Your Brand is Not a Sacred Cow

Cowlabunga! The World's Best... Something.

Here’s a really common scenario:

You get a new client and they have a great product but no brand. Let’s say they make, I dunno, cow print toys or clothing or something, so you futz around for a while and decide to call the company Cowlabunga. (Just roll with me here.) You get to work and develop strong visuals for print and web and awesome messaging for use everywhere. The client loves everything, and then – after having stared at this shit for 60 hours – they have a crisis of faith.

Normally, these crises are some combination of the following:

1. They get hung up on the pronunciation. Is it cow-la-bunga or cool-a-bunga? Will people get confused? Frankly, it doesn’t matter – you say potato, I say patatoe, but everybody is clear about what vegetable we’re discussing. Is Vimeo pronounced vi-may-oh or vi-me-oh? I have no idea and care even less; I can spell it, find it, and host my videos on it, so whatever – it works.

2. They get literal with the logo. People who are new at starting or leading companies are universally obsessed by their own logo. And the telecom guy always wants a phone, the real estate guy always wants a house and everyone in anything to do with discounts always wants to dick around with currency symbols.

Even in 1971, Nike’s designer knew you don’t do that. Your logo does not need to be literal to be clear. Nobody thinks McDonald’s sells arches, and nobody thinks Nike sells swooshes.

A logo need not – and often arguably should not – be representative of the specific product the company sells or the specific service it delivers. That is not the job of a logo. Thinking that the logo is what defines a brand or is even the most important part of the brand experience means that someone has no understanding of what branding is and probably should not be trusted to market a company.

3. They get hung up on the logo. Once the logo is agreed, clients tend to think it’s cast in stone. It shouldn’t be, because you absolutely can play with it. Google does. The BBC does. The New Museum of Contemporary Art does, too, rendering the words NEW and MUSEUM in a consistent type face and sticking whatever they want between them.

The static logo is dead, and thank God for that because if I have to fuck up one more website, flyer or poster because some sponsor’s logo MUST have a 30mm white surround, I’m going to start taking hostages. Your logo is a tool, not a monolith; it’s there to be used, not preserved as a sacred cow.

I would suggest, however, that you not call your company Cowlabunga. It sounds like a foot disease.

Email Signatures for Idiots

Email signature FAIL

I know that I am a very cranky person, but the number of people who fail at the most basic level of internet communication sincerely boggles the mind. I’m not talking about people who can’t write, can’t spell, or try to paste PowerPoint slides into their emails. I’m talking about people who do not have the basic courtesy to include an email signature at the bottom of every email.

Honest to God, I have better things to do than spend my life looking up your contact details on your website every time I need to get in touch with you. And if I have to go back through 162 emails to find the one where you actually gave me your mobile number, I’m going to be swallowing a metric tonne of irritation by the time I manage to get ahold of you.

Everyone communicating from a company, even as a sole trader, needs an email signature, and needs to include it on every email by default. Ideally, the signature should follow an intelligent plain text format: everything I need to get in touch with you should be visible, even to those of us who do not have HTML turned on in emails.

Here’s mine:

Sabrina Dent
Web Design, Marketing & Communications

http://www.sabrinadent.com

sabrina@sabrinadent.com
P: 021 234 9938
M: 085 702 8212

Arguably, if you’re getting email from me, you probably don’t need my email address. I include this to make it easy for people to pass on my complete contact details to other folks with a simple cut and paste. It adds one line and I think it’s a good idea.

Obviously, a lot of people include the country code for their numbers in their email footer. This is good practice for international globetrotters, but I am not one. I prefer to work mostly in Ireland with Irish clients, and fucking up the aesthetics of my email signature annoys me at least as much as working with clients in LA.

