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Designing With Actinic Online – Part 1

Where To Begin?

There is nothing like having a real customer to help focus the mind on learning a new bit of software.

No, let me rephrase that.

There’s nothing like there being money involved to help focus the mind on learning a new bit of software. :)

When a customer approached me wanting to use Actinic Online for their online store, I had only really spent about 5 minutes clicking round the demo store vaguely seeing how it all fitted together. Now I had to properly learn it and implement a site using it.


The first challenge was coming up with a proposal and a price for the project. As I really didn’t know yet what I was going to be able to achieve design-wise, my first job was to figure out the layout options there were in Actinic Online and come up with a design that worked with them. Then I would have some sort of chance of coming up with a realistic cost for everything.

Familiar Themes

My first stop was to go to ‘Site > Site Design’ then I clicked the ‘Modify’ button and then clicked on the link marked ‘Use an Oxatis site design included in the subscription’.

Actinic Online Themes

There are 8 pages of pre-built themes that come with Actinic Online. They are all modern, clean and well-designed (quite an improvement on Actinic Desktop then!) but you cannot really get away from the fact that they are all, essentially, identical.

Every single design in Actinic Online will have a structure like this:

Actinic Online Structure

So you have a header area at the top, which includes the logo image but, more importantly, has a main horizontal navigation bar. Then you have a similar footer area at the bottom with another horizontal bar. And finally you have a sidebar that contains a vertical menu.

And that is pretty much all you have to play with when doing a design for Actinic Online.

I can hear the cries of outrage from here: “So inflexible!” “How can designers work with this?” “Down with this sort of thing!”

However, I am actually OK with it for the following reasons:

Firstly, the developers have taken the sensible decision of picking a basic layout which supports 80-90% of what every entry-level store will need.

Further to that. It’s all decently coded nicely marked up with CSS so you can get at everything by tweaking the stylesheet – which I’ll talk about in my next article.

Finally, having gone through the upgrade process a number of times on various Magento and CS-Cart stores, being able to get at the HTML of an online ecommerce system is a really mixed blessing. Yes, it’s nice to have total control, but every time an update comes out you waste a day in having to re-apply your designs to the latest set of templates. It’s a total nightmare. At least with this you don’t have that issue.

Anyway, based on the structure of Actinic Online stores, the design I came up with for the client is below. In the next article I’ll talk about how I went about coding it up.

Design Concept

Using Twitter for Business

Originally posted here –

Twitter can be an incredibly powerful business tool.

You can use it to encourage loyalty with your current customers, and also connect to brand new people who you would never have reached before Twitter.

Which sounds marvellous in theory, but there’s no denying that it’s also a tricky medium to get your head around.

If you read my last article, you’ll already have set yourself up with a Twitter account and started following a few people. The next step is to engage with Twitter meaningfully and effectively in a way that’ll gain customers and drive sales.

The ultimate goal on Twitter is to get as many relevant people subscribing to (or ‘following’) your messages as you can. With more followers you have a larger ready-made audience for your news and promotions, and you also increase the chance of your messages finding an even wider audience. Gaining followers isn’t easy, but there are a few tried and tested techniques to get you started.

Recruit Your Existing Customers

The first step is to get as many of your existing customers following you on Twitter as you can manage.

If you’ve got an existing mailing list, you could include something in your next newsletter that says the first 20 new Twitter followers will receive a 10% off coupon. Bingo – instant followers.

Or, even better, you should ask them to post a tweet that mentions you. Your customers would then have to post a tweet saying something like “@yourtwittername Yes please can I have my 10% off coupon”. When you include a username in a message with a ‘@’ symbol, this is called a ‘mention’. The beauty of mentions on Twitter is that then anyone else following your customer would then see the message that includes your mention, and then might choose to follow you and ask for a coupon as well. Result! You’ve got a new follower and a new customer.

Partake In Some Casual Stalking

Another good idea is just to follow anyone who is in a vaguely related field to you – especially if they have a lot of followers. When you follow someone, there is a chance they will follow you back. If you then post a message that they find interesting, they could then forward (or ‘retweet’) your message onto their followers. See below for more on the awesome power of the retweet.

Even if the person doesn’t choose to follow you, you could always playfully stalk them by mentioning them (with an ‘@’) in a tweet every now and then. That way, there’s a chance they will read your message and might choose to respond to you, which all their followers would then see.

Retweeting Rocks

The most powerful tool with Twitter is the ‘retweet’ (shown as RT). There is so much meaningless jabbering on Twitter that when someone actually reads something interesting, meaningful and sharable, there is a good chance they will forward it on to their followers with a ‘retweet’. Retweets include a mention of the original poster, which means that people you’ve never heard of before can read your messages and then might potentially go on to find out more about you.

