Ideas, musings and inspirations.

Recently Elliance worked with Highmark Insurance Group to launch their new website. As part of all our web design and development projects, whether for insurance or manufacturing companies or higher education institutions, one of the points of distinction that no one ever sees is the SEO work that gets baked into the structure and thinking of the website.

Here are some ways SEO is essential to all our web projects:

Sitemap optimization:

 A sitemap is like a blueprint – it defines the structure of the website and provides a map of how the content will be laid out.

When we start to think about a sitemap, we focus on the ways people will consume content on the website – how they will search for it and find it, and once they arrive, how they will interact with it. What’s important to note here is that visitors may not come in just through the homepage. Each page becomes a doorway that leads into the site and creates an opportunity for ranking that page on search engines.

As we work through the process of understanding the client and their audience, we also come up with a keyword guide which the target audience is searching for and can be applied to critical pages on the site.

For HMIG, understanding the mapping of the content based on business objectives and audience habits helped us build out a keyword guide which was mapped to each critical page. If a user now does a search for “stop loss insurance companies” they can find HMIG’s Stop Loss Insurance page ranking on Google page 1 results.

insurance company website search results

User experience optimization:

We make it easy for users to navigate the website. The purpose is to make information easy to find. This includes keeping together clusters of related pages – grouping together relevant content positively affects rankings on search results. It provides more content relevance for a topic causing that website to rank higher for keywords.

For example, in the case of HMIG, top level navigation was split into two major service areas – Stop Loss Insurance and Managed Care Reinsurance. All content for each of these sections was pulled into the respective sections, making it easy for users to find if they were only interested in looking at that specific area of the website.

insurance company website pages

Content optimization:

Clients gain brand credibility by being ranked on Google Page 1. The perception is that a leader lives on Google Page 1. As we create content we create with both the search engine bot and the user in mind – how they will consume the content and the kinds of searches they will conduct to get to the website. The keyword guide again becomes a starting point for this effort, providing the client a targeted content area to focus on.

Over time in order to sustain rankings we focus on creating consistent content such as blog posts. The keyword guide that was created with the new website continues to lead these efforts of strengthening and maintaining rankings. We also help clients with active optimized content creation and will monitor and report regular progress to our clients on how they’re doing on search results.

Conversion optimization:

We bring people to a website to take some action such as to make a sale. Which is why it’s very important to make it easy for users to find a way to engage with a company. Conversion points on a website create engagement, which helps to reduce the bounce rate, which in turn is rewarded by search engines through stronger rankings. For example, if someone comes to the site and cannot find a way to request information, it becomes a lost sale. We make sure conversion buttons are placed in prominent places and are easy to find. This makes it easier for the user to move to the next step and your ranking to move up in results.

In the case of HMIG, the link in the footer is available for users across the website so they can find the team in their region easily.

insurance company website conversion

Once all of this is in place, this starts the website on the right path to becoming search friendly and to building strong and stable rankings on search engines. But this is just the beginning. In order to maintain those rankings and stay ahead of the competition, building fresh and consistent content through blogging and social media efforts becomes key to success.

Contact us to learn more about Elliance inbound and search engine marketing services.

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redesign-jesuit-websiteWhile all .edu websites send important signals and establish vital threads of connection to stakeholders — corporate recruiters, research partners and regional funders/allies — a business school website does so with greater urgency and a far more explicit mandate.

We held that truth close as we set about redesigning a new website for the Boler School of Business at John Carroll University, a longstanding pillar of a Cleveland and Northeast Ohio economy that has seen more than its share of challenge and has responded with its distinct brand of resiliency.

Through economic cycles of growth and decline, and a steady re-mixing of Cleveland’s regional economy from traditional manufacturing to financial services and, increasingly, medical technology, Boler graduates have provided a steady and reliable source of corporate leadership and entrepreneurial grit.

But as is the case with many small and mid-sized colleges, the Boler School of Business struggled to articulate a strategy for strengthening the ties that bind a region’s economy with its essential wellspring of managerial, accounting, human resource, supply chain and other essential business talent.

