Had a session on brainstorming at Wednesday’s Design+Tech meeting. Dan was joined by designer Brian Sauer of Saturday Mfg. in leading the presentation. These are my Cliff’s Notes on their tips for handling the brainstorming phase:
- Don’t invite the client.
- Keep it short — 20-30 minutes — and do multiple sessions.
- Write down everything. Erase nothing.
- Use your notes; dig through notes from old sessions to generate new ideas.
- Have inspirational resources to look through nearby — but only when you’re stuck.
Here are a few of my own:
- Domai.nr — Know it, love it.
- Mind-mapping software like MindNode (my personal fave) is great for brainstorming by yourself or taking notes during a session.
- Go to lunch! We’ve had good luck naming things over food and drinks. Just remember to bring a small notebook and still write everything down.
What are your brainstorming tips? Do anything radically different in your sessions? Share in the comments.
I was reading a MailChimp blog post today about recent feature revisions and was struck positively by the candor of an explanation about why they were removing a feature from their free plan.
[Autoresponders are] a feature that can be easily abused, and used in ways we did not intend when we originally built it. Hint: if you consider yourself a “serious internet power-monetizing marketing professional” and your goal is to “put your multi-level lead-gen on autopilot while you work from home” MailChimp’s Autoresponders were not really built for you. But if you’re a normal human being, and you want to send an annual birthday email to your customers, or maybe count down to a special event date by sending useful content on a timed schedule, we’re great for that stuff.
Fantastic. An honest, simple, even snarky explanation that draws a line between whom they want as customers and whom they don’t. Does your business communicate that way? Even in private B2B conversations with potential customers? Many don’t.
You might be thinking, “That’s easy for MailChimp, they’re already a big success and can afford to tick off a few customers.”
Sure, it’s easier for big successful companies to adopt that kind of swagger. It’s harder for smaller, less confident businesses. Harder does not equal less important. Drawing a line in the sand can seem scary, but clearly delineating what type of users you are and aren’t trying to support will both save you resources and endear your target audience to you even more. Seems like a no-brainer to me. MailChimp’s ongoing success and rapid growth (3,000 new users per day) makes a strong case for this kind of candor.
Tell the world what kind of customers you don’t want and you can enjoy a little of MailChimp’s success yourself.
Ever get stuck working on a blog post?
“You’re not stuck. You’re lost.”
That’s the abridged version of the advice I generally give people that are stuck on their projects, and, in particular, their writing. In this post, I’m going to give you the unabridged blue version of how to write a fucking blog post.
Last week I, Amanda and Neil all got blog posts up. Dan and Igor did not. One of these weeks we’re going to go five for five. Last week was not that week.
As our CEO and COO struggled with their post drafts, I threw the following together in a moment of inspired—if not frustrated—levity to serve as a guide to getting through a motherfucking blog post. Much gratitude to Zach of the excellent WhatTheFuckShouldIMakeForDinner. While the WTFSIMFD site is randomized, my guide is a bit more chronological in nature.
I wrote it in Word and have posted it on SlideShare for your downloading pleasure. It’s two columns with room on the right to sketch notes. You can download it or just use the controls in the embed window to zoom in, scroll and read.
Useful? Not useful? Most hilarious and also best thing you’ve ever read on the Internet, ever?
I would LOVE if other people left their fucking (sorry, hard to stop) advice on how to write a fucking blog post. I’ll take the best ones and put them into the final version—with credit, of course!—and work with Amanda to get it out there in a fun and digestable design.
Okay okay, I’m sure this isn’t actually the worst about page copy ever, but it’s pretty damn bad. City of Windsor Heights, I’m looking at you. It’s seriously bad. If you don’t have the patience to read my blog post at least read their about page, it’s good for a laugh.
BitMethod is a small and nimble team. We all wear a lot of hats. Writing responsibilities often fall on my shoulders. I make a lot of mistakes, look up words in the dictionary, misuse and abuse semicolons; and occasionally turn out some really unreadable garbage. I say these things to illustrate that I’m not approaching this blog post from some stuck-up grammar Nazi pedestal. Instead, I’m going to try and demonstrate that anybody can write better promotional copy using patience and logic—tools available to anyone.
Note: All bolding and italicizing are mine for emphasis.
