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10 Steps to Improve Your Freelance Business

10 Steps to Improve Your Freelance Business

Freelancing is a wild ride – in this line of work, you have to wear a LOT of hats.

But at the end of the day, you chose to work this way for a reason. You want it ALL. The freedom, the flexibility, the income, the growth potential. You may have made your peace (to a certain extent) with the perpetual chaos that seems to be a part of the lifestyle.

But for freelancing to be sustainable, it has to be manageable.

If you’re feeling any of the classics – analysis paralysis, overwhelm, or imposter syndrome – it can help to revisit some of the basics of being damned good at what you do (and loving every minute of it).

Here are 10 ways to improve your freelance business, keep your clients happy, and make time for the things you love to do the most. Besides work, of course.

#1 – Manage Your Time and Stay FOCUSED

If you find at the end of every day you still have a long list of things you didn’t get to, you have one of two problems: a time management problem, or an outsourcing problem.

Things come up, and stuff happens, but there’s a saying you can never remember too often: If you don’t manage your time, someone else is going to do it for you.

Stay on top of projects by being a monotasker when you need to be, putting your phone on Do Not Disturb mode when you’re in the zone, and keeping your mind focused on the task at hand so you can continue to deliver killer work for your clients.

If you’re finding that all of the block scheduling and focusing in the world is still leaving you overwhelmed at the end of each day, it might be time to start looking at making your first hire.

#2 – Create Replicable Processes (And Document Them)

One thing you can do to position yourself for the holy grail of freelancing, outsourcing, is to create processes and workflows for your business and document them.

This helps to create consistency in your business and when it finally comes time to hire somebody, you’ll be armed with documentation you can use to train your new hire.

The next time you start a new project, begin a document with a simple numbered list on it, and open it every time you work on the project to add steps that you take. You’ll begin to identify areas for optimization, and can ultimately fine tune this as you bring your first team member on board.

#3 – Always Keep Your Finger On the Pulse of Your Audience

Marketing and product development require one of the same core fundamentals: a thorough understanding of your intended audience.

Subscribe to magazines and newsletters that your clients probably read too. Join their Facebook and LinkedIn groups. Listen to the same podcasts that they do.

Not only will it improve your sales to be tuned in to what your audience is talking about, but it’ll give you clues into what their needs are, and how your service offerings can rise to fill the gaps in the market.

Being immersed in your ideal client’s universe is how you become the first one to put your flag in a new solution. Go ahead and lurk – it’s worth it, I swear.

#4 – Be Responsive AF

One of the worst things about hiring a freelancer – as any disgruntled client will tell you – is that they’re often really, really busy. And that’s a problem, because when you’re paying somebody, you expect them to respond to your emails.

Be responsive. Don’t be that guy that waits until three days before the project’s deadline to open an email and start asking questions. Get on top of it early, answer emails within 48 hours, and make sure your client feels seen, heard, and taken care of.

#5 – Enforce Your Own Boundaries

That being said, don’t feel like you have to pick up the phone at midnight either. Hire an assistant if you need to, but ultimately, make sure that your boundaries are clearly communicated and written down somewhere for you and your client to refer back to.

Don’t be afraid to ignore emails until the next morning, or to decline phone calls outside of normal business hours. If it’s not inside of your scope of work, say something. Most people genuinely don’t realize when they’re stepping on somebody else’s toes.

Enforcing boundaries won’t make you a jerk, but what it WILL do is preserve the relationship with your client, allowing you to generate lots of potential revenue with them in the future (without silently resenting them and developing an ulcer).

#6 – Get Payment Up Front

These days it’s pretty commonplace for most freelancers to require at least a 50% deposit up front to begin work. If that deposit is not in place, you DO not begin work.

What this does is ensure that your client not only has the means to pay you, but the motivation to be proactive in working with you to complete the project on time (and within scope).

Send a written agreement along with the first installment of your client’s project fee, or talk payment terms at the threshold of your own comfort. Remember, it’s perfectly fine to say, “No, that’s not how we do business,” and walk away from something that seems sketchy. In my experience, plenty of clients always follow in their wake.

#7 – Learn From People Who Are Where You Want to Be

The internet is rife with advice and self-described gurus touting business models with alluring outcomes and gut-wrenching price tags.

And here’s the thing: you need to ignore about 90% of them. There’s such a thing as information overwhelm, and after a certain point, you need to filter what’s coming in so you can start taking ACTION.

The one thing you need to see when you qualify somebody to teach you is this: Have they done something that you want to do, successfully?

If the answer’s yes, then you have something to learn from them. If the answer’s no, the answer is arguably, why couldn’t you just learn this on your own?

There’s something about your brain seeing something is possible as you try to attempt it yourself. Like the story of the four minute mile, things can happen a lot faster for you if there’s irrefutable proof that what you’re trying to do isn’t crazy or impossible.

#8 – Use Two to Three Methods to Get Clients

Getting a ton of referrals is great, but at the end of the day, you need to have at least TWO tried and true methods of getting clients. That way when one well dries up, another one is still gushing with leads.

Try to find two to three ways you really LIKE getting clients that work well for you. Sometimes a freelancer can’t lurk in Facebook groups AND cold email AND push themselves on Twitter and Instagram all at once. In that case, it makes sense to choose a method that’s maybe more passive, like paid ads or referrals, in tandem with a method that’s more hands on, like cold emailing.

#9 – Take GREAT Care of Yourself

Freelancing is hardcore, and it can take a TON of your time and energy – just don’t forget to spend some on yourself.

Literally pencil it into that $50 planner if you have to, but MAKE time to take care of yourself. Sleep debt is cumulative, meaning every night that you don’t get enough, you feel even MORE tired as the week drags on. Get at least seven hours, try to find time to exercise between conference calls, and always, ALWAYS make time to do something that lights you up outside of your work.

#10 – Go Above And Beyond For Your Clients

We didn’t get here at Hostdedi by focusing on sales, we got here by focusing on our SERVICE. It sounds cliche, but it’s true: when you treat people well, they stick around.

Your business is going to flourish, your clients are going to sing your praises to their friends, and all of that is going to circle back around to help you grow your income.

But it only happens if you take care of them.

Send them Christmas cards. Help them find a new hire. Ask them how their cat’s doing.

Be that person they don’t just work with because they’re good at what they do, but because they’re a good human being, and they’ll do business with you for a really long time.

