Presenting My Little Pony at the Dot Conf

Last month, I travelled up to Dublin to present a talk called “If You Build It, They Won’t Come” at the Dot Conf. Except in the days before the conference, I became obsessed with a meme I first encountered on MetaFilter. So, in a last minute change to the lineup, I spent 25 minutes at an industry conference for web and marketing professionals talking about My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic.

Presentation starts at 2:22 because I didn’t edit this video — here’s a direct link:

This presentation is subtitled “The evolving relationship between brands and consumers” and whips through candy bars, Harry Potter, and Jedis before diving into the unexpected online fan base the new My Little Pony franchise found on 4Chan.

As per usual, while I am always happy to share my slides, they’re pretty much useless as I don’t read off them and they contain virtually no text to provide stand-alone narrative. But all of the links for all of the sources and stories for these slides are listed in the first comment there, so feel free to peruse at your leisure.

This presentation went over really well with the 300-strong audience, who were great – responsive and fun – and who made #pony trend on Twitter in Ireland. (Which pretty much made my day, so thanks for that!) Many thanks to Emma Henderson and NCI, who hosted this event in excellent style and were happy to roll with it when I changed what I wanted to speak about at the very last minute.

Although I am neither an 8 year old girl nor a 22 year old straight white male, I am a genuine My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic fan. All 26 episodes are available as full-length uploads on YouTube, and I’ve watched them all. If you just want to dive in, I would suggest Ep 16, Sonic Rainboom.

Due to time constraints, the Dot Conf audience was spared from the planned sing-a-long, but you should feel free to rock out at home to the Equestria Girls video that premiered on Equestria Daily:

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pTPqjKk_xCo[/youtube]

And as a special bonus round for all you secret MLP FIM fans: Equestria Girls Over-Extended 1 Hour Loop!

Update: This post was linked by Equestria Daily, generating a ton of traffic and a ton of comments over there. Thanks to the MLP community for being gracious and kind about this presentation and my errors.

Irish Blog Awards Events Calendar

It’s that time of year again – the 2011 Irish Blog Awards held next weekend in Belfast are nearly upon us, and with that begins a round of social events for the biggest night on the Irish blogging calendar! Get your date books iPhones out – here’s what has been announced and I will add to this list as more events are finalised!


The IBA Belfast Photowalk organised by Davy McDonald kicks off at noon and is a great way to tour Belfast while meeting new people and taking your camera for a spin. Don’t be inimidated – you can shoot using anything from your in-pocket iPhone to your huge DSLR!
Saturday, 19 March, 11:45 am – Belfast City Hall
Info | Signup


Walter Higgens is organising a pre-event meal called Blog Awards Bites with an open table booked for 12 at paul Rankin’s Cayenne. Meal price is £18.50 and you can sign up online; everyone’s welcome!
Saturday, 19 March, 5 pm – Cayenne Restaurant
Info | Signup


The ever-fabulous Ladies Tea Party (where by “tea” we mean “wine, and lots of it”) is all set to go and includes food, drink, dessert and swanky swag bags at £20 per head. Its open to all bloggers, wanna be bloggers and dedicated blog readers and draws a friendly, welcoming crowd!
Saturday, 19 March, 5 pm – Harlem Cafe
Info | Signup

Ladies, Start Your Teacups!


I’m delighted to announce that the 2011 Ladies’ Tea Party is a go! We’ve secured a sponsor and a venue and we are ready to make a serious dent in Belfast’s wine supply in the hours before the Irish Blog Awards!

What: The BAGglitz Ladies Tea Party
When: Saturday, 19 March 2011, 5 – 8 PM
Where: The Harlem Cafe, 34 Bedford Street, BT2 7FF
Where: The Piano Bar, Europa Hotel, Belfast
Who: You! A pre-Blog-Awards mixer for Ireland’s women bloggers
Tickets: Now available; limited to 40.

This event is now in its fourth year so I figured it was time to give it a dedicated website. I also figured that the ability to brand an event site for a sponsor would make it easier to attract one, and that it was going to be harder for me to do that this year since I’m not well-networked with any businesses in the north.

In the end, it turned out that I had the perfect client for this party: the recently launched BAGglitz.com is an Irish online retailer of handbag hangers, purse clips and charms with free international shipping so you can send swanky, snazzy, glitzy gifts to your girlfriends anywhere. It’s a great match and now I’m really looking forward to the gift bags! Many thanks to BAGglitz for sponsoring – sponsors make this event happen every year for a fabulous collection of women bloggers.