This is Windsor Heights – the city that is the heart of it all. Come, feel the heart-beat.
Avoid near-redundancy. Having a distinctive word like “heart” pop up twice in your opening sentence weakens each individual usage of it. This is pretty easy to avoid with some simple proofreading.
The City of Windsor Heights is a unique community…
Ugh. Unique is a terribly abused word. Logic is all you need here: would every community say they’re unique? If the answer is yes (it is), it’s not worth saying.
…that was incorporated in 1941. Windsor Heights has the unique distinction of being the only community that borders Des Moines, Urbandale, Clive, and West Des Moines – in the heart of the Des Moines Metro area.
You’re killing me. There’s heart and unique again. They’re also not thinking about their audience. Writing to a specific person can be a big help. If you’re unfamiliar enough with Windsor Heights to be reading their about page, what are the odds you’re also unfamiliar with Urbandale, Clive, or West Des Moines?
It is at the heart of the greater Des Moines metro area.
You just said that. Proofread.
The city of Windsor Heights fills a niche as a top quality small community within Iowa’s major metropolitan area. Windsor Heights has a distinctive niche as a quality small community within the state’s major metropolitan area.
“Quality small community” is so important they said it twice, but do you have any idea what it means? Again, think of your audience and what’s relevant to them. This is meaningless word vomit.
It is unmatched in its strategic location, convenient to all of the metropolitan and suburban amenities while offering affordable housing, business opportunities and a strong sense of community.
Generic, but they’re at least starting to put some meat on the bones. “Affordable housing” is something people can actually understand and latch on to.
We offer convenient shopping, great schools and beautiful parks to citizens and visitors alike. Here you will find varied shopping and dining opportunities, churches and elementary schools within and near the city limits, and beautiful parks with improvements to come.
OMG! You have schools? And parks? And churches? Why, one would almost think you are describing a city! Half the page is full of words like “unique” and “niche”, yet they’re only describing the most banal and generic things you would find in any city.
They describe their parks as beautiful, yet undercut the statement by announcing there are improvements to come. If the parks are beautiful, why do they need improvements?
Close by are centers of Polk County government, business and industry and outstanding educational institutions including Des Moines Area Community College, Grand View College, Drake University, Simpson College, Iowa State University, William Penn University, and Upper Iowa University. Only minutes from downtown, Windsor Heights offers easy access to the Civic Center, and other arts and entertainment attractions, the airport and expansive commercial opportunities.
If you’re native to Des Moines, this paragraph will crack you up as much as it does me. There are lots of nice things you can say about Windsor Heights that also happen to be true. Saying they provide “easy access” to the Civic Center or the airport doesn’t ring very true to me. They are no more convenient to these destinations than any other metro suburb. Not to mention they are a lot closer to the Art Center than the Civic Center.
We are proud to be a community continually recognized for excellence. In 2002, the City became an American Crown Community. In 2006, the City received an International City/County Management Program Excellence Award for Community Sustainability. In 2007, the City became the smallest city in Iowa to receive the Government Finance Officers’ of United States and Canada’s Distinguished Budget Presentation Award.
Blah blah blah. Nobody gives a shit about your awards, especially when those awards don’t mean anything to anyone but you and your colleagues. Again, thinking about the audience would really help in this situation. Whom are you writing this for? Does that person know what an American Crown Community is?
Want to make Windsor Heights your future home? Please check out the below links to see homes that are currently for sale in Windsor Heights.
Their call to action? Buy a house!!! Can you believe it? “Well, now that you know we have stores and schools and churches and that improvements are to come for our parks, I’m sure you’re ready to buy a house here, right?” Give me a break. Whenever possible, I try and discipline myself to focus on one and only one idea while writing. Putting your call to action down first and working backwards can help you build a better story and more compelling argument.
So there you go—a quick and dirty deconstruction of one of the worst about pages I’ve ever had the displeasure of reading. Here’s the abridged version of my writing tips for non-writers forced to write things:
- Read it out loud. You’ll catch odd turns of phrase and major grammatical errors pretty easily this way.
- Have a friend read it.
- Avoid using the same distinct word multiple times in a sentence or paragraph unless you know exactly why you’re doing it.