Elliance partnered with the leadership team at the Boler School of Business to articulate that strategy clearly (see infographic).  We then set about imagining and architecting a responsive website that would attract and convert the kind of right-fit faculty and students required to translate a set of 500-year-old Jesuit values and a century-old mission into ground reality.

"Redesigning-Business-School-Website"After more than a decade of serving hundreds of colleges and universities, we understand the value — and privilege — of working closely with senior administration early in the strategic process. From that foundation, Elliance can use precious website discovery time to drill even deeper into the school’s origin story, right-fit prospect data, larger economic trends and forces, and faculty insights.

One important take away from discovery required extensive review of the nation’s 28 leading Jesuit colleges and universities. There we found that while all 28 schools spoke from a shared set of values, few had tried to express clearly to a prospective undergraduate why a Jesuit business education mattered.

We set about trying to show, with specificity and from a 17-year-old’s point of view, how a Jesuit business education would prepare them like no other business degree for a changing world. Our goal was to update everyone’s frame to appreciate how sustainable value creation and corporate responsibility are no longer the right thing to do, nor the right thing to do and good for business, but now simply good business.

Interviews with Boler faculty revealed the nature of the task at hand — merging a venerable Jesuit value called Magis (aka the greater good) with the reality that data and analytic tools and skills are driving a new business revolution. Boler’s ability to arm good people with hard skills (finance, accounting, supply chain, marketing) promises to move sustainable value creation from nice to have PR message to bottom line talent, profit driver.

When Alan Miciak, Dean of the Boler School of Business declared, “there has never been a more exciting time to be in business,” we picked up that torch and carried its central theme — and big invitation — into every nook and cranny of website architecture, design, content and photography.

One internal rally cry we used through the development process was this: “Boler students are being invited to step onto a bullet train to the future… and we are creating the pre-boarding experience.” We were excited to persuade prospects that if they want to be part of a successful business that’s doing lasting good for the world, Boler will accelerate their journey.


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To find one’s voice and to have the courage to speak it is sacred. But to be heard is divine. This wisdom applies to both people and brands alike.

The art of listening is a great gift of life. Cultivating it has been incredibly hard for a person like me who has been struggling and striving most of my life. Crossing cultures made it even more challenging. Landing at fiercely competitive Cornell and Carnegie Mellon was no respite. Becoming the CEO of an entrepreneurial company made it harder. As a Muslim, being under relentless attack has made it very difficult to stay silent and simply listen.

True listening begins when you are in equilibrium, when you have arrived, and when you are neither fighting, nor in flight. I have been conscientiously working on getting better at this divine art.

All my life, I have searched for quiet spaces where I could be who I truly am. Nature, mountains, parks and especially national parks have provided that sacred space for me.

Jordan Chepke, a very special colleague of mine at the office, shared this NPR story which brings nature to me in my busy life. It’s titled “Beyond Sightseeing: You’ll Love The Sound Of America’s Best Parks”. I hope you enjoy it. Once you are at the NPR website, do hover your mouse over the icon on the bottom left of the photo shown below. The sounds will transport you to Rocky Mountain National Park.

Cultivating the art of listening

What we can’t master in a lifetime, we either hire, befriend or marry. My personal journey to listening has been made easier with several gifted listeners at Elliance, one of my mentors Stan Marlan, and my wife. They have been teaching me the nuanced art of listening with the mind’s eye, adapting, and responding. They are coaching me on how to listen for meaning, and to identify signs of listening brands.

Are you a listener? Are you surrounded by listeners? Are you working for a listening brand?

Learn more about our branding services.

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John Deere

Credit: The Furrow

Content marketing is in a state of constant flux. To reach potential students, best practices in higher education marketing dictate being everywhere; Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, Pinterest, YouTube and SnapChat, right?

Well, no.

Yes, the number of ways consumers can access information, and thus make a purchasing decision, has grown exponentially. The days when a university only bought a billboard, some television commercials and used direct mail are long gone. Websites, email, digital ads and sharing content on social sites are used in addition to the older forms of marketing.

But, that doesn’t mean you should just throw the same content everywhere.

Instead, universities must make their content interesting, useful and at times, entertaining. This only happens if you focus on your customer’s needs rather than your own interests.

That’s where John Deere enters the picture.