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Creating A Smart & Scalable Tag & Category Infrastructure

Creating A Smart & Scalable Tag & Category Infrastructure

When you first set up your WordPress site it’s easy to get caught up in what it looks like, and which plugins you should be using. This often leaves people with little time to think about how they’ll set up their categories and tags on their content. A few months later you end up with 230 categories and no tags, or 2 categories that don’t truly apply to all the content in them.

Today we’re going to talk about the difference between tags and categories. We’ll also provide some SEO tips so that your rankings aren’t affected by duplicate content.

We’ll finish today with a method I’ve used many times to help people focus on a few categories for their site so they can keep their content from getting scattered.

What is a Category?

Categories are meant to contain broad groups of posts. If you’re writing about some coding topics then you’ll likely have a category to contain all the posts that deal with code in some fashion.

Each post you have on your site must have at least one category. If you don’t choose one WordPress will assign your default category to the post. You can change this under Settings->Writing in the WordPress Admin.

A good rule of thumb when you start producing content on your site is that if you’re assigning more than 2 categories to your content, you’ve probably got some categories that should be tags or you’re not staying focused enough with your content. Once you’ve developed your categories (we’ll talk about that in a bit) if a piece of content doesn’t fit in those categories that probably means you need to go back to the drawing board and rethink it so that you can stay with your content plan.

One final difference between tags and categories is that categories are hierarchical. So my Code category above could have sub-categories for WordPress, WooCommerce, Laravel, or any other broad coding topic I want. From a data perspective a post in a sub-category is also in the parent category so you could use this type of data structure to show all your Code posts, and then apply color-coding, or headings, to show when a post is in a specific sub-category.

What is a Tag?

Unlike categories, tags are not hierarchical. They each exist as a top-level way of structuring your content. Maybe that code post above uses WooCommerce Teams, WooCommerce Memberships, and Teams for WooCommerce Memberships. That means I’d tag it with all of those items and it would exist inside the WooCommerce category.

If I wrote a post about running in my local area it would get tags for:

  • running
  • trail running
  • mountains
  • mountain running
  • Chilliwack (because this is the city I live in)

Tags are more free form than categories. So tag your content with pretty much anything relevant to it. Most sites will have 5 – 10 categories, but hundreds of tags as they continue to put out high-quality content.

What about Tag and Category SEO?

From an SEO perspective, a good category structure can help your content get found but tags can be a problem because they can be judged by Google as duplicate content on your site. You can see below in the screenshot that I have a Book Reviews category on my site that comes up if you search for book reviews and my name. That category gets traffic regularly and contributes to people finding my book reviews.

Since your content exists at yoursite.com/category/post and yoursite.com/tag/post and yoursite.com/othertag/post Google can look at that and say penalize your site for using the same content over and over. Luckily there are plugins like Elevate SEO or Yoast SEO that can help you noindex your tags so that you don’t get penalized for duplicate content.

In Elevate head to the Advanced menu and then scroll down until you see the option for indexing of tags. Most people will want to set it to  Don’t index but allow link following

This will mean that Google won’t show your tag pages in its index, but it will look at the links on your tag pages and follow them to other content.

Choosing Your Categories

Since it’s important to keep your categories focused, let’s walk through the process I use to define the categories for my sites so that they don’t end up with 22 categories, most with only 2 posts in them.

Let’s say that you specialize in building membership sites and are looking to build out your category structure so that you can produce content and attract clients. We’ll start by developing at least 15 categories by thinking about topics we can write about and looking at what some of the other sites in the membership niche are doing right now. This should take you around 20 – 30 minutes to do well, though you may generate most of your ideas right at the beginning and only add a few as you browse other sites towards the end.

Categories

  1. Membership Engagement
  2. Getting New Members
  3. Traffic Generation
  4. How to…(setup platforms, plugins, code…)
  5. The Business of Membership Sites (what is a membership site, finding content for your first course…)
  6. Content Generation
  7. Software Reviews (of membership software)
  8. Course Building
  9. Speaking (to build authority)
  10. Writing (to build authority)
  11. Membership Site Marketing
  12. Book Writing (to gain authority)
  13. Doing Market Research for a Site
  14. Email Marketing
  15. Membership Site Problems

More than a few of those are tags. Specifically, items 9 – 12 and 13,14 are all about marketing. Instead of all those different categories Convert it into a single category call Membership Site Marketing. The other ideas above would become tags on any relevant content.

Out of those 15 categories, I’d narrow it down to these 4.

  1. Getting and Keeping Members
  2. Membership Site Marketing
  3. How To…
  4. Reviews (membership plugins, marketing tools…)

Now that you have these four categories you can start to develop some content ideas that fit in each category. To start, aim for 8 – 10 ideas in each category and then plan them out on a calendar so that you have a content production schedule.

With a bit of planning, you can build a great tag and category structure that will help you stay focused on your content. With a great set of categories defined, generating content will be easier which means more content will be produced that’s focused on your customers which will bring in more customers to your site.

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Ecommerce Trends for 2020: A Season Like We’ve Never Seen Before

Ecommerce Trends for 2020: A Season Like We’ve Never Seen Before

2020 has been a whirlwind year for ecommerce. Ahead of the holiday shopping season, we’re already looking at an 18% spike in revenue for the industry this year, and ecommerce is expected to reach $4.13 trillion in 2020.

The stampede of brick and mortar businesses into ecommerce has been astounding. Early predictions show that retail’s expected decline will be around 10.5% by the end of the year, more than QUADRUPLE earlier predictions.

While the economic fallout from COVID-19 has been catastrophic, one thing’s for certain: ecommerce. Is. BOOMING. Online orders are up 80% since January, and even in a pandemic, the predictions look promising.

Ahead of that growth are trends that are setting the stage for an online shopping experience that’s more immersive and personalized than ever before. 

Let’s talking about the top 8 emerging trends.

1. Chatbots Are the New Virtual Shopping Concierges

The rise of the chatbot is reaching its apex in 2020, with 80% of ecommerce businesses predicted to integrate some form of the tool by the end of the year – and they’ve come a long way. With the integration of AI and machine learning, chatbots are getting better at understanding language and providing helpful responses.

With more than half of customers expecting 24/7 support, chatbots help make sales while support teams sleep, reducing costs by as much as 30% for ecommerce companies.

