people to come up with a list like this, you might get 100 different sets of topics. My list only includes 12 areas right now, and if you have suggestions for a 13th, please let me know in the comments below.
My self help list includes accessibility, analytics, business, communication, customer service, coding, design, internet law, marketing, SEO, usability, and writing.
I’ve written a brief description of each, and a list of some example activities and suggestions of things to do within those topics that might help serve as a starting point to self help for business owners who want to develop a stronger presence on the Web, myself included.
Not everyone sees or experiences the Web the same way, and interacts with a web site at a certain resolution, on a certain kind of monitor, with the same kind of keyboard and mouse.
How approachable is your web site to the many different potential visitors who may come across your pages? Are there physical and technological barriers to people who may have disabilities that make it difficult for them to interact with your web site?
What kind of experience do people who view your site through phones and other handheld devices have when they view your pages?
- Download and use a screen reading program on a number of web pages, to see how well the technology captures what is on the page.
- Read the World Wide Web Consortium’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0
- Learn about the World Wide Web Consortium’s recommended Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0
- view your site through a number of different kinds of web enabled phones and handhelds.
Many businesses take a short-sighted approach to seeing who comes to their web sites, and focus upon creating reports about traffic to their pages, or don’t pay much attention at all to information about their visitors.
Using programs and tools that can help you get a better understanding of who is coming to your pages, how they arrived, and what they did once they got there can help you make changes to your site to improve it. An old business cliche that still holds much value goes, “You can’t manage what you can’t measure.”
- Learn the difference between log file analysis and analytics programs
- Add a program like Google Analytics to a web site that you run, whether it’s your main business site or a hobby site (there’s a lot of value in having a blog or hobby site that you can test new things upon, and experiment with, and if you don’t have one, it’s something to think about seriously)
- If you decide to use Google Analytics, spend some time at Google’s Conversion University, watching their demonstrations and tutorials
- Visit Avinash Kaushik’s blog Occam’s Razor, and spend some time going through his post posts. He provides a fair number of ideas on how you can take action on the data you receive from your analytics programs
- Brush up on your statistics.
Set goals for your business and your web site, write out why you believe those goals might be attainable, and come up with a plan for reaching them. Learn about different business models that people have used in the past, and the successes and failures behind those. Explore how people conduct business in different places, and different cultures. Explore how to be a responsible business owner, and a good community member.
- Write or rewrite a business plan for your site
- Read some books on different business approaches and models
- Visit competitors’ web sites, and other sites, and try to analyze and understand their business model and how it differs from yours
Effective communications means being able to hold meaningful conversations with the people that you interact with, whether vendors, clients, potential clients, employees, any many others. There are many mediums that you can use to interact with others, including conversations by email, by phone, by mail, within forums and social networks, through blog posts and comments, and others.
- Learn about etiquette for online communications
- Try to avoid cliches when you write or talk, except for when they may be the best way to convey an idea
- Invite feedback and participation from others
- Explore the power of providing criticism in a positive and constructive manner
- Be a role model for others
Conducting business means going beyond advertising, marketing, and selling. It transcends creating a quality service or goods that others will value. It requires that you respect those whom you provide goods and services to, respond to them in a positive manner, and make them feel like they are important to you.
- Look at shipping policies on web sites and rewrite yours
- Look at security policies on web sites and rewrite yours
- Rewrite your “about us” page to use a timeline, a narrative, a map, photographs
- Learn about the Better Business Bureau and other Consumer Organizations
- Write out 10 or more of the most likely consumer criticisms of your business and how you would respond to them
- Look at the emails that you send to clients and possible clients and rewrite them in anticipation of future emails
- Look critically at the brochures, proposals, newsletters, and other documents you send to people
As an online business owner, it’s possible that you might have others build and create the web site that you use to conduct business. You don’t need to be a carpenter to live in a house, or a mechanic to drive a car. But, it doesn’t hurt to know how to hang a shingle, replace a broken window, unstop a plugged drain, check and change your oil, or replace a flat tire.
If you rely upon a web site to deliver customers to your business, the more you learn about the code behind your site, the easier it becomes to improve that site.
