This is no longer a blog.

Life got busy. I stopped making writing for myself a priority.

The posts here are old, but I'm attached to some of them and want to keep them around. So this is now an archive, not a blog.

In case you're curious, here are a few of my favourite posts from over the years:

I have intention to write again, at some point. When I do, I'll probably do it here and cross-post it to Medium.

The best place to find me is on Twitter - @mwickett

See you around.

Short-form blogging

Oh my god yes. Gina's six rules for blogging speak to me on so many levels.

I love Twitter, but it's hard to get full thoughts out at that length – although the process of trying can be really informative. Twitter is like writing junk food, empty calories. Crafting a clever or intelligent tweet (not sure I've ever actually managed that) scratches kind of the same itch that writing a blog post does except that it's not writing on the same level.

If you believe, as I do, that writing is thinking (← seriously go read this), then building a strong writing habit is probably something you desire, but struggle with. I certainly do. So often, I get caught in the trap of believing that anything I post has to be lengthy, agonized over and actually "say something". That means I just don't do it. Then I feel bad.

Thanks Gina for reminding me that "short-form blogging" is perfectly acceptable. And thanks Jason for adding your thoughts. It's awesome to see short post chains that grow out of great, but short, posts.

Long live the short post. 

HTML ads. Finally?

From the fine folks at Typecast:

...the process of designing and building digital ads has lagged behind and is still very much an over-the-fence approach. 

Hard to believe that it's 2014 and with all the mobile-ness, responsiveness and design love that the web has received in the last decade, advertising – the engine of everything web – is still a second-class citizen. 

First it was Flash (which is still around, sadly) and static images dropped all over web pages. Then we had so-called "takeovers" (the awfulness of an ad exploding all over the background of a news site) and all kinds of other intrusive and ineffective digital ads. Don't forget popups, pop-unders and other kinds of window trickery. Auto play video, random hidden tabs blaring obnoxious audio and all sorts of dirty, annoying tricks to interrupt users' attention.

There are examples of display advertising being done well. In every case, the advertisers:

  1. Know their audience.
  2. Don't sell ads to everyone, rather are incredibly picky.
  3. Limit the total ad inventory (this is artificial, because space is infinite online)
  4. ...and finally, uses attractive, well designed ads.

That last point is only the most visible part of a great approach to advertising. Typecast's support of HTML ad units is a great step forward in helping digital advertising catch up but until publishers embrace the first three items above, advertising on the web will continue to be awful.

Instead of a phone in my pocket...

...I’ve got dog treats and a shit bag. And it’s a great feeling. It’s great because the bag is empty, but mostly because I don’t have my iPhone with me. And without a connection, the MacBook Pro I’m typing these words on is an expensive typewriter – it’s wonderful.

I didn’t really realize how much I actually needed a chance to disconnect, until I finally did. The sound of waves on the beach. A happy, wet dog retrieving a stick from the lake. Dozing in the shade of a big tree.

Don't worry, that's not a pirate ship. 

Don't worry, that's not a pirate ship. 

I’m suddenly hyper-aware of how often I get the nagging urge to check the piece of glass and metal that's usually in my pocket. Then I notice the feeling of relaxation that comes with remembering that it’s turned off, sitting in a bag and not requiring my attention.

The feeling of spending time with my family, and most importantly, with Miranda, who is seven months pregnant with our first child – a baby girl. Watching Rigby (that's who the shit bag belongs to) play in the grass with utter contentment. All these incredible people and moments around me, and I can actually pay full, undivided attention to them. Being completely present — what a wonderful, yet slightly strange feeling.

It's the strangeness that is most concerning to me. Our incredible digital connectedness creates a nagging distraction as we go through our day. What’s happening? Have I received a message? Does someone need me?

We all love to feel needed and every little bleep and bloop of our devices satisfies that need just a little bit. We're addicted and until we power everything off it’s hard to see how big a part of our lives this connection has become.

When we unplug maybe we wake up just a little bit more.