2. AI-Driven Product Recommendations Are Driving CRAZY Spikes In Revenue

In addition to innovations with chatbots, artificial intelligence is being used to enhance product recommendations for retail marketplaces such as Amazon. On Amazon’s platform alone, product upselling through these recommendations accounts for an ASTOUNDING 35% of overall revenues.

Early data shows that these types of recommendation enhancements can increase conversion rates for ecommerce sites by as much as 915%.

3. Buy Online Pick Up In Store Is Where It’s At 

For order delivery time, the bar has never been higher. Ninety-percent of shoppers say that a delivery date of more than two days has deterred them from purchasing a product before (thanks, Amazon).

BOPIS (Buy Online Pick Up In Store) is a type of shopping that allows a shopper to purchase something online, and then pick it up locally. Forty-eight percent of shoppers reportedly use BOPIS to counter expensive shipping costs, and over 40% use it to get items in time for the holidays.

With such strong numbers, ecommerce companies are scrambling to adopt the practice. According to BigCommerce, 61% of retailers mark BOPIS as at the top of their list for investments in the next year.

4. Direct to Consumer Numbers Have Never Been Stronger

When Amazon shuttered purchasing of nonessential goods in early 2020, consumer goods wholesalers were left in a panic as huge portions of their revenue disappeared overnight.

Now to avoid the uncertainty of ebbing and flowing consumer demand, many B2B wholesalers are pivoting towards a direct to consumer, or DTC model. The industry’s growth initially had flatlined as investment capital began to dry up, but is now seeing a surge again, and is projected to hit $18 billion in 2020.

Learn More About DTC Ecommerce

5. Livestream Ecommerce Is Making Its Debut in the US

There are quiet stirrings of an ecommerce trend that’s done exceedingly well in China finally setting up shop in the United States. Called the QVC of Gen Z, live commerce platforms enable video viewers to watch product demonstrations in real-time and make purchases within the app, typically with no interruption in the video feed.

The shopping and streaming experience is simultaneous, and is attracting the attention of American venture capitalists – and it’s no wonder. In 2019, live commerce hit a whopping $63 billion in China.

6. Smartphone Shopping Numbers Are Surging

The move to mobile has seen a slower transition in ecommerce than it has for content consumption, but we’re finally reaching the tipping point. At this point, 51% of purchases are now happening on smartphones, leading developers to focus on progressive web apps for ecommerce customers.

PWAs keep the UX consistent from desktop to mobile, reducing customer dropoff and keeping the UI consistent and easy to use. Statistics show that the use of PWAs in ecommerce has a dramatic impact on conversion and bounce rates, with some companies seeing an increase in the former of 30%.

Learn More About PWAs

7. Incredible Front End Customization for Personalized Experiences

Personalized ecommerce is at the forefront of innovation for 2020. A new trend known as “headless ecommerce” allows developers to fully offload the front end of their website from their platform to allow for fully custom coded personalization.

This practice allows for unparalleled personalization not previously allowed within the constraints of most ecommerce applications, paving the way for a personalized shopping experience set to rival segmentation.

Studies show that personalization has a unique impact on a shopper’s likelihood of purchasing a product, with more than 80% being more likely to purchase from personalized ecommerce sites.

8. Virtual Showrooms Are Digitizing Retail Stores

If virtual reality was on the rise before, COVID-19 has pushed it full force into deployment as a virtual shopping experience for ecommerce brands and retailers.

In 2020, the rise in experiential ecommerce and the requirement for connection with a brand was the driving force behind such innovations as virtual showrooms and in-store experiences. With the capability to digitize their brick and mortar locations, high-end retailers are able to allow their customers to literally shop the store online through virtual reality.

According to Obsess, a VR and AR firm specializing in digitized retail, 78% of millennial shoppers are in favor of a virtual reality experience in their shopping apps.

“While the foot traffic is low to the stores, Obsess is enabling retailers to quickly make their retail stores shoppable ‘remotely’,” says Amrita Maria, champion of business development at Obsess. “With Obsess, our clients are showcasing their collections to their buyers globally, who are not travelling to fashion capitals this season by creating 3D 360 photorealistic virtual showrooms in which buyers can experience the collection and get the full brand experience.”

With numbers this strong, ecommerce companies have never been more interested in investing in their websites. Find out how Hostdedi can help you support ecommerce innovations like PWA with powerful hosting solutions.

Explore everything Hostdedi has to offer with our Managed WordPress or Managed WooCommerce 14 Day Free Trial.

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Deploying to Live and Staging with Deploybot

Deploying to Live and Staging with Deploybot

If you’ve been in web development for a while, you’ve probably screwed up a file transfer as you’re trying to update a site. In the best case scenario, you add a bunch of easily identifiable files to a directory and you remove them to fix the error. Yes it costs you time and it’s annoying, but no harm done. 

In a worst case scenario, you transfer a bunch of theme files improperly. Then you have to figure out which ones were overwritten, which don’t belong at all, and how on earth will you recover your theme’s proper working state.

Today we’re going to tackle solving this problem using Git and Deploybot to automate your deployment process.

What is Automated Deployment?

A basic automated deployment has four pieces as shown in this diagram.

Most developers start with just their code and the server. They make changes to their working copy of the site, and then push those changes directly to the server via FTP. Tools like Coda or Dreamweaver have direct FTP integration so that you can do this from inside your coding environment.

The next step many developers take is to add a staging site so that they’re not modifying the live server directly. You can do this with something like VVV or MAMP. Often this also means you’re using a version control system like Git to manage the changes you make to your local working site.

When you add a staging site, you also add complexity. How do you get your code changes from your local working site to a staging site where your client can see the changes? Yes, as I already said, you can use a basic FTP client like FileZilla, Transmit or Forklift to move the files as you make changes, but this is error prone and this is where automating your deployment process will save you so much time.

Instead of you taking the files you change and pushing them to your staging server, you use another system to automatically detect the changes in your Git repository and push only those changes to the staging site your client can use to check the work.

That still leaves your live site as a manual deploy though, which is much scarier because it can mean the loss of real money if you take down a live working site. Instead, let’s assume that you’re going to set up your deployment system to automatically deploy to staging, and then your system will deploy with a single click to the live environment when you’re ready to go.

So now you have a system that looks like this.