The Irish Blog Awards are my favourite event on the Irish Internet social calendar, partly because they’re huge fun and partly because the Ladies Tea Party beforehand is always such a friendly, fun warm-up for them. (One bottle of wine per person does tend to do that…) I’m really excited and looking forward to catching up with everyone from last year and meeting loads of new people this year. TEA PARTY YAY!

Note: In previous years, organisation, ticketing and question-answering for this event has taken place here on my blog. This year, please post comments, woots, yays and oh my God what do I wear? over at the Ladies’ Tea Party website. Thank you!

Site Launch: BCO.ie

The complete and dramatic overhaul of the site for BCO.ie was, more than anything, a labor of love for Katherine Nolan and me. Last year was professionally rewarding but sometimes those project with a great outcome are actually soul-crushing to complete; the client turns out to secretly be useless, or you drown in spec bloat, or you spend a week battling for things like, you know, navigation.

The site for Blackrock Castle Observatory was the antidote to all of that. Their existing website, frankly, sucked. And when I went out to visit them, I was blown out of the water by what an amazing national treasure this place is, the phenomenal exhibits and activities, and the absolute heap of incredibly cool activities and events they stage each month. It was love at first site, and the feeling was mutual.

I have spent the last three months it took to build this site telling everyone I know “Go to Blackrock Castle!” And now they have a website that I sincerely hope will make you, too want to to go to BCO. It is built entirely on WordPress (on a customised theme – suck it, haters…) and features the world’s most brilliant custom events plugin by Katherine Nolan.

This client, by the way, was a dream. They accepted the design with no iterations, put content where I told them it should go, took No for an answer without issue, bought me multiple lunches, are entirely delighted and have already paid their bill. Also, their newsletter is gorgeous – you should go sign up to get the first issue and you might win space ice cream!

A Very Victorian Christmas

When indulging nostalgia for the old fashioned Christmas of velvet-clad children, candle-decked trees and sumptuous festive feasts, it is very easy from a 21st Century perspective to forget that all of this was produced without modern amenities like oh, say, running water. Spare a thought for the labours of scullery maids, cooks and mammies of old – and the snow-bound Ireland of today.

Here at home in 2010, we’re on Day 4 of pipes frozen solid and no running water. My husband equates these conditions to living in a Gulag, but I prefer to stand over the kitchen sink with a kettle and bucket and ponder the household efforts of my fore mothers. Obviously, households were managed with far fewer conveniences for hundreds of years, so it certainly is possible once you get a system going.

For two people, we go through about 15 litres of conservatively hoarded and recycled water a day, meaning a schedule that looks like this:

  • Decant water into kettle, boil
  • Stack dishes, pots, pans in washing-up bowl. (Note: If you do not actually own a washing-up bowl, you can substitute that very nice large salad bowl you received as a wedding gift.)
  • Soak dishes in bowl of boiling water with small amount of dishwashing soap
  • Scrub dishes in still-hot water and whine about boiling water being quite hot
  • Remove sudsy dishes, decant salad bowl water into waiting bucket, and learn exactly why these pourings are called greywater
  • Refill kettle, boil, cool
  • Rinse dishes by holding them over bowl and pouring kettle water over each
  • Decant collected water into bucket
  • Use bucket of greywater to flush loo

This system (and this amount of water), while sufficient to wash dishes, flush toilets, cook dinner and generally keep us in tea and coffees, doesn’t take into account the fact that all of the water we use has to be carried in here from somewhere. Since all of our neighbours are also in the same boat, this is generally from the few local businesses that still have flowing pipes. It also doesn’t account for luxuries like laundry or, you know, bathing.

This year for Christmas my parents got us a room at the nearby Lancaster Lodge, where on Tuesday night we took the longest, hottest, most luxurious and expensive showers in the history of running water. Yesterday I worked out a deal with the local gym for a day-pass rate, which was great except for the fact they’re now closed until the 26th. Which is, as it happens, the very earliest we are expecting a thaw and maybe, maybe the return of running water.

Most problematic really is cooking and particularly baking. Traditionally we make our Christmas gifts, with homemade cookies, candies, and chocolate all swishily packaged up and delivered on Christmas Day. This year, I don’t have the water for filling double boilers, washing up food processors and mix masters, or melting off delicious chocolate, so Christmas presents are just going to have to wait for the occasion of New Year’s Day.

When I have eight people coming for dinner. And hopefully, a flushing toilet.

Dear Santa:

I have been a very good girl this year. Please cancel previous request for pony. All I want for Christmas this year is a thaw.

Love,
Sabrina

Site Launch: Mindhives.com


Another joint project from Katherine Nolan and I, Mindhives.com is an online learning community where you can find and list lessons on anything from tennis to guitar, blogging to solving a Rubix cube, all across Ireland.  While the Mindhives gang is working with professional associations up and down the country to get their formally recognised instructors listed, I like this site because it surfaces informal knowledge – anyone can list a lesson (including you!)