Here are some things that are not in my email footer and drive me crazy in other people’s:

  • The sender’s name rendered as anything other than the plainest possible text. I understand that you’re incredibly creative and that being a corporate drone sucks, but this is not the medium to demonstrate your personal design flair.
  • An embedded logo graphic. I’m communicating with a person, not a brand. If I can’t remember what company you’re with, you have bigger issues than the tragedy that is your email signature.
  • A great big green P and a note to please consider the environment before printing this email. Do I look like an idiot? I haven’t printed an email that isn’t a plane ticket since 1997, so please piss off and mind your own carbon footprint.

To recap: Email is a communication medium. Your email signature should make it easy for me to communicate with you, first by existing and secondly by containing the stripped down essentials I need in order to, you know, communicate with you.

And if you make me turn on HTML to do that, I will hate you forever.

The Adventures of Invisible Elephant

elephant-header

Most people will be surprised to know that this presentation for VoiceSage CTO Graham Brierton, who presented yesterday at the big nerd fest communications conference Ecomm 09, took three solid days to put together. Five pages of speech, twenty simple slides, three days. But Ecomm is a big deal, and when you’re sharing a stage with Doc Searles, Ribbit, BT, Cisco, Skype and T Mobile, the standard is high and you very much want to not look like an idiot. It’s worth a bit of time.

Whilst working on the speech for this conference and the PowerPoint slides to go with it, Paul Sweeney and I were playing with the concept of “invisible elephants” – the big issues in a business you often don’t see because you don’t have the right data or comparative business intelligence to know they are there.

And at 3:30 one morning, it suddenly seemed like a great idea to order 500 badges emblazoned with Invisible elephant is in your data eatin’ your profits! to go with the presentation. And so we did, right then, thanks to the beauty of the internet and the time difference between Ireland and LA, where the badges were printed and delivered direct to the conference centre.

(I have secretly been chanting the Invisible Elephant mantra in my shower ever since. It completely cracks me up.)

Niall Harbison recently wrote a post on How to Make a Fun Presentation and I am all about that. I think a lot of presenters are afraid of deviating from the PowerPoint norm of click show read click, and sadly that norm is atrocious. Why bother with the speaker at all? Just send in the slide show and be done with it.

At the same time, one thing I increasingly pay attention to these days is the fact that PowerPoint presentations are not one-offs anymore. Because presentations are normally shared after the event, and you don’t have the speaker standing there to narrate them, they do need to make sense when viewed on their own.  You absolutely do not want to click show read click, but at the same time the presentation needs to encapsulate your main points in some kind of narrative style if you want to share them beyond your immediate audience.

Because of the post-event nature of presentations, we also did a special conference page on the VoiceSage site to send people to, with the slideshow and speaking notes.  I think it’s idiotic to send your traffic to SlideShare or wherever when you can capture that interest to bring people to your site (though you obviously don’t want to hit these visitors with any kind of hard sell.)

Also, I love the elephant and it was an excuse to add more elephant. Who doesn’t want more elephant?

Election Night Party

Come one, come all, to the greatest show on Earth: the 2008 US election. We’re quietly getting excited about an Obama win over here on Gilabbey Street. Me and Election Projection Stats Junkie Nerd Boy are gearing up for a long night of election returns on the fourth of November, and you are cordially invited to geek out with us and color in happy little blue states on your very own electoral map.

There will be Obama Family Chili, Baked Alaska, stars and stripes cupcakes, beer, wine and plenty of fuel for late night revelers. Obviously, you’re free to go home well before the California results start to roll in after 5 AM, but we’ll be up all night. At that point I’ll be weeping with unbridled joy or lighting my passport on fire, but either way it looks like it will be quite a night.

Assuming we can gather up at least half a dozen people for a couple of hours that evening, we’ll add party games like Pundit Bingo, Who Wants to Be an American Citizen, and an electoral vote sweepstakes. You are welcome to bring your pyjamas, and we’ll bundle you and your teddy into a taxi when you’ve had your fill of election night fun.

RSVP in the comments below, and sincerely, whoever you are, we’d love to have some company on the night.

PS: I will be taking the Tuesday and Wednesday off. Because after eight long years of this horseshit, I deserve it.