Whenever you post something on Twitter, always keep in mind the potential for it to be retweeted. It’s good to post something personal, but if you manage to post something that’s fun and sharable, there is a much better chance of it being forwarded on.

Starting to see the potential yet? It’s like a massive network of interconnected mailing lists. You message all your people, and then any one of your people can retweet your message, or just reply with a mention– at the same time telling all their followers about you.

Tune In To The Good Stuff

Twitter can potentially overwhelm you with a massive amount of raw information. The website is fine for managing your profile, but it’s a terrible place for reading tweets as it gives everything to you in one massive list. There are Twitter readers around to help you make sense of it all and one of the most popular is ‘TweetDeck’ (available from

The key thing about TweetDeck is that it allows you to split the people you follow into different lists or ‘columns’. So you can have one column for competitors, one for customers and one for kitten photos (or whatever floats your boat, I’m not here to judge).

One essential tip for TweetDeck is to go to ‘Settings’ (little spanner icon) and then click on ‘Notifications’ and click the ‘Advanced Options for Columns’ link. This allows you to stop TweetDeck bleeping at you EVERY TIME there is a new message (that soon gets irritating – trust me) and just bleep at you when it’s a message from one of your key people.

Keep At It

The key thing is persistence. Try and post at least three or four times a day. The ideal balance of tweets should be a mixture of interesting/fun observations, personal notes about products you are excited about, the occasional promotion or special offer and retweeted messages from other people.

It will probably take a few weeks/months of consistent high-quality tweeting before you get a good number of followers but your persistence will eventually pay off with a gang of loyal followers ready to read and distribute your messages.

Why Should You Bother With Twitter?

Originally Published on the Postcode Anywhere Blog

When I talk with my clients about using Twitter, half of them tell me they don’t understand it, and the other half don’t see why they should bother with it.

To be honest, I can see what they mean – it’s not like the average small business owner in the UK needs to know much about Justin Bieber’s latest haircut, or what Lauren might do next week in ‘The Only Way Is Essex’.

However, there are some massively useful things that a business owner can get out of Twitter, without even having to get that involved in it.

Here’s where to start.

Step 1 – Dip Your Toes In With A Search

Just go to and use the search bar to search for anything you like. If you sell angling equipment try searching for ‘fishing’, of if you run a holiday cottage in North Wales you could try searching for ‘Snowdonia’. What you will you get back is a huge amount of people’s random thoughts and opinions on that subject (as well as a few bits of commercial spam) but still:

Easiest. Market. Research. Ever.

And remember, if you are reading people’s thoughts on the things you sell, then so are your potential customers. Maybe they should be reading your messages instead…

Twitter used in this way is like a great big search engine for thoughts, opinions and experiences around your areas of interest. It’s especially useful if there’s something in the news that’s related to your business – you’ll soon be overwhelmed with information.

To avoid being overwhelmed, people on Twitter don’t read absolutely everyone’s stuff. Once they find someone who is regularly posting interesting things, whether that is the musings of a Stephen Fry or an Ashton Kutcher, or else another business somewhere in the world selling the same sort of stuff as you, you can choose to ‘follow’ them – to opt into their messages. For that though you need an account, which we’ll come onto next.

Step  2 – Register

The best way to think about Twitter is a just like an email newsletter which anyone in the world can potentially opt in to (or, to use Twitter-speak, they can choose to ‘follow’ you). You’ve only got 140 characters to play with, but you can use that to tell people about new products, special offers or just if you had an interesting person in your shop. The magic of Twitter – and the thing that makes it special – is that once you get people following your messages (your ‘followers’), then they can forward (or ‘retweet’ – shown as ‘RT’) any of your messages to their followers, and then those people can forward it to their followers. And so on and so on. It’s not just you broadcasting and hoping people listen – it’s you starting a conversation that anyone in the world can join in on. Your customers become your marketing team.

Registering with Twitter is easy (the tricky bit is actually getting people to follow you, but we’ll come to that in my next article).

To create a Twitter account, go to and use the fields on the right to enter your full name, email address and a password. Then click ‘Sign Up’.

The next, and most important, thing you’ll need to do is give yourself a Twitter username. Try and find a meaningful name that you won’t mind printing on your company literature. It could be related to your company name and maybe even include a keyword related to the products you sell. Take your time with this and try a few different ideas and permutations. Eventually you’ll find something that works and you can live with for the next few years.

Then just agree to the terms and conditions, click ‘Create My Account’ and you are done.

Congratulations! Kiss goodbye to your free time (just kidding).

