Writing by James

Articles and opinions on technology, social media and innovation


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Writing by James – The Top 5 Most Popular Posts of 2013

It’s the end of 2013, and that means it is time to look at my most popular posts of the year. Without further ado, the Top 5!

#1 – Scribd – the wrong way to use Facebook personalisation

The run away winner this year, and up from number 2 last year, this article still seems to be hitting the spot. I still get comments and emails around the subject, as it seems that nothing has changed – the number of people still searching for ‘Scribd Facebook’ on Google has not decreased.

#2 - RE: The Walking Dead – A call to Frank Darabont

Last year, when this rolled in at number 1, I said:

“When I first wrote this post, it was only intended to vent my own frustrations with the first season of the Walking Dead, but it seems that there are a lot of people who feel the same way. Luckily, my main issue with the series – not enough zombies! – has been answered.”

I’m extremely glad to say that Season 3, which finished a couple of months back on UK terrestrial, was the best yet. It had a strong story-line, plenty of zombies, and some very fine moments between the Governor and our band of survivors. How I’m managing to keep away from reading Robert Kirkman’s original comics, I have no idea…

#3 – Scribd – the wrong way to use Facebook personalisation – an update

In this follow up article to the original, I looked at how the rest of Facebook’s launch partners for ‘Instant Personalisation’ had fared. The quick answer? Not very well.

#4 - The album that saved my (musical) life

I’m glad this is still in the top 5. Pixies are a group that I hold close, they’ve had a massive impact on my musical direction. Without Pixies, I can’t imagine that I would ever have ended up listening to my current favourites: Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks, Tame Impala, and Radiohead. This look at how they were using old content in refreshing new ways across social channels to engage with the next generation of fans was a pleasure to write.

#5 – Product Review: Testimonial Monkey

Rounding out the top 5 for 2013 is this product review of Testimonial Monkey. I don’t write a lot of reviews, but once in a while I get approached and asked to look at new products, services, or books. If you’ve got a product that you would like to put forward, please let me know using the contact form on the About Me page. Testimonial Monkey simplified the process of getting customer feedback and had some nice features, so it was a good review to write – it’s always more difficult if the product or book isn’t as good as you had hoped. Luckily, I haven’t had many of those.

Thank you!

Many thanks to all of you who have read my articles this year, whether you left comments or not; I hope they were useful and informative. I hope to see you all again in 2014.

Cheers, James.


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Product Review: Testimonial Monkey

Testimonial Monkey - Screenshot

It’s the start of 2013 and time to post in the new year with a product review of the slightly oddly named Testimonial Monkey.

I wanted to review Testimonial Monkey for two reasons:

  1. Those of you who follow my blog will be aware of the guest posts I write for Unbounce – the landing page specialists. One of the key elements of a when building trust with a user is the testimonial, and it’s something that I look for in a well designed landing page.
  2. My wife runs her own business, creating bespoke lampshades and teaching people how to make them (find out more over at Gilhoolie), so I understand the pressures of marketing a small business.
  3. Having worked in the real world for quite a few years now – on the agency and client side of the fence – I know that turning your consumers into advocates is no easy task.

Testimonial Monkey is a service designed to help organisations of all sizes gather and share testimonials easily, so it sounds like it might be the answer to our problems, but the $64,000 question is: does it work?

Getting Started

Testimonial Monkey uses basic gamification techniques to help you complete your profile.

Testimonial Monkey uses basic gamification techniques to help you complete your profile.

Setting up your account with Testimonial Monkey is a simple business. Creating a profile (of which you can have a few) is a simple matter of entering contact details and some basic preference information, and it can be completed in a few minutes. You’ve then got the option of further personalising the service through some additional options, such as uploading a logo, setting your testimonial requirements (do you want to collect job titles, do you want to show all testimonials or just positive ones, etc). It’s easy to use and you’re prompted to complete actions through some basic gamification techniques, such as an account completion progress bar and a list of ‘To Do’ items (see left). They’re a welcome addition,  but I couldn’t help but think that this approach could have been taken further, so that it was a more integral part of the set-up process, rather than an aside.

Once your profile has been set up, you’re ready to send your first request.

As you would expect, Testimonial Monkey provides a number of options for requests: you can send them manually on an individual basis, upload emails in bulk, or – as most will probably do – set up automatic requests.

The individual requests are simply a matter of entering a name and email into a pre-populated form. It’s easy, but for the majority of users will be a last resort, as sending individual requests will become time-consuming. I used it for my testing purposes only. The bulk option allow you to upload a series of email addresses to be used.

In both cases, you can select a questionnaire that will be appended to the email. These questionnaires can be created through the administration tools, and add depth to the data you can collect. Be aware though, the more information you ask a user to complete, the less likely it will be that they will comply. If you want to collect more structured data, it may be worth doing this separately.