Opening Up Ecommerce: Go&Pay and 3V for the Win

3V: Net Visionary Awards Innovation Nominee

I ran across an interesting service last week that made me sit up and say “wow.” It’s go&pay, an ecommerce tie-in that essentially enables offline payments for online purchases. Simply checkout online, print out your barcoded order and take it to your local Irish post office, cash in hand. They’ll scan it in, take your dosh, and your goods get shipped out from the merchant as per normal.

Granted, I live in a cave, but I’d never heard of this before. They seem to have only a small number of Irish outlets currently, but I predict that as long as the acquisition costs are manageable for retailers, this is one of those stellar ideas that will kick ass on the long tail, for a couple of reasons:

  • The internet is in for the win in a recession. Your particular business may fail, sure, but ecommerce transactions will continue to climb year on year.
  • An ecommerce economy limited to credit card holders only is, by definition, limited. To maximise sales, you have to open payments as wide as possible.
  • In a recession, more people have serious difficulty managing their credit. Cash-enabled systems, especially for price points under the €100 mark, will do more business in a poor economy.
  • You may slag off the postal service’s poor delivery of actual post, but there is no more trusted retailer than An Post for payments in Ireland. BillPay just plain works, and has trained consumers well in this kind of transaction.

For all of these reasons, I’m also very hot on 3V, which is up this year for the Net Visionary Innovation Award. (Voting closes on the 17th of October.) 3V is a pre-pay debit card you can top up with a voucher bought at stores like Centra, SPAR and Londis. It is specifically designed for online purchases, and its sheer accessibility has opened up online shopping to an enormous market of the credit poor, the credit averse and the “wtf is credit?” younger shoppers.

And while those of us who are long time users take it for granted because it Just Feckin’ Works, let’s not forget that 3V is in fact terribly innovative:

  • 3V uses a top-up system exactly like Pay-As-You-Go mobiles, so it’s familiar and easy to use for 3V’s exact target demographic.
  • The PIN code to activate your credit is sent via SMS to your mobile phone, again pitching this service to exactly the right market.
  • Your topped up 3V debit card is treated exactly like a standard, bank issued VISA debit or credit card by online merchants, meaning you can use it anywhere that takes VISA.
  • Pre-pay eliminates interest rates from credit card purchases and identity theft from online purchases, delivering a benefit to a market segment that may be vulnerable to both.

I’m not affiliated with 3V in any way, but I think this is exactly the right time in the history of the Irish economy to give kudos to a successful, innovative product that has had real impact in Irish ecommerce, and I invite you to drop by the Net Visionary Awards voting form and cast your vote for 3V.

While you’re there, of course, you could also drop in your votes for Pat Phelan or Deb Hadley for Best Business Blogger,  and Twitterfone.com for Mobile Internet Innovation, but since I am affiliated with both Pat and Deb, I prefer for be a little less transparent in my pimping there.

In any case, go forth and vote – and good luck on the night to all the short listees. Have a grand evening!

The Trainers Have Been Trained

Beer Mat, Cork Airport Hotel

I spent the afternoon at the fairly wild and fabulous Cork Airport Hotel (pictures) taking part in Damien Mulley’s very generous Train the Trainers event. This day was interesting in a lot of ways, but for me a very valuable part was listening to and taking part in the back and forth conversations about content. It helped me to formalise some of my thoughts about the process of blogging.

Basically, I think there are two approaches one can take when blogging as part of a business communications strategy, both to engage readers and attract links:

1) Be a Resource

Ice Cream Ireland and Tast.ie are examples of this kind of blog. While both Kieran Murphy and Deb Hadley blog about their businesses and their experiences in ways that help keep the content varied and lively, if asked to sum up either of these sites most people would say “they’re recipe blogs.” They provide a very specific resource that helps them to pull a very specific audience.

Damien made the point that one of the most popular and link-tastic formats for resource posts is the Ten Step How To. People love this stuff; just look at all the inbound links and Twitter chatter on yesterday’s How To Demo Your Startup post at TechCrunch.