- Imagine one specific person or group that will be reading your words and write it for them. With my radio and theatrical background, I’m usually imagining my words read out loud to an audience or as part of a presentation.
- Only say things that are true.
- Walk away and read it later. Helps with WWS (weird word syndrome). Words are tricky and sticky. Overexposure to particular words and phrases in too short of a time period makes them go all funny in your brain.
- Avoid word vomit like unique, best, great, wonderful, quality, authentic and essential. If you’re going to use these words, back them up with some serious meat.
What are your writing-for-non-writers tips and tricks to get you by in a pinch?
A lot of the web services industry (our company, BitMethod, builds mobile and web apps and services, in case you didn’t know) is built around Free-with-a-capital-F and cross-selling. Give away X to sell Y, offer Premium Z to Enterprise level customers, etc.
As BitMethod’s Creative Strategist a lot of what I do involves product strategy. I’ve learned that giving something away to sell something else—or up-selling current customers—doesn’t work very well if the other stuff for sale sucks or doesn’t address a customer need.
I was hanging out working at Smokey Row last weekend and two things happened: 1) I really needed a highlighter, and 2) I noticed what comprised nearly an entire wall teapots and t-shirts for sale. I started running the coffee shop cross-selling experience through the same mental wringer I put a lot of our ideas.
Extra things normally sold at coffee shops:
- Magnetic Poetry
- Audio CD’s
- Local Art
- Brew-at-home Coffees and Teas
- Mini French Presses
Notice a trend? Except for the mug, none of those items are things you would actually use or need while you’re at the coffee shop. They’re “gift” items. I’m uncertain of the reason for the ubiquity of these items at coffee shops—except, perhaps, that “everybody else does it”. Not good business logic.
Successful coffee shops are known for more than just their coffee. They have a great atmosphere, great service and great marketing. They make it comfortable for folks to hang out, get to know each other and even get some work done. When I see signs at little hippie coffeeshops admonishing customers against staying too long or an epic poem about why they don’t offer Wi-Fi, I really feel like they just don’t get it. If you can’t figure out how to capitalize on an environment where people feel like hanging out all day and consuming things, you might want to hang up that Small Business Owner hat.
Below are some of my ideas for things to sell at a coffee shop. I’m sure that enterprising shop owners the world around have sold some or all of these things—a Twitter follower working at Caribou informed me they used to sell pencils and chapstick. What intrigues me is why this type of cross-selling is not very commonplace. I believe these items would go over much better than a Gildan shirt emblazoned with an amateur-designed coffee shop logo:
- Pencils, Pens, and Highlighters
- Bus passes or other public transit related items or services
- Memo Pads, Legal Pads, Journals, and Drawing Pads (bonus points for uber-hipster Moleskins)
- Art, Culture and Design Magazines (tailored to taste and your marketing). Many coffee shops have a free-to-read pile of outdated and boring magazines. Why not have a killer selection funded by people actually buying those magazines?
- Decks of playing cards, UNO and easy-to-learn indie card games (check the Indie games section at Mayhem in Des Moines for an idea of just how much cool stuff is out there).
- Paperbacks—maybe a periodic staff pick, or something connected to a monthly book club hosted at the shop.
- Crossword, word search, and Sudoku books
- USB Keys
- Recordable CD’s and DVD’s
- iPhone/iPad stands
Notice a trend? They sell a lot of this stuff at Barnes and Noble and Borders. Those stores present more competition for time and money otherwise spent at a neighborhood coffee shop than people probably realize. Both of them have business models encouraging you to come in, hang out, and enjoy the experience without having to buy anything. Lots of people buy something. In fact, I would estimate at least 80% of the time that I’ve spent money at Barnes and Noble, it hasn’t been on a book. It’s been a muffin, or a journal, or a game, or a magazine.
I remember hearing once that laundromats and coffee shops are the easiest business to get loans for, implying that they are very “safe” bets for the bank. The trouble with a safe bet and a safe business is that, unlike the software industry, the pressure to innovate is extremely low. Whatever industry you’re in, no product is ever safe. What might be your main focus will be given away as an afterthought by someone else or cross-sold to a bigger audience than you could ever hope to capture. Start thinking now about how to expand your offerings quickly and easily by analyzing your environment, your community and your users to identify their needs.