- Look at source code on pages you visit
- Learn about HTML, including HTML 5
- Read tutorials on HTML, CSS, PHP, Java script
- Write tutorials on HTML, CSS, PHP, Java script
- Learn the differences between HTML, XHTML, and XML
- Create an XML sitemap for your site
- Look at robots.txt files on sites you visit
- Run an HTML validator on pages of your web site
Design is an important part of communication online. The look and feel of your website communicates as much to your visitors as the words that appear upon your pages. The design of your website can determine how credible your site might seem to others, how trustworthy your business might appear, how professional your services might seem.
The more you learn about design, the more you may understand what message your website might be sending to others.
- Learn about typography and differences between types of fonts
- Explore how whitespace is used on your site, and see how different sites use whitespace in their design
- Pick up a book on pencil drawing
- Visit an art museum
- Learn about HTML editing programs
- Find and subscribe to design related blogs
- Learn about color theory
- Learn about CSS
- Learn about Web Standards
- Design 10 alternative logos for your web site
- Customize a WordPress Theme
- Look at the designs of other web sites and write down what you like and dislike about their designs
There are a number of legal issues that can be helpful to any business owner to learn more about, and the Web presents some unique things to consider from a legal perspective. You may have some rights and some obligations under the law that you otherwise might not be aware of.
- Learn about copyright (pdf)
- Learn about fair use
- Explore contest law for your area
- Explore warranties
- Visit the FTC site and Learn more about consumer rights
- Learn more about contracts
- Learn how to find an attorney in your area
- Explore the differences between Trademarks and Service Marks and how each might be helpful
- Read Privacy Policies on sites you visit and have yours rewritten into plain English
- Write an emergency preparedness plan for your business
How well do you understand the processes behind selling, promoting, and distributing products or services? How might what you offer on your website address a demand by consumers? How may you best identify and hold conversations with people who might be interested in what you have to offer?
What distinquishes you and your website from others who otherwise capture the attention of people who might become a customer of yours?
- Look at the press release policies for local and national newspapers and magazines
- Pay attention to the ads that you see in magazines, newspapers, billboards, TV, Radio and write about what makes them effective or ineffective
- Learn about unique selling propositions, and explore competitors’ websites and other sites to learn about what makes them unique
- Write or update a marketing plan for your business
Search engine optimization is a branch of marketing that focuses upon taking steps to increase the visibility of your business and your website on the Web in places like search engines and directories and other areas. It can involve taking steps like making your web site easier for search engines to crawl and index. It also involves other steps, such as learning about the language that your customers use to search for and find your site, and that they expect to see on your pages.
Your web pages don’t exist in isolation from the rest of the Web, but rather are part of an environment that you can learn more about, and SEO can make it more likely that your business will thrive within that ecosystem.
- Read the major search engines’ guidelines
- Sign up for the webmaster tools on the major commercial search engines
- Explore competitor’s websites and other sites to see how they have made their pages more search engine friendly
- Read and learn more about SEO on blogs and forums and other places, but think critically about what you read – like anything else on the Web, there’s a fair amount of misinformation online about SEO.
You likely have a number of goals for your web site, such as having visitors make a purchase or contact you or sign up for a newsletter or download a whitepaper. Your pages may provide a number of opportunities for visitors to fulfill some kind of informational or transactional task. How easy is it for visitors to use your web pages?
Understanding how people may interact with your ordering forms, your contact pages, your navigation, and other parts of your site may lead to more visitors becoming customers or referring others to your pages. A bad experience may mean that they may never return to your pages.
- Ask someone you know to perform a task on your website while you (quietly) watch over their shoulders
- Spend some time reading through the usability guidelines at Usability.gov
- Explore other sites to see how usable they might be and how they might be improved
I hesitated when considering whether or not to include writing as a category because I had already listed “communication” within my list. But communication is a much broader area where one can focus more upon the interactions with others. Being a good communicator means more than just writing or speaking well – it also involves learning how to listen and how to respond to others.
I decided to include writing because of the importance of being able to write well on the web, whether in the way that you describe products or services on your site, or in the emails that you might send to customers, or blog posts you might write.
- Read the copy on websites and write down what you like and dislike
- write a haiku, a sonnet, a short story
- Rewrite product/service descriptions for your site
- Write a blogging policy guideline for your employees, even if you don’t have a blog, or employees
- Write reviews for local businesses
- Write reviews for books, music, and products on Amazon and other sites
As I noted at the top of this post, I’ve only come up with 12 categories so far. If you have some suggestions for another category to make it a full 13, please let me know.