But you can’t produce that kind of post every day; it’s tremendously time consuming to create, which is why the successful blogs have that “varied and lively” content. More importantly, however, people take in a massive amount of information from scores of blogs each day. I suspect your average reader can manage maybe one or two “heavy” posts from across all of their sources in a given day. If your blog is always the blog with the big ask for time and attention, you will actually lose rather than win readers with your dense but awesome content.

2) Be Personal

This does not mean you need to share your ovulatory cycle with the internet. Rather, it means putting a lot of your personality, experiences and individuality into your blog posts. The best ways to do this are:

  • Be funny.
  • If you can’t be funny, be controversial or at least opinionated.
  • If you can’t be opinionated, be intimate.

Again, intimate does not mean spilling your sex life online – and unless your profession is among the oldest in the world, this probably isn’t a great topic for a business blog anyway. But being intimate does mean giving readers a way to connect with you.

One of my favourite dislikeable people is Penelope Trunk of The Brazen Careerist. She gives excellent career advice, and if you skim through the entires in her blog, you’ll see that she almost always relates advice to experiences in her own life. Being fired, embellishing resumes, getting divorced – a continual litany of her personal failures peppers her instructions and lends a lot of authenticity to her posts. You learn a lot about managing your career, and a lot about Penelope.

Intimacy in this case is about the reveal, but it doesn’t have to be personal. Companies, and the individuals blogging for them, can tell stories, too – about the company, its employees, its relationships with outside vendors… all kinds of stuff.

Either way, the point is that a business blog is not about press releases, not about products, not about job vacancies. Can you name one blog you regularly read that’s about that stuff?

No, me either.

Doing Things Right

I Heart teamwork Project Manager. Seriously.

It is rare that I make a supplier decision that makes me rave with happiness. It happens, but not often. This is one of those times.

The other day I blogged about choosing a project management system and my decision to go with Teamwork instead of ProjectPlace or Basecamp. Six days later I can report that Teamwork absolutely was the right decision – not only for the application, but for the team behind it.

In terms of functionality, there are a lot of things I like about Teamwork, but the things I love the most have nothing to do with managing projects. At the bottom of every page on my Teamwork site is a button that says Feedback/Suggestions. This isn’t just a form you fill out that disappears into the ether; it’s my feedback page. Every comment I make gets logged, timed, date stamped and posted there. And underneath every comment I make is Teamwork’s response to me. These people aren’t just filing away user feedback for some future user metrics calculation or later version rollout; they’re holding themselves accountable for responding to it.

I absolutely love that; it’s a real world, real value example of the transparency we all blather on and on about but so rarely see implemented in meaningful ways.

Way more than that, when these folks say “We take it all on board… seriously” they aren’t kidding. This morning at 9:06 I made a suggestion for a new feature. By noon, Dan Mackey had not only responded to me, but implemented my request:

twfeedback1.png

As a product user, I’m really not sure what more I could ask for.

Alas, not everything is as flawless as Teamwork. Late last week Teamwork’s host, Hosting 365, suffered a denial of service attack and Teamwork was down for about two hours. Since I have quickly become a dedicated Teamwork junkie and am now using it to run my entire work life, I was on the phone to Teamwork in the first ten minutes. In the two hours that followed, I got two emails and a phone call to update me on the system status. That’s customer service – and I haven’t paid these people a single euro yet.

Today I caught up on some of my far-behind blog reading and read a post from Richard Hearne on another company doing things right: Intertrade Ireland is running around trying to get bloggers to raise the profile of Seedcorn, and managing to do it without pissing off the entire internet. Seedcorn’s got €280,000 for startups who are really going for it. I think Teamwork is a fantastic application with a huge potential audience. It’s an Irish Web 2.0 company with an actual, functioning revenue model, and I think they should enter.

The only thing that would make me happier is if they’d sign their feedback responses to me with “Lurve, Teamwork.”