Finally, the automatic requests can be configured through the use of a personalised email address created for your account.  This email address can be bcc’d on any email communication you have with your customer. Once the blind copy has been received the system will automatically send a request a number of days later. Like a lot of the integration features available on Testimonial Monkey, its easy to use and set up.

Although it does have the questionnaires, Testimonial Monkey doesn’t have features that some of the competitors do (including the ability to record audio and video testimonials), so you’ll have to make a call as to whether that’s important to you or not.

Sharing your success (or failure)

So you’re all set up and you’ve sent out your first request for a testimonial, even better, you’ve actually got a response; so how do you share it? This is where things can get onerous if it’s a manual process, but Testimonial Monkey covers the bases with a range if options that are flexible enough for most needs.

Testimonial Monkey's Facebook integration in action.

Testimonial Monkey’s Facebook integration in action.

You get a hosted reviews page as standard, but the flexibility comes with the integration options. Dependent on your package, there are standard connectors for Twitter and Facebook, two or three widgets – including badges – to allow you to display the latest testimonials directly on your website, and an RSS feed for general use.

Each of these can be set up to display testimonials with a minimum rating (so only 4 or 5 star ratings for example) and there are basic theme options available too.

Regardless of the options selected, the integration is seamless, with posts appearing a regular intervals once received. It’s easy to use and requires no further interaction – which is perfect.

Packages and features

As with most services, Testimonial Monkey comes with a range of packages, ranging from Lite to Enterprise.

There is some confusion on the site in respect to pricing, as the Plans and Prices page shows a different set of one-time costs to the ‘Free Trial’ page, which quotes costs on a per month basis. I’m sure this will be cleared up.

Regardless of this, the features don’t really start kicking until the Professional level. It’s here that the vast majority of functionality becomes available. The Enterprise level adds the ability to completely white-label the product, removing the Testimonial Monkey branding that is otherwise displayed throughout (including customer emails and review pages). I haven’t seen the Lite/Essential version working, but without the ability to share via the social networks, it won’t be as useful to the majority of businesses (as they bring social media marketing into their marketing mix).

Does it work?

Yes, overall it does. The set-up is fairly easy to complete and the site does a pretty good job of keeping you on track. The site isn’t perfect, I think it could be slicker and more streamlined in taking you through the initial set up, and it would be nice to have more inline help available at times, but it’s a satisfactory experience.

It would be good to have some better advice on how to use the testimonials you collect. There’s functionality available that allows you to limit the amount of testimonials you publish through each of the channels (five Facebook posts or five Tweets for example) and this is more important than it seems. New users might be tempted to push all their positive testimonials out of the door and into the public limelight, but it is judicious use that is more effective. There’s space here for Testimonial Monkey to be our guide, not just our conduit. This approach is hinted at in the free eBook you receive when signing up and the appointment of a ‘Success Manager’ for Enterprise customers, but it could be more obvious.

Would I recommend it? Would I give them my testimonial?

In the spirit of testimonials, here’s one to finish.

Testimonial Monkey is effective at delivering and sharing testimonials with minimum effort and input. A little more polish on the administration side would help, but it doesn’t detract from what is a well-thought out and focused product. 4/5.

James Gardner, 8th January 2013

Have you used Testimonial Monkey or a similar product? How did it work for you? Have you seen an increase in conversions or responses? Let me know your experiences and thoughts in the comments.

Disclaimer: This is an independent review based on a professional account supplied to me for the purposes of reviewing the service. I have no business relationship with TestimonialMonkey. I have not received any direct monetary incentives or payments, but they have allowed me to keep the account if I so desire for no cost. I don’t need to write this bit, but I think it’s always good to be completely transparent.


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Book Review: Content is Currency by Jon Wuebben

Content is Currency by Jon Wuebben - CoverMost book reviews start by telling you about the author and content, and end with telling you whether you should read it. This time I’m going to start by telling you why should you read this book; it’s important.

The reason why you should read this book?

Content Marketing is the hot topic of the moment, and Jon Wuebben’s book is about as comprehensive a guide as you’re going to get currently. Whether you’re a content marketing novice or a have already dabbled, Content is Currency has something for you.

Having said that, we can now get back into the usual swing of things.

Jon Wuebben is CEO of Content Launch and a content strategist. Content is Currency is the follow-up to his 2008 book, Content Rich: Writing Your Way to Wealth on the Web, and in it he takes an in-depth look at the hows and whys of creating content for the web – both desktop and mobile (and about time – things have changed massively since 2008!)

The ability to create engaging content is becoming increasingly important in today’s digital landscape. The prevalence and power of search and the virality of social, means that content is a powerful medium for organisations to spread their messages. Being able to make the most of these channels is good for both your brand and your bottom line.