They published a magazine, called The Furrow, in 1895. The goal was to sell farm equipment and they did this by sharing stories farmers would love to read.

In an interview with The Content Strategist, Tom Sizemore who has worked on the magazine for the past 37 years, says the magazine has always focused on the farmers, not the John Deere equipment.

“Even the most technical subject has to have a human story behind it,” Jones added. “We’ve always been able to convince the management that the content shouldn’t be about John Deere equipment. We’ve stuck to that over time.”

Click through the pages on the online version of The Furrow and you’ll discover rich, well-written stories accompanied by beautiful photography. Oh, and they happen to have one tab called, Equipment Videos.

If the first take-away for those working in higher education marketing is to focus on your potential student’s needs not your own, the second is to be creative.

John Deere was revolutionary when they started publishing this beautiful magazine. If you want to stand-out, don’t follow the same formula that other schools use. Instead, take the time to research and discover what your potential students and their families need and provide that content.

For example, research by shows that podcasts are growing in popularity and  37% of 18 to 34 year olds listen to podcasts at least once a week.  If you want to increase enrollment in graduate programs, perhaps you can have podcasts just for that demographic?

Success in higher education marketing today means using your creativity to create digital assets your potential students will enjoy. Remember, it’s about them, not you.

I hope this gets your gears turning.

best manufacturing marketing practices
Find out more about how Elliance is helping B2B and Manufacturing Marketers here.

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Higher Education Marketing ROI

Marketing ROI formula is easy enough:

Marketing ROI in Higher Education.

However, working with higher education clients for more than two decades has made it clear to us that calculating marketing ROI is challenging, especially in our current era of media fragmentation, device proliferation, and tight marketing budgets. Four reasons why:

Unrealized Attribution of Incremental Gains to Marketing Efforts: Pinpointing a prospect-to-enrolled conversion to a specific marketing tactic is hard because a conversion may be the result of multiple marketing stimuli spread out over multiple marketing channels over a period of few years.

Multi-touch and multi-channel lead attribution models, though available in the form of sophisticated software tools, are not well understood, are difficult to implement, and are simply unaffordable for a majority of colleges. Thus, connecting the dots across a campaign’s multiple components is next to impossible.

Inadequate Support for Source Tracking: The next best alternative to attribution software is to deploy simple source tracking, where source-of-lead signals are passed from digital touch points to the CRM system. This is usually unworkable because most higher education CRM vendors don’t support it.

Fuzzy Understanding of Student Quality and Lifetime Value: Snapshots of current applicant data don’t accurately measure the impact of students over the entire student life cycle — all the way from being a prospect to becoming an alumn. Well-conceptualized brands and well-executed campaigns steadily improve student quality, increase family income, reduce melt rates, grow graduation rates, and enlarge alumni giving rates. The correlation between the characteristics of the incoming class and the long-term value of a student are only understood after a period of several years. However, admissions staff under pressure to “make-the-numbers” frequently aren’t thinking about attracting “right-fit” students.

Use of Best-of-Breed Agency Partners: What makes the calculation of marketing ROI even more challenging is the use of multiple agency partners to optimize various aspects of the admissions funnel. Data is often not shared between agencies, which makes it difficult to connect the dots.

Our recommendation for colleges and universities is to hire an experienced agency-of-record that can brand the college, implement integrated campaigns to attract right-fit students, make sense of the CRM data you share with them, connect as many dots as is possible, and concurrently focus on the admissions, giving and reputation funnels over a period of several years.

We know the perfect place. Let’s talk.

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The web is full of designs and patterns, both good and bad, new and old. At times it all starts to blur together and the sites start resembling one another. Periodically I like to see what else is out there, to see what interesting ideas have yet to become the web trend of the month.

The following is a small list of sites I try to visit at least once a week. As a front end developer I might be looking for something different for inspiration compared to a designer or UX specialist. The following sites will offer not only design and development ideas but also challenge the way we view content on the web, for better or for worse.

Site Inspire : Well organized collection so you can easily browse for specific subjects or styles that you are looking for. Mostly leans toward a clean, modern design aesthetic.

One Page Love : Single page sites only, great source for scroll animations and concise organization of content.