Speaking of Teamwork…

sleep_projections.png

A few days ago, I read somewhere I can no longer find that the average person can’t efficiently manage more than three open projects. To be honest, I was very surprised by this number; I really thought it would be more than that. Most people I know who freelance seem to carry more than that at once, although I haven’t really done an official poll or anything.

However, this piece of information did encourage me to get more organised about an overview of the projects I am juggling, and so I went out in search of some project management systems because Post It Notes are just not cutting it anymore. I looked at Basecamp and Project Place but ultimately settled on Walter Wynn‘s suggestion of Teamwork. (Everyone uses Basecamp, and while I’m sure there’s a reason for that and it is jolly nice, I like to throw money out of the mainstream every now and then.)

So far I am delighted with Teamwork; it’s really easy to use, it has everything I want, and when I sent in a suggestion about how they could improve their conversions from their Features Tour, I got back a very nice and responsive email right away. The later discovery that Teamwork is based right here in Cork, meaning I can go round and break their kneecaps if they go out of business and take all my projects with them, was just a nice bonus on top of a great product.

I started entering all my projects, and nobody was more surprised than me to find out that I currently have no less than 15 open gigs going. Except possibly the two clients who I had forgotten about entirely, which if nothing else points out how very, very badly I need to plug into a project management system. Also how much I need to apologise to them, pull my finger out, and deeply discount their invoices.

Even before today’s headcount and dropped client fiasco though, I had begun to grasp that this workload isn’t particularly sustainable. I mean sure, you can survive on four hours of sleep per night for a week or so, but after that you really can’t remember anything, let alone produce anything. Sleep: it does a body good.

So for the past few weeks I have been working with two entirely fabulous people I am incredibly lucky to know. I am still doing 100% of the design work, but a lot of the actual CSS and XHTMLing has gone out to my new CSS Overlord Guillermo Moreno, who quite frankly kicks ass all over town. He’s going to be a superstar when he grows up. (At this point, however, I still worry about keeping him up past his bedtime.)

My very talented friend Katherine Nolan has also been doing the heavy lifting on the e-commerce side of things. We actually met on a forum for our favourite shopping cart software almost 10 years ago, but at this point, I’m about 5 versions behind and she is much better equipped to hack sort out the cart system than I am. (She also happens to be the world’s leading expert on Coranto, which can be very handy.)

So hopefully in the next week or two, things will calm down here and some of the decks will be cleared. It is frankly very hard for me to to let go of any part of what I do because I am a complete and total control freak when it comes to work, but I couldn’t have put any of this stuff in safer hands and I’m really pleased with the work that’s come out of these projects.

So there you go: no woman is an island, and 15 projects is too many. Who knew?

The Roof (and The Planet) is on Fire

firehose.png

It isn’t very often that you get to watch a real live-action example of true crisis PR. But when you do, it’s always instructive, and usually amusing in that “bang head against wall, wash, rinse, repeat” kind of way.

This weekend, The Planet experienced a catastrophic outage when a transformer at H1, their Houston data center, exploded, blew out the walls of the electrical room, and started a fire. The building was evacuated, the fire brigade called, and at the insistance of the fire chief, all power – including backup power – shut down.

The good news: nobody was hurt, and data on all 9,000 servers was secure. The bad news: none of the servers had any power.

I do not consider this to be a particular failing of The Planet. Catastrophes happen, even with the best of plans. While it sucks for the people affected, and we were lucky to not be on that list, at the end of the day people, not hosts, are responsible for data resiliency and catastropic backup plans. If you’re not prepared to pay for the technical know-how and costs associated with that, then you’re either not running anything mission critical (my blog: not mission critical) or you’re going to have to be prepared to suck it every now and then.