Step 3 – Have a Play

The first thing you should do now is click on your username at the top right of the home page and select ‘Settings’ and then go to ‘Profile’. Here you can choose a nice image (it needs to be square) and enter your web address and a short description of you and your company. Your image will appear against all your messages, and your description and URL will appear when people choose to follow you.

In the next article I’ll give some tips on how to start to get followers and use Twitter meaningfully, but in the meantime search for some interesting people to follow, add your Twitter username to your website and marketing materials, try and post something at least once a day and just get used to how Twitter works and looks. It takes a bit of getting used to but if you can get the hang of it, it’s a fun way to communicate with your current customers, and a great way to promote yourself to new ones.

Part two to follow…

Golden Rules for Happy Forums

A few of my customers (e.g. have recently added a forum to their site. Although forums provide a massive opportunity for businesses to develop and nurture a fanatically loyal band of enthusiasts, they can also lead to hours spent dealing with administrative and moderation issues.

My experience moderating the Actinic Community for four years has meant that I’ve had a chance to see what works with forums, and what really causes problems. Here are a few tips I offer people when they are thinking of adding a forum to their sites:

1)      Purpose – It’s worth being really clear what the forum is there for in advance, and ensuring all new joiners know that. Is it just for people to ask advice from you or from other users? Is it also for people to generally network and become friends? Believe me, it really helps to know these things. Otherwise the regular forum posters who are on it every day (see point 4 – below) will dictate what it’s about and maybe take things in a direction which doesn’t reflect what your company is about.

2)      Policies – What happens if someone gets abusive? Do you kick people off or put them on moderation? If people are on moderation, who does the moderation? A basic set of policies needs to be agreed in advance and turned into a set of terms and conditions that all new joiners sign up to. That way it minimises arguments.

3)      Policing – The best way to keep everything lovely and keep debate flowing freely is to deputise a few trusted people who are on there regularly to keep people in line. Then things only get referred to the company (or some sort of appointed oversight group) if things get properly nasty and needs being dealt with.

4)      Postaholics – Some people live on forums, and they will read every new posting and respond to about half of them. They will start to see the forum as being ‘their’ forum and will conduct random and irrelevant conversations – often hijacking threads on otherwise interesting things. This isn’t something you can avoid – this is just the reality of being on a forum. As long as you provide a ‘Random Chat’ forum, that will hopefully siphon off most of the chatter.

As I say, forums provide a great opportunity for mobilising what essentially amounts to an unpaid sales force, but there are huge pitfalls as well. By following these rules hopefully yor forum will become a place where people want to be – including you!

Two New WordPress Sites

Random River has just finished putting the finishing touches to and – two sites built using the WordPress content management system.

Both allow the clients to update all the content and images in the site themselves using a browser, rather than having to pick up the phone to us (as much as we love to speak to our clients!) Casa Bellavista also features slideshows that can be managed by the client.

Email Problems During May

If you sent Random River an email during the last two weeks of May, then due to a technical problem the email will have been lost.

Please do re-send any emails you would like a response to. Email address is

Chris Dicken

Random River’s First Magento-Based Store Goes Live

Internet Golf Store – – is Random River’s first online store built using Magento – We went with Magento as the products that were being sold needed to be categorised in all sorts of different ways – by type, by brand, by user etc. Magento has advanced categorisation and navigation functionality that allows you to view a huge list of products, and then choose a number of criteria to filter that list by.

The site also makes use of some other useful Magento features such as wish lists, product comparison (very useful when looking at two apparently identical golf clubs!) and a very speedy one-page checkout.

Magento isn’t great for everything however. The managing products is very slow and cumbersome, and importing any products takes ages. It’s also difficult to use for non-technical people processing orders or updating products and sections. Actinic is still a long way from being retired!

Thinking of Upgrading to Actinic v10?

Actinic have announced the release of the long-awaited and eagerly-anticipated version 10 of their ecommerce software. You can read more about the features here –

The feature I’m most excited about is the ‘Streamlined Checkout’ – which significantly improves the currently somewhat cumbersome checkout process in Actinic. This area has long been a problem area in Actinic sites, and a place where a lot of customers can get confused and abandon their orders. The new checkout improves things by making everything much more logical – all address information is dealt with on one page, then tax and shipping, and then finally the customer can do a final review before paying. It’s a great improvement, and one I really recommend for all Actinic customers.

Other features include a real-time stock control (really useful for fast-moving items, or items available in limited quantities) and also the display of recently-viewed items on the page.

From the start of June, Random River will be offering an upgrade service from only £200 per site. This upgrade service will cover upgrading the site, checking over the design and making sure the transition to the new version happens smoothly on the live website.

If you’re interested in this service, feel free to get in contact.