Httpster : Similar to Site Inspire, it is organized into types and styles, but I find that the selection is a bit more colorful and playful.

Dribbble : If you are not already familiar with Dribbble, it is a very popular design community where designers share small parts of their work which is then open to feedback from the other members. It is not specifically for web design, in fact it can be sparse at times, but you can easily keyword search for what you are interested in.

Bēhance : Similar to Dribbble, but Bēhance is open to the general public so you might find some more interesting and ‘outside of the box’ ideas here.

Codepen : Looking for something a bit more interactive? CodePen is a community of front end developers sharing things ranging from small ideas to full sites. Similar to Dribbble and Bēhance, but instead of just images, these examples are working code made in HTML, CSS, and Javascript. Not only can you see the code, but you can fork it and learn how it was made without leaving the browser.

Hopefully some of these sites will not only knock some cobwebs off, but inspire you in your next project.

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Founded in 1998 by two Ph.D. students at Stanford University, Google has risen to become more than just a household name. Today, Google stands strong as an empire, armed with a vast arsenal of products and devices.

In 2006, we published an infographic showcasing the three most popular search engines in America. It comes as no surprise that even in 2006 Google came out on top as the clear winner. But what you may find surprising is how this data has shifted further in Google’s favor over the last decade.

Below is our original infographic from 2006. The data shows that Google held 46% of the search engine market share, with only Yahoo and MSN proving to be real competitors.

Search Market Share 2006One might argue that in search it was still anyone’s game. But that’s not the case today…

In 2016, Google held a whopping 77.43% of the global search engine market share. And their only American competitors, Bing and Yahoo (who’s powered by Bing), held a measly 12.91%.


Search Market Share 2016


The chart below compares the data from 2006 with that of 2016:

Search Market Share Comparison

I am a loyal Google user. But I wanted to see if my peers shared my alliance. I posed the question “Do you use a search engine other than Google?” to the team here at Elliance and my 1,017 Facebook friends.

Of the 25 or so respondents who call Elliance home, only 3 people choose to use an alternative search engine. Although, two of the three admitted that it’s a rare occurrence. Their preferences? DuckDuckGo, Lycos and Wolframalpha. (I’ve never heard of those last two either, don’t be embarrassed.)

On Facebook, one friend uses DuckDuckGo another prefers Bing. One user even said AskJeeves, but it’s unclear if his nostalgia was prompted by sarcasm or not.

Interested in learning more about how Google SEO can help grow your business? Email us at today.

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In numerous cases, we as marketers ask those we are marketing to become the voice of the company or institution they represent. Their stories give meaning in a deeply personal way. And, in many cases, we ask those that give voice to the story to be photographed to represent their story.

Nine times out of ten, these subjects are uncomfortable, wary, and uncertain about their image being used, knowing their likeness will be seen by every visitor that comes to the website. Most people are simply uncomfortable being in front of a camera.

So, the challenge for the designer becomes, ‘how do I represent these individuals in the most respectful and truthful manner?’

The environmental portrait

The environmental portrait is just as it says — a photo that represents the subject in their natural environment. Whether it is in their work location, personal home, or a location that is representative of the narrative, the choice to shoot an environmental portrait over a formal portrait shot in a studio adds another layer of credibility and truth to their story. Also, the familiar space is more comfortable for the subject.

The face behind the story

Most recently, we were developing a number of websites that represented three diverse offerings — an insurance company who provides stop loss coverage, a successful liberal arts college business school, and a higher education institution who was creating a dynamic, new, technology-charged powerhouse school.

In each case, we identified a number of individuals who would help tell the story of their representative institution and needed to photograph them in locations that would best represent their personalities and stories.

Plan, then plan some more

Know that ninety percent of a successful environmental portrait is completed before the photo is taken. Logistics including time of day, wardrobe, access to the location, identifying the location, staging the site, and more are required prior to the shoot date to avoid surprises when the subject arrives to be photographed.

Listed below are some hints to follow for a successful environmental portrait photo shoot:

1. Rely on the content to provide the location for the shoot
The content of their story will help to identify the location of the photo in both a visually creative and compelling manner. Allow the location and the environment to frame the subject as the hero.