Amidst all the bitching, moaning, threats of law suits, and small contingent of cheer leading, The Planet did a lot of things right:

  • Within hours, they promised updates every sixty minutes on their forum, and delivered them – even if all they had to report that there was no update.
  • They let customers know very early on that their SLAs would be honoured and that refunds and credits would be calculated as soon as normal operations resumed.
  • They pulled in manpower from their vendors, contractors and staff in the middle of the night on a weekend and worked for 28 straight hours to rebuild a power system virtually from scratch and manage a huge volume of support calls.

There were also some extremely odd choices made, some of which are harmful to their PR. As everyone playing along at home can guess, these failures were primarily in the area of transparency:

  • NONE of these updates appeared on The Planet’s blog. Not a single word. If you were pissed off enough to hunt down and root through their customer forum, you got info. If you go to their blog, which is where you’d expect to get crisis updates, you get bupkis.
  • For a particular set of legacy customers, both NS1 and NS2 nameservers were both hosted in the H1 data center. This was an example of EPIC FAIL on the part of The Planet, one which they remained basically silent about while the 3,000 customers hosed by this oversight were still without websites.
  • They did not post photos of the crispy data center. Seriously, guys: pics or it didn’t happen.

But there is one more thing they didn’t do that was a complete no brainer. Let us assume that several thousand people were on the phone, screaming for their boxes to be rescued from the embers and transported to the nearest operating DC. Let us also assume that there are only a certain number of boxes The Planet can fit into the racks in Dallas. At that point, you either take the customers who make you the most money, or knowing that you’re going to lose a boatload of customers one way the other other anyway, you take the customers who are in a position to do the most damage to your reputation.

They should have located the servers that host b3ta, the world’s most awesome and snarkiest website for nerds and geeks, picked them up, put them in a car, driven them to the Dallas data centre and prayed to the gods of DNS propagation for mercy.

But they didn’t. And three days later, b3ta is still in the “hosed” camp, without a website* and instead running an emergency forum, where the punters are predictably making “The roof, the roof, the roof is on fire” jokes and creating graphics that will commemorate this event for far longer than The Planet’s lack of blog entries.

This is really not a group of people you want to fuck with.

The Town Slapper

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I’m sad to report in a follow up to my review of the Most Awesome Phone Ever that the mobile version of The Sims 2 has proven, on extended play, to be a huge but limited pile of poo. The limitations come from the very small mobile file size of the game, which means that you are restricted to one property, a cycle of just five jobs, no clothing or decorating options, and a set number of property extensions and goods you can buy. Pretty much the only unrestricted activity is the amount of sex you can have, and hooboy, have I been having a lot.

Here’s the thing: there’s not much to do in The Sims if the number of items you can purchase is limited to 10 and you’re chained to your own property. All you can really do is go to work, come home, and go through the normal routine of trying to keep your Sim fed and in dry pants.

This leaves a rather copious amount of spare time. And the only way to make time pass more quickly in The Sims is by shagging. Literally: you shag, the screen blanks, and three hours passes by in an instant.

In a desperate effort to escape the incredible tedium of the idle suburban life, my Sim leads a complex and free wheeling existence in which she married Ben, had an affair with Lorna, divorced Ben, and married Susan but lives with Ivan. You’d think two relationships and all the sex that goes with them would be enough to keep the girl occupied, but every day she comes home from work and places a booty call to Ben, the enamoured ex who just can’t say no, simply to get the day over with sooner.

Playing this game is like an extended re-run of my 20s, except without the booze, drugs or rehab.

The most frustrating part is that there appears to be literally no way out of this existence. The Sims is a game without end; there is no goal beyond continuation of life, but in the full game play version, when you get absolutely sick of a character you just cannot stand to play any more, you can always find a way to kill them off.

The traditional method for simicide is to remove all of the smoke detectors from the house and wait for a house fire. I am, however, far more vicious and impatient than that, and my preferred method for killing annoying children and irritating spouses is to chuck them in the pool and take away the ladder.

But on the mobile version, there is no death. You can starve them, cut them off from all human contact, and leave them in a puddle of their own waste, and they’ll still get up the next day to cheerfully face a brand new morning at Guantanamo.

Suburbia is hell.

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