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Crafting your best online presence

AMS Digital is a marketing communications agency that specializes in helping clients build and improve their online presence through digital media.

“We use effective marketing communication strategy, website design, branding and video production,” said Steve Henning, director/digital specialist at AMS Digital. “We serve nonprofits, health care, manufacturers, and many small businesses.”

Jackie and Steve Henning of AMS Digital review a video they have produced for a nonprofit organization. AMS Digital is a marketing communications agency that specializes in helping clients build and improve their online presence through digital media. Photo by Jim Palmer

There is no cookie-cutter solution to creating a successful online presence. It is a process, and that process starts with a conversation.

“When I meet with a new customer, I want to hear about their goals – beyond having a new website,” said Henning. “Where does this organization hope to go, and what is its vision? More than just website designers, we are problem solvers. There’s a process of discovery that needs to take place, and we need to find the real pain points in an organization, the business challenges, that we can help solve.”

Steve has been working with websites since the earliest days of the Internet.

“I actually designed and built my own website the first year that the Internet became publicly available,” he said. “I was working as an artist, while also doing side jobs building and maintaining websites for some of the arts organizations that I was involved with.”

Much has changed since the early days of the Internet, and Steve has seen it all.

“When the Internet first became publicly available, websites provided an alternative to yellow page ads – providing basic information about an organization… name, address, and phone. But today websites are living, breathing, interactive touch points between an organization and its customers, employees, vendors, and prospects. For example, in the case of nonprofits, that would include constituents, members, directors and funders. For a marketing organization, a website will engage and lead visitors through all the stages of a marketing funnel, or better yet – a marketing cycle, from the first-time visitor to repeat customer.”

And today, visitors are coming from all directions. More people use computers from their pockets than a computer on their desk. Because of this, Steve said, it is essential that a successful website be mobile-optimized.

“Websites need to be visually appealing. Don’t make me work to get to what I’m looking for,” he said. “The layout needs to respond to the screen size, or the screen orientation. The type needs to be easily readable on a cellphone, and not require enlarging or scrolling from left to right in order to finish reading the text. A business that doesn’t have a mobile-friendly website is just shooting itself in the foot. Twice. Once, because the website will not be used by people you want to use it. Twice, because the site has already been pushed down the listings in search engines.”

Website security is also very important, according to Steve, because it impacts whether or not people choose to enter the site, and whether the site is even ranked by big search engines like Google.

“With security, we also recommend having a privacy policy in place,” he said. “Other factors that contribute to successful website design include built-in blog functionality, social media connectivity, search engine optimization, and user-friendliness for the client who will be making frequent edits and updates.”

Once a website is developed the work is not done. Many businesses/organizations often fail to make changes to the site as the years pass. That is a big mistake, said Henning.

“Websites require constant attention,” he said. “There are constantly changing algorithms and ever-evolving search ‘rules’ by Google that require frequent tweaks and adjustments in the back end. Consumer trends and emerging user habits often demand updates and enhancements on the content side of website design.”

Scott Kiemle, a graphic designer at AMS Digital, has more than 35 years of design experience. Contributed photo

One of the biggest trends in website design, and one that is only expected to grow, according to Henning, is the use of video.

“On average, across all industries, first-time visitors will only stay on a website home page without video for 50 seconds,” he said. “Add video to that home page, and the average leaps to 360 seconds… from less than a minute to over six minutes! We see this play out all the time on our websites, and what I like to see is how many internal page views occur when video is added. People like watching a video, often more than reading the text on a page. They’ll watch first, then read.”

This growing use of videos on websites has kept AMS Digital busy, as more and more websites are moving toward what Henning refers to as “video-centric” sites. And AMS Digital is up for the challenge. In fact, they are really built for this new trend.

“Everything I’ve discussed about successful website design really points to one major trend in our industry that we like to call UX – or user experience,” said Henning. “A successful website is designed for the end user, the visitor. It’s friendly and intuitive, and leads them through a continuum of carefully strategized messages, telling the big story through lots of little stories.”

Digital communications is more of an art than a science, according to Henning, and art is where AMS Digital thrives.

“Pretty much everyone on our team has an art connection,” said Steve, who works hand in hand with his wife, Jackie, at AMS. “Jackie has an art degree in photography and ran two successful businesses before partnering with me about seven years ago.” Joining Stephen and Jackie are Scott Kiemle, a graphic designer with more than 35 years of design experience, and Bobbie Batesole, who takes care of administrative details in the creative process.

“Our art form is really about crafting a message that is convened through a story, telling a story that is compelling and keeps a person’s attention,” said Henning. “Stories do really work.”

And AMS Digital knows how to take those stories and shape them into something that viewers can connect with online.

“We work hard to create a finished product that makes people look their very best,” he said. “We like to feature people who are speaking from their heart, in their own language. It makes the story you are trying to tell so much more powerful than other videos. We are great at working with businesses that have a good story to tell, and sometimes we work with people who don’t even know they have a story. But everyone has a story and it is all about telling that story.”