Content is Currency is set out into three parts:

  1. What is Content Marketing? – in this part Wuebben looks at the basics of content marketing, including analysing your current presence, performing keyword analysis and competitive research, and optimising your content.
  2. Content for the Web – here Wuebben delves into the different sorts of content (from articles to press releases and beyond) and how you can create content that has impact.
  3. Content for Community and Mobile – in this part, which will be the one that I suspect most people will be drawn to initially, Wuebben details best practice around the use of blogging, email, video and audio, including how to make this content work on mobile devices.

Within each part, the subject is broken into a number of chapters, each dealing with a different element of content marketing. The progression through the chapters is logical and they are filled with good examples to help highlight the tips and techniques within, making it easy to absorb. There are also Case Studies at the end of each chapter that reinforce the approach. Although unavoidable, some of these examples and Case Studies will date, especially where screenshots are included, but this is a minor point, and doesn’t significantly detract from the longevity of the book’s use – as I said, it’s impossible not to have this issue where you are using real-life examples

Content is Currency is a book that you could read from cover to cover, if you so wished, but it is equally as useful as a coffee-table style dip-in guide. And although some of the content may date, it is still a comprehensive guide that provides real value to marketers and agencies alike. In a fast moving ever-changing environment like the web, making our content work across multiple channels and devices is so important – the lessons in Content is Currency will help you to make this a reality.

Have you read Content is Currency? What did you think? Have you changed your thinking on content marketing, or implemented changes since reading the book? Let me know your thoughts in the comments.

Disclaimer: This is an independent review based on a proof copy of the book supplied to me. I have no business relationship with Jon Wuebben or Content Launch. I have not received any monetary incentives or payments. I don’t need to write this bit, but I think it’s always good to be completely transparent.


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Book Review: Building a Blog for Readers: How to Blog In A Way That Matters by Nick Thacker

Building a Blog For Readers - Front CoverStarting as blog isn’t easy. You fret about whether you’ll be able to write, whether people will want to read it; after a few posts and only a few hits you start to wonder if it was all worth it. But get through the doubts and before long it all changes. For me, it’s been a really positive experience that has opened up doors to speaking opportunities, made me a little extra cash through freelance work, and even helped me get a new job.

Luckily for those of you who are just starting on this road, you can get a jump start thanks to Nick Thacker’s ‘Building a Blog for Readers: How to Blog In A Way That Matters’. Thacker is the prolific blogger and writer behind LiveHacked, a website aimed at aspiring authors who want to make a living out of writing. I was already familiar with LiveHacked, having used the site’s The Fiction Writer’s Guide to Writing Fiction content to help me with my writing, so when Nick asked me to review the book, I was happy to do so.

Building a Blog for Readers is set out less as book and more as a guide for the new or nascent blogger (Thacker himself terms it a manifesto). Formatted into 101 questions across seven topics, you can read through or dip in as required. It’s clear and accessible, and if you don’t think a section is valid for you, it’s easy to move on. However, Thacker’s goal for the book is that you work your way through each one, answering them as you go, so that you have the confidence to begin writing (or maybe not) when you get to the end. It’s not about giving you advice; it’s about helping you to understand what you want.

The seven topics are:

  1. Vision – these questions are focussed on getting out what you want to achieve through writing, your personal goals for the project.
  2. Purpose – this is about understanding your goals for the blog itself: will it help people, make you famous, what is it that makes you suitable to write about a subject, what makes you hungry?
  3. Strategy – creating a strategy for your blog. Define your readers and their requirements.
  4. Tactical – this are the smaller blocks of activity that put your strategy into action.
  5. Structure – the topics on which you’ll write and the USP of your blog. Also, the platform your blog will run on.
  6. Personal / Lifestyle – creating a writing schedule, outlining your commitment to write and discovering how best to approach writing.
  7. Inspiration – finally, other writers provide inspiration through sharing their experiences

Read in order, the book makes sense and holds your hand through most of the big questions you need to ask when setting up a blog (and looking to make money from it). One thing to note though: this won’t tell you how to write and it won’t make you a better writer. It will focus your mind and help you to structure your approach to writing – but if you’re hungry, passionate and knowledgeable on a subject, hopefully the writing quality will come with time and practice.

Personally I didn’t take as much from the Inspiration section as others have done, but the other questions that Thacker poses are well defined and thought-provoking. If you’re looking to start a blog this is worth reading; you’ll find you start off running – or at least jogging – rather than walking. And for the small price of £2.62, it’s not a massive investment either.

Disclaimer: This is an independent review based on a proof copy of the book supplied to me. I have no business relationship with Nick Thacker or LiveHacked. I have not received any monetary incentives or payments. I don’t need to write this bit, but I think it’s always good to be completely transparent.

Have you read Building a Blog for Readers: How to Blog In A Way That Matters? What did you think? Has it given you the confidence to start writing? I’d be interested in your comments.