Hyprocrite? Probably

I’m a hypocrite. We’re all hypocrites. On one hand, we're concerned about the impact that extreme, constant connection has on us, but on the other hand, we love it, crave it – we need it. The power of mobile, always connected devices is extraordinary. It’s already changed our lives for the better and it’s still early days. We have no idea what will come in the next few years or decades.

But deep down, we all know that this shift in our lives is changing how we behave and think. It's changing who we are. And that's mildly terrifying.

More and more, I’m convinced that intentional disconnection is crucial to maintaining some perspective about ourselves. There's no need for extremeism, but rather just some kind of balance. There is value in being connected, but also in taking a break. Balance will look different for each of us, but acheiving balance requires intentional awareness of how deep down the rabbit hole we are.

Hello brain

I’ve been completely offline for less than 24 hours, but already my brain feels different. More open, more relaxed. I can feel parts of my mind that I haven’t touched in a while. Maybe they are hidden by the addiction to being connected and needed. Perhaps constant, low-level distraction sends those parts of my brain scurrying for dark corners.

These are parts of my brain that I miss. It’s an ephemeral feeling — I can’t articulate exactly what these ‘new’ parts of my brain do but I feel that they’re important. I want to feel them more, to spend more time with them.

I’ll bet that if I could pay attention to them more, I’d be better at my work. I’d be more creative, I’d write more, I’d focus on the parts of my life that matter more. I’d have more love and attention to give to those who matter.

Instead of watching my feeds, and waiting for the next notification to come in.

Design: Data vs instinct

Braden Kowitz writing for Wired:

It’s common to think of data and instincts as being opposing forces in design decisions. In reality, there’s a blurry line between the two. After all, instincts are built by observing the world around us, and those observations are just another stream of data. Statistics help us summarize and understand the hard data we collect, and instincts do the same for all the messy real-world experiences we observe. And that’s why the best products — the ones that people want to use, love to use — are built with a bit of both.

So much yes. It's so easy to get caught up in the power of data and forget about the importance of instincts honed by experience. Braden's approach for when to rely on data or on instinct is incredibly useful, especially to someone like me who isn't a designer by trade, but ends up being involved in (and leading in some instances) design based decisions.

The other crucial element that Braden touches on is research. If you haven't read Just Enough Research by Erika Hall, you should. Research isn't a big scary, academic beast – it's something that everyone trying to make a decision should do. Even one or two sessions of watching someone use your design in real life will have a profound impact on the decision tree going forward.

Erika's book is an extraordinarily practical approach to doing enough research to make a strong decision but no more.

 

Council Culture

"Culture" means many different things. There's arts & culture, ethnic culture and office culture. Bacterial cultures, snobby rich people culture (think Frasier and Niles at the wine club) and probably lots of other uses of culture that I don't know about. It's an important word with a lot of meaning.

This tweet from Pat Maloney got me thinking about the culture of our council and municipal elected leaders:

Swearing, screaming and finger-pointing don't seem like a big deal anymore. I don't think Pat is alone in feeling that way. That's a huge problem. As a city and society, we've stopped being intentional about our political culture and it has slipped in the wrong direction.

I'll leave a detailed analysis of the pros and cons of our political system to smarter writers (looking at you Caesura Letters) but to paraphrase, our political system – especially locally – is built on the assumption that City Council is able to compromise, collaborate and work together to make decisions that maximize benefit.

Put another way, smart, dedicated people need to argue but then at some point, they need to stop arguing and agree. This requires compromise. Otherwise nothing gets done and we go in circles.

Debate, even if it is loud or adversarial at times, is critical to making good, strategic decisions. Fighting, swearing and personal attacks are not debate. Debate, no matter how contentious, should always be in the service of the larger goal: making London better for everyone. 

Political culture across the board is polarized. That's especially obvious in the US. With a two party system there is little room for anyone to be in the middle on an issue. This structure forces politicians and citizens out to the extreme edges and leaves no oxygen for compromise, rational discussion or empathy.

This type of political culture is evident in Canada as well and as Pat Maloney pointed out, is present here in London. 

"Culture" in this sense (politics or office culture) is incredibly intentional. It's not something that just happens on its own. Our political culture is created by all of us, all the time. It's created by every decision we make, no matter how small.