Over the years, AMS Digital has produced many websites and high quality videos, and a good number of those have been done for non-profit organizations. In fact, AMS Digital was recently added to the roster of specialists with the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits.

To fully understand the quality of work provided by AMS, one just needs to talk to the businesses and organizations who have partnered with them to improve their on-line presence.

“We have partnered with AMS Digital since 2010 to provide social media for our nonprofit. They are excellent at telling our story in a professional, attractive, and pleasing way to our constituents,” said Maxine Adams, executive director of Lake Region Arts Council. “We have on our Facebook page right now more ‘likes’ and people who follow us than any other regional arts council and the state arts board combined. For us, those are very impressive figures, and we look forward to a really long and beneficial relationship with them.”

“Prior to AMS Digital doing our website, I might get an inquiry once every several months. Now, after having the website redone, I’m getting inquires off our website multiple times weekly. It’s made a huge difference!” said Todd Emmons, manager at Lakewood Terrace. “One of the main things that really amazes me with what AMS Digital has done is the fact that they captured the essence of what Lakewood Terrace is. It’s not really apartments, it’s not your typical condos, and it’s not like your townhouse living. And by talking to a few of our clients here, they were truly able to capture the essence of what we have on site. It really has made an impact, enabling us to keep our buildings filled with great tenants,”

“I worked with AMS Digital when our ministry needed to update our website. They were very helpful, and their input was invaluable. They went above and beyond our expectations,” said Patrick Misener, executive director of Smile Again Ministries, Inc.

Another way to understand the quality of work is to look at the background of the Hennings.

Bobbie Batesole takes care of the adminstrative details at AMS Digital. Contributed photo

“I have really been in marketing all my life,” said Steve, “Even going way back to high school, I was fortunate to have a high school art teacher who enabled me to participate in a program at the Minnesota Institute of Arts, which expanded into a film making class. That was my first taste of film/video.”

Steve worked for an ad agency and also freelanced on a special design project while going to college at the University of Minnesota. He excelled in graphic design, and after graduation, he landed a job at a community development agency. He later worked as a midlevel manager in advertising and public relations for a Minnesota-based Fortune 500 company. But while he was successful at what he was doing, Steve was looking for something different.

“I went on lunch break one day, and am still on lunch break,” he said. “I figured out that I’m not a Henry 9 to 5 corporate guy with all the structure. I just don’t like to be boxed in like that.”

Steve started a graphic design firm that evolved into a successful marketing communications agency, specializing in work with economic development agencies, municipalities, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). “Then I kind of went through a midlife crisis and needed to take a break. All my good friends who knew me would often hear me say I would look for rush hour traffic that was one car every 20 minutes. I was running all over the Twin Cities. It was nice to make a change.” In 1993, Steve incorporated Advance Marketing Services (AMS). He worked as a marketing consultant for a while, until he decided to “pick up a paint brush” and pursue a career in fine art.

Jackie had also been busy carving out her own artistic niche, as a backdrop artist for photographers. Starting in the late eighties, she produced custom backdrops for commercial photographers throughout the country. But Jackie’s family had retired in the Alexandria lakes area, and so Steve and Jackie decided to build a home near them.

“For a number of years I was working as a fine artist and created a number of limited prints,” Steve said. “Prints were sold in over 300 galleries across 15 states. I was still doing a few marketing projects on the side, but much of my marketing energy was focused on my fine art business.”

One Saturday afternoon, out of the blue, Steve was contacted by Larry Winn, founder of Winn Devon Graphics, one of the largest retailers of fine art prints in the world. “Larry had just started a new company called Grand Image,” said Steve. “He was looking at one of my prints in a magazine.”

Henning was enrolled, and his art was soon sold across the world through Grand Image. That art is still sold through Grand Image today, and Steve still receives royalty checks from the sale of his art through that company.

As the photography industry changed, Jackie’s backdrop business changed as well, and in 1997, she switched gears. Jackie moved away from backdrops and developed her second successful business — this time it was a custom faux-finishing/painting business which she ran with her partner, Melonee Lamb, until 2012.

Storytelling with video is something that Steve and Jackie have been doing for nearly a decade. From 2010-2014, thanks to a grant from Lake Region Arts Council made possible by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment, the Hennings produced four seasons of Lakes Country Living, a TV show that aired across North Dakota and western Minnesota.

“It was a labor of love, and I loved what I was doing,” he said. “You can’t help but connect with the people you are featuring. But a person doesn’t live on love, so in 2014, we dipped our toe in the water of selling video services and a mobile web app. Mobile was just starting to get hot. We were creating a mobile web app that we could create a mobile site that could interface with an existing website. It dove-tailed into video. Since then our services have expanded and evolved into what we are doing today.”

AMS Digital has been evolving since it was formed in 1993. And when a client meets to discuss their website or video, they know that they are dealing with artistic professionals carrying a wealth of knowledge in digital marketing and web page design.

If you would like to learn more about AMS Digital and how it can help your business or organization, visit, email, or call 320-758-3333.

This is a paid business profile. If you would like to learn more about promoting your business in the Sr. Perspective with a business profile, call Jim at 320-334-3344.

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