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Book Review: The Hidden Agenda

Book cover - The Hidden Agenda by Kevin AllenIt’s not often that I read ‘business’ books, being a fan of fiction, but in this case I’m going to put pen to paper for Kevin Allen’sThe Hidden Agenda’. A book that aims to impart the secrets of a perfect pitch and turn you into a ‘winner’1, based on Allen’s long career at some of the world’s biggest agencies.

Having been in ‘agency world’ for the majority of my career, I was keen to see how his approach matched both my own thoughts and my experiences.

Allen is best known for being behind the Mastercard ‘Priceless’  campaign – a wildly successful and much parodied campaign that is still running worldwide today, despite being fifteen years old – and although he tries to play down his part in the campaign throughout the book, it forms a central theme throughout.  It’s a strong theme though, and it pays dividends as you make your way through the book.

Allen’s approach is broken down into four clear stages that you can absorb into your pitch skills. As methodologies go, Allen’s is a simple one. It’s based on a large helping of common sense, but for the inexperienced his advice is sage. For those of us who have been in pitches – win or lose, and I’ve done plenty of both – there will be plenty to identify with.

From brief to pitch, Allen moves through three main stages, each illustrated with stories and personal insights:

#1 “Who”

In the first section of the book, Allen focuses on understanding who you are pitching to and trying to uncover the hidden agenda that lies behind the black and white requirements of the brief. By showing you how to listen and question effectively, it’s possible to understand the emotional make-up of your audience and align your pitch to their underlying needs.

#2 “What”

In the “What” section, he explores how you can bring your internal strengths to bear on a pitch. Identifying your complementary strengths helps you to align your team and pitch to the hidden agenda.

#3 “How”

Finally, the book looks at the art of the pitch, which is, to all intents and purposes, the art of storytelling. Allen shows how you can identify heroes and villains within the brief, and take the client on an emotional journey with you.

Allen’s methodology does not focus on solutions, this isn’t a book that will make you more creative or give you an in on the latest trends, but it will help you to deliver your creativity in a meaningful and effective way. This is neatly shown in the last pages of the book, where he gathers together a number of examples of real-life pitches and breaks them down, showing the inputs and outputs of each stage. It’s here that the book really comes together.

The methodology is backed with some simple tools and techniques to help you apply it in your own work. These aren’t mandatory, but are a welcome addition to the book, as are the accompanying videos and support materials on the book’s website. These additional materials are clearly marked with an icon as you read through.

“the Hidden Agenda is a book worth reading”

If you’re new to pitching, or even new to agency life, the Hidden Agenda is a book worth reading. It’s simple enough and broad enough to take onboard at first read, and it’s not onerous.  It’s also worth reading if you’re part of a non-agency Sales team; as Allen rightly points out, we all pitch everyday even if we don’t know it – it’s there every time we try to ‘sell’ ourselves. Even if you decide not to take everything on board, you’ll still come away with some valuable learning. It certainly helped me to take a healthily self-critical look at my pitching style and identify the things I did naturally well and those I needed to work on. Since I finished the book, I’ve found myself replaying some of the lessons as I’ve been working, which I think reflects well on it.

You can find out more about the book at its website (http://thehiddenagendabook.com), or purchase it from all major book or e-book sellers. Or if you want to hear about the book from the horses mouth, watch this video.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u1WpMbZyLPU&feature=youtu.be

1 This is one of Allen’s favourite words – you’ll hear it a lot.

Disclaimer: This is an independent review based on a review copy of the book supplied to me. I have no business relationship with Kevin Allen, KevinAllenPartners or Bibliomotion (the publishers). I have not received any monetary incentives or payments. I don’t need to write this bit, but I think it’s always good to be completely transparent. :-)

Have you read the Hidden Agenda? What did you think? What did you take from it? I’d be interested in your comments.


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James Ellroy – The Hilliker Curse – short review

The Hilliker Curse: My Pursuit of WomenThe Hilliker Curse: My Pursuit of Women by James Ellroy

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As you would expect from Ellroy, the prose has a spark and rhythm that pulls you through from start to finish at pace. It’s more relaxed than The Cold Six Thousand, but then this is a memoir and it would be amiss to expect something in the same ilk.

For those of you who want exacting details of events, from early childhood to the present day, you’re going to be disappointed. Be sure, this is a thematic memoir that deals strictly with one aspect of Ellroy’s life: women. Everything that else that has happened in his life, from his wayward beginnings to the intricate and spellbinding novels, are just sideshows. Only Bloods a Rover is mentioned by name.

That said, by exploring this thread of his life, it’s easy to see why his novels turned out as they did, and for this reason it’s a revealing read. The themes in his books mirror the themes in his life so closely.

If you like Ellroy, you’ll like this. If you’ve never read Ellroy, go and do so first.