Rhyme Digital Helps Clients Navigate Website Marketing
Blair Winans had forged a successful small business in website development when a larger company from across the state came calling. The acquisition that ensued brought more frustration than growth, and lasted just over a year. But it did generate lessons for Winans and his team, who regrouped in Easthampton, rebranded as Rhyme Digital, and refocused their efforts on not just designing websites, but helping clients understand how to get the biggest marketing bang for their money and time.
Blair Winans’ professional journey has weathered a few bumps. But those bumps have been valuable, he said, by teaching him what he and his Easthampton-based company, Rhyme Digital, do best.
When he launched his website-design firm in 2005, it was known as Winans Creative, and over the next several years, he built up a cadre of loyal clients and a small staff. Things were on the right track — he assumed.
That all changed three years ago, however, when Winans was approached by HB Agency, a much larger marketing firm in Boston, about a possible acquisition. The company lacked digital capabilities and wanted to offer such services to its clients, and they thought the expertise of Winans Creative would fit nicely into their business model. Winans agreed.
“We were excited about it, and a bit nervous,” he said, but he took the leap, acting as vice president of digital marketing in what was essentially HB’s Western Mass. satellite office. “But it brought all sorts of challenges. As a satellite office, it’s tough to merge cultures, which was a tough stumbling block. It also turned out that a lot of our existing clients didn’t fit in with this new company’s business model, and those clients were let go in favor of bigger ones. A lot of us were upset about it; that wasn’t part of the expectation.”
After a year, it was clear that the acquisition wasn’t bearing fruit for either side, and Winans was given the opportunity to take his firm back. And he did, in February 2015, bringing his five employees with him.
“It’s not a scenario where everyone looks back and says, ‘that was a fantastic time,’” he told BusinessWest. “But, in retrospect, we learned who we are and what we’re good at — and what we don’t want to be, which I think was a really helpful part of that process. Thankfully, we came out of it with all the same team; that’s one of the things that really helped us become stronger.”
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Taking the company back was also a chance to reassess the company’s direction, he went on. He and his employees wanted to stress the team aspect of the operation, hence the name change to Rhyme Digital. They also sensed increasing opportunity in not only building websites for companies, but teaching them how to turn their online presence into an effective marketing tool with measurable results.
“We were great at building and designing websites, and a lot of times clients think a website is the end-all, be-all,” Winans said. “But a lot of what we do revolves around helping people market themselves and build an online brand presence and sustain that over the long term. That’s where we shifted the focus — not just building these tools, but helping people understand the different pieces to it.”
That’s an issue today, he said, for companies that have websites and receive reports back from digital marketing firms that don’t really tell them anything. Rhyme’s goal is to track and clearly communicate not just a website’s hit count, but where the traffic is coming from, which campaigns potential customers are responding to, and what they’re doing on the website once they’ve arrived.
“We’ve had clients come to us saying, ‘I signed up for this digital marketing package, and I get reports of how many clicks are coming through my website, but not much more than that. Can you help me?’ We sit down and show them what’s happening once people come through. Once you make the connection, you can really put a dollar amount on the traffic coming onto your site.”
In other words, there’s a technical component to setting up a website and its features, but the end result has to bring return on investment, and ways to effectively measure it. “The question a client needs to ask,” he said, “is not ‘can you build me a website,’ but ‘I need my website to do x, y, and z.’ Or, ‘I need my website to be a lead-generating tool.’ We’re going to give you all the data to help your company continually improve what it’s doing online and in all its marketing.”
Come Back Home
After the failed acquisition, Winans said he was gratified — but perhaps not totally surprised — when Rhyme reached out to the clients it been forced to drop and was met warmly.
“The response was fantastic,” he told BusinessWest. “We’re really thankful we have a loyal client base; we’ve been working with some of them for more than 10 years. They see us as a partner and a resource. That always makes us feel good.”
The most successful relationships between Rhyme and its clients are the ones that have grown over time to the point where Winans and his team understand everything about the client and its marketing goals — both in online and traditional advertising.
Rhyme’s clients run the gamut from manufacturing to retail (both brick and mortar and purely online); from outdoor adventure sports (Zoar Outdoor is one of its longest-running clients) to publishing and nonprofits.