If you take a basic skill like learning to knit, traditionally you were taught across generations by your close family circle. The world doesn’t so much work that way any more, and there are tons of things I want to know how to do you may be able to teach me, from container gardening to makeup application to driving. I like the ability to list and market lessons to make money, but mostly I like the idea of learning from my neighbours and meeting new people this way.

Site is a mashup of off-the-shelf directory software plus WordPress and BuddyPress. Soft launched a few weeks ago, it was long-listed for the Irish Web Awards in Best New Web App and was already covered in the Irish Times!

Barcamp Bootcamp Blitz

YAY! BarCamp Cork is back, and it looks like Webworks will be hosting a lineup with some great speakers starting at 10 am. I had a blast at last year’s camp, and am very excited for a Saturday spent meeting great people at a fun and informal (un)conference, even if it means I have to be somewhere at the inhuman hour of 10am. (I hope to God Cafe Gusto is bringing the coffee…)

It really is a great event, and dogs, kids, and partners are always welcome.

This year I’ll be doing a Bootcamp Blitz session, which is basically a rapid fire 10 minute Bootcamp of your online business or startup. Everyone who attends the session is a potential victim volunteer, and we’ll try to do 3 sites in a 30-minute session. No idea where it will be in the schedule but if it tickles your fancy, please feel free to come – time will be up on the scheduling board.

And yes, Eimear the Wonderdog will be there :)

Irish Web Awards 2010: All Grown Up!

Back to work today and just about recovered from the 2010 Irish Web Awards. It was a huge night, in more ways than one — this year something like 450 people packed out the Mansion House in swanky D2 style, complete with tuxedo’d brass band.

These awards have grown tremendously since they started 3 years ago; the first year, I knew absolutely everyone and it was more like an Irish Internet reunion. The second year, I knew maybe half the people and had a ball meeting the other half, even if I had to stay up until 5am to do it. This year, I couldn’t even find the 1/3rd of the people I knew, and basically gave up on reaching that goal at around 1 am. The really sexy, fast and flawless iPad check in system for tickets that John Blackbourne put together worked so well that it made me think we might need an iPhone app next year to geo-locate individuals in the crowd; I’m pretty sure the Irish Web Awards could raise a nice packet for a charity of choice with one of those! (I’d totally buy it, except I’d have to buy an iPhone to use it…)

The production values this year were super-impressive; the venue, the lighting and the band together with the A/V for the shortlisted sites and the granite awards themselves really bumped the Awards up a notch, but the parts that give these awards their unique and fun flavour – Rick O’Shea’s brilliant MCing, the coveted Made in Hollywood props, the totally class cupcakes, this year’s ice cream truck! – were all there in full force to keep the IWAs true to their roots and deliver a great night out.

Damien Mulley, the sponsors, the volunteers and Realex all deserve a standing ovation for showing that you can deliver a class event like this year’s IWAs for €30 a head. There are only four big web awards do’s each year in Ireland, and while the others are much more formal, sit-down dinners, I have yet to eat a black tie chicken meal that was worth the extra €90 in ticket price. Seriously, screw that – this is the way to do it.

I was, obviously, delighted that James Whelan Butchers scored a gong in the Best SME/Small Business Website category. Katherine Nolan and I worked on that site for nearly a year and it was very unfortunate she was unable to be there to enjoy the moment; we took that site live in September after many months of very hard graft, barely making the IWA deadline and I’m glad we were able to get it into this year’s awards.

Holy Crap, Kids Grow Up Fast

The shortlists for the Irish Web Awards were announced this afternoon and traditionally, I’m quite excited – it’s a wonderful feeling to see projects I hold in great affection all grown up and doing the clients proud, and often there are one or two from my portfolio on the list. On this particular evening, however, I’m a little shocked because there are not one or two but rather twelve:

Best New Web App or Service – Sponsored by Red Cardinal

Best Social Media Campaign – Sponsored by Cybercom

Best Government & Council Website – Sponsored by Exigent Networks

Best Ecommerce Website - Sponsored by OnlineAdvertising.ie

Best SME/Small Business Website – Sponsored by Pivotal Communications

Most Beautiful Website in Ireland – Sponsored by RedFly Online

Two of these sites are not even in my portfolio yet – the clients have been happily out of the gate for a while but Katherine and I are still tweaking them, and as the saying goes, if mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy. Still, I suppose they’re launched now…

Several of these nominations have little to do with me now (after all clients should be able to run their own sites) but it matters not in the slightest – these sites and these clients are my little web babies and I’m terribly, terribly proud of them when they do well like this.