Let’s dive in so I can show you how I set up this deployment process for every client I work with. These are the steps I take as soon as I start a new project. I always make sure that my deployment process is set up and working before I start doing any other work on a client project.

How to Structure your Git Repository

Your first choice to make is, which directory will you set up your automated deployment in? Unless my client specifically requests that full source control for their WordPress install, I use the wp-content directory to set up my automated deployment system. That starts in terminal by issuing this command that initializes a git repository.

git init

Now it’s time to ignore the files you won’t want to deploy all the time. These are files like backup files, images, and any of the custom project files that many code editors add to a directory. You can see my usual .gitignore file below.

config/app_config.yml

config/database.yml

config/*.sphinx.conf

config/s3_credentials.yml

*~

*.cache

*.log

*.pid

tmp/**/*

.DS_Store

db/cstore/**

db/sphinx/**

doc/api

doc/app

doc/plugins

doc/*.dot

coverage/*

db/*.sqlite3

*.tmproj

*.sw?

*.esproj

_notes*

dwsync.xml

podcast.xml

*.kpf

*uploads/*

*.swp

*.idea

*.sublime-project

*.sublime-workspace

*/node_modules/*

tags

*.bak

cache/*

managewp/*

mu-plugins/*

dp.php

updraft/*

languages/*

db.php

plugins/wp-rocket/cache.json

Feel free to add or remove from this as needed. Almost every project I work on needs some sort of custom entry to ignore some file that is specific to my local working site for which the staging and live sites will have their own custom file I don’t want to overwrite.

From here it’s time to set up the branches you’ll need to get your deployment system going. I use two main branches. First is the master branch which corresponds to my live production site. Second, is a branch I label staging and corresponds to the staging site I want my client to use as a way to check the changes we’re making.

When you initialized your Git repository you already got your master branch, so use this command to add a staging branch and check it out.

git checkout -b staging

This command creates and checks out a new branch. If you’re new to git, you can find more information on the available commands in the Git documentation.

Now you’ll need to push your project into your source control system. Github and Bitbucket are two popular choices which both work with the automated deployment system we’re going to use called Deploybot. When you create a new repository with either site they’ll give you further directions to add your local repository to your online version in Github or Bitbucket.

Setting up Deploybot

When I was first getting into more complex work as a developer my friend Duane kept recommending Deploybot to me when I complained online about messing up manual FTP deployment. It took a number of recommendations before I finally did what I was told, but I’ve now been a happy Deploybot customer for years.

While there are other ways to deploy your sites many of them involve interfacing with Git Webhooks or some automated deployment configuration files via your code editor. There is lots of power in those other tools, but if you’re just getting started with automated deployment, then going with something straight forward like Deploybot is the place to start.

To get started sign up for a Deploybot account and connect Github or Bitbucket to your account. I’ll use my existing Bitbucket account today. Start by adding a new repository to your Deploybot account.

Once you’ve found the repository you want to setup for automated deployment click the button labelled connect at the bottom of the page. This will send you back to your repository page while Deploybot finishes initializing your repository. Generally this is done in a minute or two so fill up your coffee and come back to finish setting up your deployment process.

Once your repository is set up, click on it to get taken to its main page. Since we have no sFTP information set up yet it will have a big box on it telling you to set up a server. Click on the button to create an environment and server.

Let’s start with deployment to our staging environment. So label your server as staging. Choose automatic deployment and make sure you set the branch to staging.

When your done click the Save button on the bottom of the page to move to your server configuration.

On the next page label it as a Staging server again and put in your sFTP information from your site. If you’re not sure where to find them, read this helpful guide.

With your sFTP information entered you can scroll down to the bottom and save it. Deploybot will then test your connection to make sure that the information you provided works. Now it’s time to do our initial deploy for the site to make sure it all works. I often add a test.txt file to the deploy as an easy way to verify that the deploy worked properly.

To start your deploy to your environment history and click deploy.

Now you’ll see a page with your last git commit message on it as the note you’ll see inside Deploybot next to this deploy. For big changes I’ll change this, but if I’m just changing CSS or something minor the commit message can stay. Since this is staging, every single commit to our staging branch will be deployed automatically, which means your commit messages are what will show up. It’s only the initial commit that we need to do manually to our staging site.

Now verify that your files have been published to the staging site and we can set up the live deployment.

For your live deployment, make sure that you don’t choose automatic deployment and make sure that you choose the master branch as the source of your deployment. We want this to be a manual deployment when we’re ready to push changes to our live site.

To do this you’ll need to check out your master branch then merge your changes from your staging branch into master.

You can do that with these commands.

git checkout master

git merge staging

git push origin master

Now when you go to your Deploybot account you’ll be able to manually deploy your changes just like we did with our initial deployment to our staging environment. For your live environment, make sure you change the deployment message to suit the changes that are being pushed to your live site. You should also create a backup of your site. You can do this by accessing the backups navigation on your site and then creating a manual backup.

That’s it, you’ve got your automated deployment system setup for both staging and live environments.

Other Deployment Considerations

While this system is a big step forward for most developers, it’s not without its issues. The biggest one being that if you have a bunch of changes you’re still waiting for FTP to finish transferring files that have changed. This can mean that someone visits your site and not all of the files your site needs to run are present. 

For many clients this won’t be an issue, but if it is for your site then you’ll need to look at setting up an Atomic deployment system. This type of deployment system moves all the files, verifies that they are working correctly and then changes the file settings on your server so that the new directory is now the one that runs your site.

The process of linking to a new folder takes such a short time that only a computer would notice. That also means if you find a problem later, you can change your system link back to the old version of the site to rollback to the version that was working. This again only takes a very short amount of time and reduces downtime.

No matter what you choose to do, stop using an FTP client to deploy your client files today. The small monthly cost of Deploybot is recovered every time you don’t make a mistake deploying your files.

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The Importance of CDNs for Page Speed

The Importance of CDNs for Page Speed

Let’s talk about content delivery networks, or CDNs in the context of Managed WooCommerce hosting. A CDN is a crucial topic for a WooCommerce store owner to understand because a CDN is key to page speed, and as we know, page speed is everything right now.

First, why page speed?

Simply put, page speed is important for conversions. A conversion is when a visitor to a page — in the case of someone browsing a WooCommerce store, a shopper — takes the desired action we want them to take. In most ecommerce cases, that would be a sale. Sometimes, it can be something else such as: a lead on a contact form, adding an item to a cart, etc. But in general, it’s a sale.