“We end up treating each client as its own specific case. We’re never going to be a one-size-fits-all solution,” Winans explained. “We do a bit of e-commerce development, and no e-commerce store does things the same way another one does; they have very specific differences and needs.”
Rhyme helps its clients consider the many possible facets of an online campaign — banner ads, search-engine optimization, Google AdWords, and, especially, landing pages with optimized content that gets visitors to take action, not just click on through. Then there are newer, cutting-edge tools such as radio-frequency identification and geofencing, which are used to target potential customers by location.
“The possibilities are enormous right now, better than they ever have been before, and we help clients set up these types of campaigns,” Winans said, noting that, for one of his clients, a publisher targeting first-year law students, he used geolocation to focus mobile pitches around college campuses. “One of the best things about digital marketing is that fluidity, and the ability to pivot based on the data that comes in.”
It’s also more cost-effective to test multiple messages digitally before deciding on the best one and launching it through larger, traditional-media campaigns, he went on. “We’re helping people make the most of their budgets, looking at how technology plays a role, and helping them figure out where they should be spending money.”
Websites weren’t Winans’ first career path, or even his second. He enrolled in college looking to be a lawyer, but then switched gears and transferred to the Boston University College of Communication to study advertising, marketing, and public relations. It was a field where he could put his graphic-art skills to good use, doing branding and design for a number of companies.
This was the late ’90s, a time when websites were first coming online, and he had a chance to play around with early marketing models, including working with Dunkin’ Donuts on its first website. “It’s kind of the equivalent to what’s happening now, with all these different technologies, seeing which ones are panning out,” he said. “I learned a lot of different stuff very early on; actually, I taught myself how to do it.”
In addition to leading a team that now numbers seven, Winans characterizes his day-to-day work at Rhyme as half coding, half design, and appreciates the variety offered by both — and the challenge of keeping abreast of the latest developments in the world of dynamic websites.
“For my development team, every week there’s a new platform or technology or script or language they need to be aware of,” he told BusinessWest. “We don’t just want to sell our clients a bunch of tools, but the right set for what they’re trying to do. It puts a lot on our shoulders — but it’s fun. We love learning about different types of technologies and seeing what these capabilities are. It’s an ongoing process.”
What makes it work here is, we’re all interested in the same thing: to make our work the best it can be and push each other — and in the process have fun. In our business, you never know what kind of work you’ll get on any given day. You could be coding something one day, working on the checkout process for an e-commerce site another day.”
But one, he said, made easier by the closeness and longevity of his team. “Everyone here is excited about coming to work every day, excited about who they’re working with and what they’re doing for clients. We’ve been through some ups and downs as a team as part of the whole process, but we’ve built something we feel is more than just a business. That’s important.”
There’s the Rub
That’s not to say website design and marketing it’s sometimes stressful, Winans added, but the team at Rhyme — based out of an airy space in the Eastworks complex — has created an environment where everyone encourages each other and helps each other out, and nobody is afraid to step up and ask for help.
“What makes it work here is, we’re all interested in the same thing: to make our work the best it can be and push each other — and in the process have fun,” he said. “In our business, you never know what kind of work you’ll get on any given day. You could be coding something one day, working on the checkout process for an e-commerce site another day.”
The reward, he went on, is seeing the sites go live.
“There’s a pretty big sense of excitement when we look at all the projects we’ve done and hear the way our clients talk about them, when they come back and tell us, ‘we get nothing but praise for our site now.’ A couple of clients go back 10 years, and they’re on the fourth iteration of their website, and you see the transformation. We have archives of sites we’ve done, and it’s fun to see the progressions in them. When we can help businesses utilize their sites to their fullest capacity, that’s what really makes what we do worthwhile.”
In other words, Rhyme Digital is certainly not going to the dogs — unless you count Winans’ two furry friends, a yellow lab named Butters and a pug named Flora, who join him at work every day. The other employees are encouraged to bring their dogs occasionally as well.
“They provide some comic relief,” he said. “When things get stressful or we’re under a heavy deadline, and Butters is upside-down on the floor, wagging his tail hard, you realize we’re not doing brain surgery. Sure, you’re dealing with deadlines, but there’s always time for a belly rub.”
For someone who’s been coding websites going on two decades and still finds excitement in the details, it’s a healthy perspective.
“You get to learn something new every day here,” he said. “It’s a good spot to be in.”
Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]