2. Know your subject
Consider a quick call to the subject to hear their voice, to establish a connection with them, and to learn as much as you can about them before meeting them for the shoot. Share your plans for the shoot and let them know what to expect. Their buy-in is important for success.

3. Visit the site prior to the shoot
Once you think you have identified possible locations for the shoot, arrange for visiting the sites in person prior to showing up for the actual shoot day. Take snap shots of various angles and look at lighting and access to the space. (Share all of this with your photographer.) If it’s not possible to do a site visit prior to the shoot, ask your client contact to do it for you. All they need to do is photograph the possible sites and to share those images with you.

4. Be nimble and have alternate plans
In many cases, weather conditions, lighting, and unforeseen interferences are factors that may undo your best-laid plans. I always suggest having a plan B and plan C in place to be able to pivot quickly without unnerving yourself, your photographer and most importantly, your subject.

5. Hire a qualified environmental portrait photographer
Many photographers are highly qualified to shoot environmental portraits. These are shooters who can adapt to changing conditions and can move quickly about a space. Once you award the shoot to the photographer, engage them in the conversation early on and share with them whatever resources you gathered to enable your photographer to plan accordingly.

1: ©2015 Terry Clark
2: ©2017 Annie O’Neill
3: ©2017 Alisa Garin
4: ©2017 Chandler Crowell

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HM Insurance Group Website DesignA few weeks ago, we launched HM Insurance Group’s new website, and the same thing happened with this one that always happens—we delivered a lot more than an insurance company website design.

FIRST, we engaged HM in a discovery process that revealed some business realities we didn’t expect to find. We got insights into the ways their industry is changing and the mindset of their buyers. A clear challenge emerged: How do we distinguish what “Quality” means for customers tempted to commoditize what HM brings to the table?

NEXT we developed a communications strategy that addressed their business objectives, clearly distinguished their value proposition and refocused the company on the stewardship their people provide. It goes beyond the usual website strategy. It’s written to inform all of HM’s marketing efforts.

AND THEN we created a new brand position for HM: “Guarding Financial Health.” These 3 words communicate the higher purpose of their B2B product and service offering.

AND THEN we gave them a recommendation for an open source content management system. Now, Marketing has far more control over the site, benefiting from greater efficiency and publishing speed.

AND THEN we designed a user experience that takes a radical departure from the content- heavy one they used in the past. Instead, we created ways to open doors to new conversations with customers.

AND THEN we developed a comprehensive, Keyword Guide. By baking keywords into all their new website’s pages right from the beginning, we laid the groundwork for greatly improving HM’s Google rankings.

AND THEN we recommended a new approach to blogging that elevates the thought leadership of HM’s senior team in Stop Loss and Managed Care Reinsurance. It will also elevate the authority of their leaders with Google’s search engine.

AND THEN we created a page templating guide that was mapped to their sitemap, so the HM team could easily understand how to construct and write pages.

AND THEN we built a faceted search tool that organizes and filters all their client service digital assets such as forms, pdfs, articles, info graphics and videos by topics and types.

AND THEN we created a warm, and inviting visual design supported with original photography. It gives HM the posture of a leader, puts an accessible human face on all they do and sends all the right messages about the quality they bring to their customers.

IN THE END, Elliance delivered something more just a new website for HM. It was transformative experience that changed internal organizational dynamics, tuned organizational strategy and generated momentum.

And in this case, we also made some new friends along the way.

“Elliance took on a dual challenge to evaluate HM’s brand and positioning strategy and develop a new website that would deliver the brand message. On both fronts, they were great partners. Through the process of senior management interviews, brand recommendations and ultimately the delivery of a website to support the brand, the Elliance team earned the respect and confidence of HM’s marketing team and leadership” said Diane Lewis, Director of Marketing & Communications at HM Insurance Group.

“Elliance was truly a partner when it came to refreshing our website with a better customer experience and updated brand message. They spent ample time working with us to make sure the site layout was appropriate for conveying our company’s message and intuitive enough to fulfill our client’s needs. They welcomed our ideas and input along the way” said Michele Larson, Manager, Digital & Visual Design at HM Insurance Group.

Insurance Website Design Process

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