We have information that tells us that slow page load times cost merchants money. Perhaps the most notable and well-known metric is the 3 second metric: 40% of people abandon a website that takes more than 3 seconds to load. Namely, people don’t like to wait. We are not patient. After 3 seconds, we tend to look at another part of our screen, and sometimes click somewhere else. 

In an ecommerce context, that is particularly worrisome because the longer a potential shopper browses, the more of a chance they’ll add something to the cart, and better yet, they will add multiple things to the cart. Then, to add to the human factor of page speed, in 2020, we also have to consider the algorithmic factor. The ranking factors today are all about usability and user-friendliness, so to Google, high page load times are considered a signal of poor experiences. So, not only will your slow sites lose the traffic you earn before the conversion, they will also increasingly be shown to new users less and less.

With these key facts, page speeds starts to look like one of the most important considerations for your WooCommerce store, or any other type of site online. In Hostdedi support, we have a saying: “our customers are addicted to speed.” And with good reason folks: slow pages create frustrating experiences and cost potential revenue. 

My perspective when it comes to the development of WooCommerce stores is that while it is always a good thing when the store is beautiful, feature-rich, or anything else, ultimately, its goal is to process transactions and earn profit. This is why I want to focus in on the page speed aspect of CDNs. CDNs can help with many other items, but when it comes to business, they matter because page speed matters. If you are interested in the nuts and bolts of how CDNs work and the Hostdedi CDN, I would recommend our knowledge base article on CDNs instead.

One last note on page speed

We’re not done talking about page speed yet. 

While this article will cover CDNs, there are many other strategies for improving your page load times and using a CDN is only one of them. The Hostdedi blog contains many resources on how to speed up your store.  A lot of the time our recommendations are simple: change hosts to a high-quality host, optimize your images, implement intelligent caching, etc. All of these components are important, and no single factor will make a page fast, but all of them together working in harmony will.

These “how to speed up your store” lists almost always inevitably include activate a CDN. It is generally well-known and accepted, but do you fully understand how it works? So, we wanted to dig into what activating a CDN actually looks like for a store owner focused on growth. That way, store owners can start to see CDNs how I see them: an excellent tool for growing revenue and retaining customers.

What is a content delivery network (CDN)?

CDN stands for content delivery network. All that it is from a technical standpoint is a way to distribute the work of delivering content to your web browser, and therefore to your eyes, as the end-user. Think about it this way in a traditional method of content delivery: everything is coming from one source. Maybe you can compare it to a single stream of water. A stream is usually only a certain width — based on the robustness of the source — and that means that you’re going to get water at the rate that that one tube can deliver water.

If you want to try to do something like fill up a tub, several factors could come into play. If the source is far away from the tub, it could take a long time for the water to begin filling up. And since you clear out your tub after every time you use it — like an incognito browser might — you have to repeat the filling process every time you want to use the tub again. And, if you’ve ever filled a pool, you know that a great way to speed up that process is to have several sources of water at once.

Through a combination of optimizations that range from increasing the number of sources, their closeness, and caching what content is delivered for easy retrieval, CDNs make the process of delivering content online more efficient. This has become even more important as our modern web has become dominated by high resolution images and video, streaming audio and beautiful animations.

In the most simple way, that is all a CDN in. There are other considerations when it comes to CDNs — due to the nature of the optimizations for content delivery, they can also be helpful with security and uptime concerns — but at its core, it’s simply an essential feature for the modern web. Most of the content you consume today is delivered via one. 

That means that most hosting providers will include a CDN with their plans. If that is not the case, a provider like Cloudflare can be helpful. At Hostdedi across our whole product catalog, but especially within the store owner-focused Managed WooCommerce platform, we specialize in reducing the number of vendors you have to wrangle. So, on our Hostdedi product, your CDN setup is a toggle away. 

Save on other costs by using a CDN

In most cases, working more efficiently for your store’s visitors also means your technology is working smarter for you. Using a CDN not only improves page speeds, but it also uses your other most valuable resource outside of time better: your money. For example, consider bandwidth costs in relationship to CDNs. If, in the tub analogy, the CDN is adding more sources and managing the fill intelligently, you also know that you have to pay for every gallon of water you put through. You usually also a bandwidth recommendation on your hosting plan, and in the case of some hosts, a cap. By managing the delivery of the content better, your CDN also manages your bandwidth expenses better.

Other best practices to consider about load times and content

Think differently about video

With a CDN and bandwidth considerations in mind, there are other content delivery-related items to consider. An important one we see frequently is video. Video files are big, and on most web hosting plans for your store, take up large percentages of storage space and bandwidth. While a CDN could handle delivering your videos, there’s probably even better ways to handle that problem to get that 3 second load time. We frequently recommend using a service like YouTube or Vimeo to host and stream your videos to maximize your efforts. For a more professional-looking option without these streaming services’ logos, something like Wistia is an excellent choice.

You still have to optimize your images

Before we were widely using CDNs on the modern web, we addressed some aspects of the process that CDNs streamlines by manually optimizing our images. This is still a good thing to do, although there’s no need to do it manually — lots of tools are out there to optimize images. On Managed WooCommerce on Hostdedi, we include the Compress JPGs and PNGs plugin that creates multiple different size images from a single upload and then handles the right size image for the browser. That’s another way to make sure your CDN is working smartest for your WooCommerce store. 

Especially within the modern web that we are creating within, there are more and more legitimate reasons to require large image file sizes. Consumers have increasingly growing expectations of how they can view and experience potential online purchases. Especially as more and more products are even available to be purchased online, potential buyers expect to be able to zoom in, view products in 360 degrees, and more. For example, clothes shopping online used to be considered high-risk and therefore online clothing retailers needed excellent return and try-on policies.

Today, an advanced product listing that clearly indicates key information and allows for a detailed view of the product’s texture is reducing that barrier. Online furniture retailers are enabling augmented reality views of their products on a photo of the potential buyer’s space. As these expectations continue rise, it’s important to keep up with the features while also keeping up with performance and security. A CDN, used intelligently among other page optimization strategies, is a great way to get there.

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Scheduling Sales & Marketing For Black Friday

Scheduling Sales & Marketing For Black Friday

5 things you need to start thinking about now, so you can implement before holiday shopping starts this fall.