If none of them manage to bring home an award, however, I’m disowning the lot.

[ image credit ]

The Four Hour Website

A few months ago, while chatting with my mother about an editor she works closely with and who I grew up with – literally, Patrick worked in our living room and saw me in my pyjamas every morning for all of my teenage years – I Googled his name and found he didn’t have a website to promote his freelance work.

This struck me as a spectacularly poor plan for 2010, and my mother agreed. Since my mother might charitably be described as “forceful”, Patrick wisely agreed as well. A so few days later, when I woke up very early with nothing pressing to do, I sat down to create PatrickMerla.com.

I hadn’t done a small-scale site in a long time, and I was curious to know how quickly a serviceable result could be achieved. This is actually a good and important question, because your average client doesn’t get value from setting the design world on fire, doesn’t care about winning awards, and doesn’t want to pay you for a selection of five increasingly courageous design iterations.

In fact, the average client just wants a website that looks okay, is appropriate for their market, can be found by search engines, can be understood by humans, and costs as little as possible. And I wanted to know how little really was possible. So, out of curiosity, I timed myself.

To start, I was armed with three pages of bio and credentials, a budget of precisely zero, the idea of using license-compliant Creative Commons images off of Flickr, and a cup of coffee. Years ago I had mentally bookmarked the free Aquatic themplate from Template World, and with few sections to create, the simple navigation finally seemed like a good project match.

For the record, nobody can ever accuse me of being up my own arse, since I just freely admitted I have used a template from the dreaded Template World. Luckily I lack the gene for shame. (I get that from my mother, too.)

Things I did:

  • Created new images for the site and swapped them with the old layout images, because I am exactly that lazy;
  • Played with these classic fonts used for print typography to render the name as a title, and grabbed a preview screenshot to avoid paying for a font I’ll never use again because I am exactly that cheap;
  • Sourced a header photo licensed for commercial use from Flickr to avoid paying for stock because my budget was exactly that tiny;
  • Edited the CSS to change colours from aqua to something more suitable;
  • Edited the HTML to remove from the template several major classes and divs not used in the production site.

All in all, this site took four hours from putting the coffee pot on at 4 am to emailing my mother to say “What about this?” at 8 am.

Things I did not do:

  • Consult with the client(s).
  • Edit the text.
  • Put it in my portfolio.

To be fair, even the most naive client would realise that several things I did not do here are normally fairly core elements of the web design relationship. What most clients don’t realise is how much of the project time is taken up by the missing elements, and how much that time contributes to the total project cost.

A lot of the hours of a project’s total budget are spent talking to the client about the project, rather than actually producing work for the project. For this reason and many others, I am not a huge fan of client collaboration. Generally I find it vastly more efficient to understand the goal, figure out a way to achieve it, and get it done. In my experience, if you’re good at your job, people are generally very happy to accept the solution you’ve built for their problem.

In this particular case, I was extremely motivated to keep a lid on Pandora’s box and simply deliver an acceptable result without discussing it beforehand because the client was effectively my mum. It took my mother six years to choose paint colors for the interior of her house. Several rooms were repainted more than once. One was remodelled three times. This is not an experience I want to replicate on a five page website. Or ever, really.

In addition, clients generally provide very poor copy for their websites. I pretty much never, ever put client copy onto a website as delivered, unless the client is my mother. Typically I spend anywhere from one to twenty hours fixing or writing web copy, depending on what if anything is delivered in the first place. All I did here is add additional paragraph breaks for web readability and remove one comma.

I will never reveal to her which one because then I will have to argue about putting it back.

Finally, not all sites go in my online portfolio. The ones I put in there tend to be the sites I like the best and would like to do more of. But not every site hits that mark; the reality of freelancing for most designers and developers is that a certain percentage of your body of work is the stuff you do to pay the bills, rather than to satisfy your creative yearnings. I don’t dislike this site; it’s nice enough and does its small job just fine. But it isn’t, let’s be honest, a great site.

Could it have been? Sure. With a twenty or forty hour budget, I would have taken a totally different approach and done something dramatically different. In this case, we didn’t want to do something elaborate and out of the ordinary; we just wanted to play it safe and quickly bring the client up to par with his peers so that when you Google Patrick’s name, his contact details are readily found. My reason for writing about a site I am the first to admit is entirely middling is to show that entirely middling is obtainable in about four hours, but only if we don’t have to discuss how we’re going to get to middling.

And to point out that since few clients really want to work that way, even fewer designers will give you a quote for a four hour website.

Time is money, baby.

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