In February of 2019 I launched my first ever crowdfunding campaign where I was able to raise enough capital to manufacture goods in China and ship them to the US to start my board game company.

While this took a lot of planning to pull off – it actually made the launch of my first game incredibly easy. So easy, I thought I was forgetting something the entire time but it turned out I could actually just relax and let my marketing automations do the work for me.

Today I want to share how you can use the same strategies to automate your sales and marketing for the Black Friday/Holiday shopping weekend and make money without stressing yourself out.

Design Landing Pages

First things first: design any landing pages. Landing pages are a way to highlight products & content specific to a campaign, sale, or interest. Not all stores need landing pages but if you have certain products heavily discounted it’s worth putting them all on one page so visitors can view the best deals, get interested in your store, and then start adding things to their cart.

Unless you only have one or two key products, landing pages are one of the best places to send your fans. And if you plan on doing any advertising or newsletter blasts (hint – you should be thinking about both of these) then a landing page is one of the best places to send them. And it’s why you should start with this a month or so before the sale.

Create Tracking Links

I’m a big fan of tracking & measuring everything possible so that I can figure out what worked and in future years double down on the strategies that made me money and ignore the ones that didn’t work. And since each industry is so different in ecommerce what makes perfect sense for one industry may not work at all in another so you will have to try various strategies and learn and improve each year.

One of the ways to monitor this is with UTM parameters. You can create UTM parameters using a generator for any campaign you’re running and in tracking software like Google Analytics you can see where people are coming from.

As an example I created custom links for all of the influencers who made videos about my products. And while many of them sent over dozens of people who ended up purchasing the product one of the influencers only had one confirmed sale.

In future years I wouldn’t use this influencer again. Since my product is only $15 getting one sale isn’t worth all the admin time spent emailing back and forth and sending them a demo product.

Here’s a few custom links you could create for your site:

  • Links from Twitter
  • Links from Facebook
  • Links from your newsletter
  • Links from influencers
  • Links from forums / discussion groups
  • Links from your email signature
  • Etc.

Schedule Sale Prices

Once you have all of your landing pages & links set up it is time to schedule the sale prices. Whether you use WooCommerce, Magento, BigCommerce, or another online store just about all of them let you schedule both the start & end of sale prices.

Here’s what it looks like in WooCommerce.

If you’re doing a storewide discount, discount an entire category, or other more complicated setups, this isn’t typically included in the core software but there’s almost always apps, extensions, and modules that let you do this.

Plan Your Ad Strategy

Every retailer knows that Black Friday is one of the biggest sales opportunities of the year and many retailers go all out with advertising right before Black Friday. That means ad prices soar right before Black Friday so you’ll quickly find your self spending more than you make if you don’t plan in advance.

Image from AdEspresso

One of my favorite strategies is to come up with new ad concepts in spring, A/B test them throughout the summer, and wind them down in the fall. When Black Friday comes around you can retarget your existing audience which is far cheaper than targeting new people who are probably overwhelmed by the amount of ads and will be unlikely to trust a new company.

If you haven’t started ads and you’re reading this today, there’s still plenty of time. Get some ads out there next week and start building your audience so you can retarget them down the line.

Schedule Email Blasts

You have landing pages, tracking links, and all of your products are discounted. Now comes arguably the most important piece. Letting people know!

And yes, you can and should announce things on social media & on your website but today we’re going to talk about your #1 asset and that’s your email list.

These are easy to schedule in any email marketing tool. And what you want to do is setup a bunch of emails and you can send them to segments of your email list based on how active & how much they spend on your store.

  • Here’s what’s coming on Black Friday (7 days ahead)
  • Here’s what’s coming tomorrow (1 day ahead) – For people who regularly open your emails
  • Black Friday is here (Black Friday)
  • Don’t Forget Black Friday (Saturday) – For people who didn’t open yesterdays email
  • Don’t Miss the Best Sale of the Year – For people who have made multiple purchases

And you can create even more than this and if you have a large list with even more data you can continue segmenting your list and writing emails for those segments. 

Preparation is Key

At the end of the day it’s all about coming up with a plan. Almost all of the tools out there have scheduling functionality so once you make a plan, write a few emails or lines of ad copy go ahead and get it scheduled.

I planned my crowdfunding campaign for 6 months and raised $10,000 off a non-existent product. With a few months to go you have plenty of time to build your audience, come up with attractive deals, and let your audience know about those deals.

Good luck!

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The Best WooCommerce Themes You Need Today

The Best WooCommerce Themes You Need Today

WooCommerce powers a vast number of ecommerce stores and is a very popular WordPress plugin that allows users to easily add ecommerce features and functions to a WordPress site. 

Picking the best theme for your WooCommerce store will make or break how the site looks and performs. Picking a bloated theme that will cause issues for the store is something that you really want to avoid.

The two best theme options that work very well with WooCommerce are Astra and GeneratePress.

Astra

Astra theme is free and can be installed in wp-admin on your site, but the power for Astra comes with Astra Pro. 

Astra Pro is provided at no cost on Managed WooCommerce plans on Hostdedi

Astra Pro is installed as a regular plugin which will unlock and extend the Astra theme. Astra Pro has a huge number of features and modules just for WooCommerce. 

Also, the Astra theme is designed to work with a number of solid page builders like Beaver Builder and Elementor. Being able to use a solid and easy-to-use page builder will allow your store to look exactly as you like.

Astra Pro options can be easily enabled from wp-admin by going to:

Appearance > Astra Options

Make sure that the WooCommerce Pro module is activated in the Astra options setting to be able to control WooCommerce using the Astra theme. 

You can make the WooCommerce related changes in the Astra theme using the customizer in wp-admin.

The Astra theme is designed to be a very clean starter theme which is feature rich but also one which is performance-based, and will not cause issues when using it with WooCommerce.

GeneratePress

The final theme recommended is GeneratePress, which is another very clean starter theme.

GeneratePress theme is also designed to work with most page builders and contains a page builder container setting. GeneratePress can also be extended using the premium plugin, which is installed as a regular plugin on your site in wp-admin.

GeneratePress premium includes a number of modules that will extend out the GeneratePress theme. GeneratePress will also work very well with WooCommerce which means you can use a very clean theme which is also designed to work with WooCommerce.

Astra Pro for the Win

While both of the two themes are solid choices, Astra with Astra Pro includes the most features and the most options to be able to extend the theme and control of how WooCommerce displays. Also, it works without having to use a lot of code snippets to control WooCommerce elements.

Don’t rush when choosing your store theme, as that saves time and money later with potential plugin or layout issues that may appear later as your store grows. No amount of site optimization is going to fix root issues on your store being caused by the active theme.

Managed WordPress with Hostdedi Includes Astra

Forget about researching themes and choose Managed WordPress with Hostdedi, which includes Astra out of the box along with AffiliateWP, WP 101, iThemes Security Pro and WP All Import Pro with the WooCommerce add-on.

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When is it time to leave Shared Hosting & upgrade to Managed WordPress?

When is it time to leave Shared Hosting & upgrade to Managed WordPress?

One of the best things about shared hosting is the low monthly price. One of the worst things about shared hosting is the low monthly price. The reality that both statements are correct presents a constant challenge to customers who are slowly outgrowing their initial decision to use shared hosting. 

Before we start talking about when it makes sense to leave shared hosting and upgrade to a Managed WordPress solution, let’s highlight why so many people start off with shared hosting.

The 3 reasons people start with shared hosting

While there may be many reasons why people choose shared hosting for their first WordPress and WooCommerce sites, there are three that rise to the surface anytime you find yourself talking about hosting.

First, the low price can’t be beat. 

Ask anyone and they’ll tell you they’re looking for lower prices. This isn’t anything new. 

In the days before wireless phones, where people paid for phone lines, there was a constant desire to look for lower prices for both local and long distance calls. That’s partly because no one understood the complexity that was hidden from them. 

Hosting is very similar. Since everything technical has been abstracted away, it all seems easy and therefore, it shouldn’t cost that much. Shared hosting offers monthly hosting at prices lower than a complicated Starbucks order. 

Second, no one knows what resources they’ll eventually need. 

Another dynamic when it comes to hosting is that few people can predict how well their site will do (in terms of traffic) and how that relates to the resources they’ll need. 

This is similar to the challenge that homeowners face when considering solar panels. They’re often asked by professionals to evaluate how many kilowatts of energy they’ll consume in a day or month. Most of us have no idea because it’s a resource that we don’t measure directly or need to keep track of.

When it comes to hosting, it’s hard to know if you’ll need a lot of CPU or a little, whether you will see consistently high RAM utilization or whether it will peak at random intervals. When you don’t know, sometimes it’s just easier to buy an inexpensive plan to start with and see how it goes.

Third, most of us underestimate the need for advanced support. 

The third and final reason most people get their start with shared hosting is that they don’t place a high value on advanced support. If you’ve never hosted anything before, it’s especially easy to hope that everything will work out and you’ll never need to make a phone call.

Most customers of shared hosting assume that support will be there when they need it and rarely test to see if that’s actually true. Then, when they really need support, it’s somewhat shocking to discover that it doesn’t perform the way we assumed it would.

Signs that it’s time to shift to Managed WordPress Hosting

As you can imagine, the signs that it’s time to shift to managed hosting are the very reasons why someone may have chosen shared hosting to begin with:

Low prices create slow performance

Those low monthly prices are available because your website was placed on a shared infrastructure that houses thousands of other sites. The assumption is that you won’t get enough traffic to create a problem, and when you have a problem you won’t notice it. Often you’ll notice your site getting slower over time. That simply means the server your site is on is getting more and more packed. That’s what high density shared hosting is all about – packing the most sites on a set of servers. Slow performance is a sure sign that it’s time to think about making a move. 

Slow performance and connection errors require more resources

Even worse than a site that gets slower and slower over time is a site that stops loading or presents 502 errors (or 503, 504, etc.). Even if you don’t see these errors, your customers will. More importantly, your website will be “down” for those customers, which can impact your brand or revenue. These errors tell you that you need more server resources and likely a different configuration of your setup, but that isn’t available for $4/month.

Poor support experiences mean you need better expertise

The third way to figure out you need to shift from shared hosting to managed WordPress hosting is potentially the easiest one to spot. If you submit a ticket and the majority of the work is put back on your plate, you know it’s potentially time to make a change. Hosting companies that offer managed WordPress plans staff their support with experts who understand what you’re going thru and can help you. Shared hosting often doesn’t want you getting on the phone at all, redirects you to their knowledge base articles, and invites you to solve your own problem.

When is it time to make the move to Managed WordPress?

The answer to the question is rather simple – the time to make the move from shared hosting to Managed WordPress is whenever you experience any of the following:

  • A site that is so slow that customers leave before the page loads
  • A site that seems to consistently get slower, month over month
  • A site that gets connection errors / becomes unavailable for others
  • When support organizations want you to do most of the work yourself

When you experience any of these situations, you may want to check out Hostdedi Managed WordPress or WooCommerce hosting.

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Why DTC Ecommerce Matters More Than Ever Today

Why DTC Ecommerce Matters More Than Ever Today

In 2020, DTC ecommerce has proven to be another sensible way to reach your customers, and many brands are looking at starting from B2B and transitioning to direct to consumer.

Those of us working in ecommerce have been seeing the shift for a while now. As more and more stores transitioned their inventory online, the ecommerce boom wasn’t just happening – it was inevitable.

Fast forward to spring of 2020 though, and NOBODY could have predicted what happened next. 

Massive store closures triggered the single largest exodus from brick and mortar the world has ever seen, with more than 100,000 small businesses in the US alone closing for good as a result of the COVID-19 shutdowns.

But small businesses weren’t the only ones to take a hit. Larger retailers like Neiman Marcus have filed for bankruptcy in the last few months, and that list continues to grow.

All things considered though, the pandemic has thrown into sharper relief the need for a stronger ecommerce presence for many of these retailers. Record-breaking numbers are rolling in for ecommerce for 2020, including a growth spurt that put the industry four to six years ahead of schedule.

The Problem With Wholesaling During COVID-19

Even in spite of many shoppers setting their sights online, manufacturers saw major hits to their B2B sales as brick and mortar stores shut down. Those relying on wholesale relationships to float their revenue took devastating hits in the midst of the shutdowns.

As consumers turned to ecommerce sites like Amazon though, the fallout continued. In mid-March, Amazon restricted their B2B purchasing of nonessential goods in the wake of unprecedented demand for household staples.

As Amazon made room in their warehouses for hand sanitizer and toilet paper, purchase orders for nonessential goods rolled to a trickle or stopped completely, and manufacturers saw B2B sales plummet.

In the scramble to recover these revenue losses and brace for a potential second wave of retail shutdowns, many manufacturers are turning to DTC ecommerce models.

What Is DTC and a DNVB?

DTC stands for direct-to-consumer. It’s an ecommerce model wherein the brand sells directly to consumers, rather than through retailers, essentially cutting out the middleman. Some DTC evangelists will tell you the goal is to handle production, sales, distribution, and marketing under one roof and never go wholesale, but in 2020, it’s proven to just be another sensible way to reach your customers, and many brands are looking at starting from B2B and transitioning to DTC.

A DNVB is a digitally native vertical brand that starts this way. Best typified by brands like Avocado Green Mattress and Allbirds, DNVBs typically start with a simple product line (typically one or two options), clear, crisp branding, and a strong mission-driven component.

With brick and mortar sales remaining unstable and manufacturers now dealing with the fallout from their Amazon backlogs, DTC ecommerce is looking more attractive all the time – and consumers are taking notice, too.

Mission-Driven Shoppers Are Fueling the Fire

Interestingly, DTC brands are creating evangelical customers and devoted fan bases centered around two things:

  1. Amazing products
  2. A unifying brand mission

Consumer data shows that millennials now make up the majority of buying power in the US, and are 63% more likely to purchase from a brand because of their mission and values. 

This data, coupled with the boom the DTC sector has seen from innovative consumer goods startups has created a replicable business model that’s looking all the more attractive to manufacturers who entered the industry through wholesaling.

Four Components of a Successful DTC Ecommerce Site

Over and over again, we see brands killing the game in DTC ecommerce, and the best of them have a few things in common:

  1. Clean branding. Visually-driven shoppers respond to powerful messaging and clean logos. Brands like Tushy and Anese are leading the pack with memorable branding that leaves a mark in a saturated market.
  1. Smooth UX. At Hostdedi, we know that an ecommerce site’s performance is directly linked to its ability to generate revenue. The best DTC ecommerce sites have an intuitive layout, load fast, and have a smooth interaction with their shoppers.
  1. Simple product lines. They say simplicity sells, and that’s certainly the name of the game in DTC ecommerce. Strong DTC brands typically have one or two flagship products they make their mark with and expand on.
  1. Strong missions. The data supports that today’s consumers are more conscious of their purchasing decisions than ever. Making your mission clear and building your brand around it (instead of as an afterthought) will literally win you more sales, and good karma.

Is It Time for You to Go DTC?

If COVID-19 has taught us anything in ecommerce, it’s that you can’t have enough backup plans. Diversifying how and where you sell your products makes all the sense in the world. Those high-volume retail POs may seem nice for a while – until they vanish, and your revenue vanishes with it.

Build resiliency, connect with your customer base, and get in on the thrill that is DTC ecommerce. Talk to one of our experts today about what it would take to get your brand online and selling DTC.

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Managed WordPress vs DIY vs cPanel: Which Is Best?

Managed WordPress vs DIY vs cPanel: Which Is Best?



BACKUPS

  • cPanel: You can connect to cPanel’s backup tools, but know that it will save the files onto the source destination by default. This might be acceptable, but it should be noted that, in the unfortunate event that your server ever crashed, your backups would go along with it. 
  • DIY: To ensure you have proper backups, you’ll need to configure what you want backed up and when. This will involve continuously testing your backups, verifying them, and manually removing them so as not to overload your space. It’s a continuous and complex process, but it’s better than losing a backup before you really need it.
  • Managed WordPress: We take care of the boring and time-consuming work for you here, backing up every site on your account and removing old backups as needed. You can set up a daily schedule that suits your needs and run one-offs in between as desired. You can also rest easy knowing your backups are saved for 30 days on a separate server, eliminating risks and increasing security overall. 

PLUGINS AND CORE UPDATES

  • cPanel: cPanel offers the ability to install WordPress onto a website. The process involves downloading it, uploading it, and verifying it. It’s work for certain, but it gets the job done. Plugins can be added through the WordPress repo, but updates must be done on a manual basis, backing up the site (as previously mentioned), confirming the details, and agreeing to the update. Once it’s live, you can check your site to make sure everything worked as expected. 
  • DIY: There are many plugins and services that can assist with general updates, but nothing can automate the process for you for all. This leaves you in the driver’s seat to confirm updates for the many plugins you use on every WordPress site you manage. You’ll also need to spend some time after the updates to make sure everything still works right on your site — it’s not something that happens often, but plugin updates can adjust all sorts of functions and features you expect to be safe.
  • Managed WordPress: Nothing is left to chance with the managed approach. We run checks before any given plugin is automatically updated using our visual comparison tool, confirming your site will still look the same after the update as it did before. 

MANAGING MORE THAN ONE SITE

  • cPanel and DIY: Everything required for regular upkeep is done on a per-site basis. Multiple third-party tools are needed to simplify the process, which often comes with additional expenses and management tasks.
  • Managed WordPress: Every Managed WordPress account comes standard with iThemes Sync, giving you the ability to manage all of your sites in one beautiful dashboard at no additional cost. You’re also able to set up reporting and notifications as needed, tailored to your portfolio’s needs. 

CACHE + PERFORMANCE

  • cPanel: If you want to keep your individual sites running fast and smooth, you’ll need to investigate what plugins are available based on your specific capabilities. The best of these will not be free, but the alternative is too expensive. The management of these will all be on you, though some automation may be included with more premium options.
  • DIY: There are many things that require configuration and this will be necessary for every site you manage. All costs associated with the services employed are added to your monthly investment and obtaining support may be challenging, as each service is separate and solely focused on their product alone. The DIY hosting approach will also require regular tests and verifications, because setting these things up wrong is worse than not using any at all! 
  • Managed WordPress: From Varnish to Memcache to Redis and more, we take care of the licenses and support for you, preconfiguring all to help you run the fastest, most stable site possible. 

OVERALL CONTROL

There’s a common misconception that Managed WordPress is really just about giving up control to the host, but that couldn’t be further from the truth… 

In reality, you’re gaining MORE control! With more free time to focus on things that matter and access to SSH, phpMyAdmin, and your database, you can do everything you could with the DIY approach and more with Managed WordPress

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