It's created by how we choose to argue and debate with one another. It's created by what and how the media chooses to focus on. And most importantly, it's modelled for everyone by our elected officials.

I'm not suggesting that we should have less debate, argument and heated discussion. We probably need more of that to solve our collective problems. What I am advocating for is that we all take an active, intentional role in creating the kind of political culture that enables our city to work together to make smart decisions for the future.

Taking an active role starts with two decisions we all make:

  1. Who we vote for – are they willing to fight hard for what they believe in and then willing to accept whatever is best to move our city forward? They must be willing to admit they were wrong and we must be able to accept that they changed their mind on something.
  2. How we speak with others – can you debate with someone and not make it personal? Can you try to be empathetic and see things from other points of view?

Culture matters, a lot. Together, regardless of where we stand on individual issues, we can choose to create a culture that makes London better for everyone.

If you think I'm wrong, or have another way to think about it, let's talk

Another reason to think like a publisher

As if you needed another reason, Mailchimp has a blog post about subscriber engagement that's definitely worth a read if you have (or want) an email based relationship with your audience.

I'm amazed – but not surprised – by the insight that comes from having aggregate access to as much data as Mailchimp does. If I had to pick a single part that really stood out for me, it would be the data around permission. The difference in engagement levels for single and double opt-in is significant. Not surprising if you already believe in the importance of permission, but useful for convincing those who aren't quite there yet.

It's obvious that double opt-in means much higher overall engagement levels. Chart by Mailchimp.

It's obvious that double opt-in means much higher overall engagement levels. Chart by Mailchimp.

I'd recommend you read the whole post, but to the point about publishers, the engagement level for the 'media and publishing' category is much higher than any other. 

Writing and behaving like a publisher, personally or professionally, might just help your overall engagement levels.

It's not surprising that media and publishing email campaigns have higher engagement. How can you be a publisher? Chart by Mailchimp.

It's not surprising that media and publishing email campaigns have higher engagement. How can you be a publisher? Chart by Mailchimp.

Being a 'publisher' ≠ 'content marketing'

As a follow-up to Wednesday's link post, I present to you a great piece by Mark Higginson (via @braintraffic) titled Closing your eyes and wanting it to be true won't make it work.

...content marketing on the web does not work and will not work for 'brands'. No business can make the expenditure on the quality and quantity of content required to win significant attention pay a decent return on their investment...

Mark's point is well taken and I think he's right to a degree but he misses an important distinction between 'content marketing' and using content to attract, educate and convert customers. The type of content marketing and 'storytelling' that brands like Coca-Cola and Nike are doing is very different from what happens to smaller companies and organizations when they start thinking like publishers. 

Most big brands who have the money to invest in large-scale 'content marketing' hire a bunch of writers and bloggers to produce large volumes of mostly meaningless content so that their brand gets exposure through social media and search. The content they produce has little educational or persuasive value, it exists simply to keep the brand in front of consumers. This is a new version of traditional media advertising, not very different from TV or billboard ads. 

The kind of 'content marketing' that Mark is (rightly) criticizing is all about creating demand for commodity products that no one really needs. Cola, shoes, credit cards and more. Putting it differently, this type of content is trying to create demand for something in a consumer who isn't actively seeking to solve some kind of problem.

I believe, as do others, that there is a form of content marketing that can have tremendous ROI. It takes advantage of the incredible levels of interconnectedness that the Internet has created and also tries to solve the discoverability problem created by all of us broadcasting at once. Brands or companies who create products or provide services that solve problems are using content marketing to successfully:

  • Be found in the sea of the web by potential customers who are actively seeking a solution to a problem in their life or their business.
  • Provide value to that early audience through education, entertainment or both.
  • Build credibility with their audience to convert a small number of them into customers. That probably doesn't happen right away, and that's ok.

Mark's view of content marketing as monkeys banging on typewriters is depressing, but not necessarily the only way to think about it.

Keep on publishing people.

The death of the corporate website?

From Michele Mehl at Geekwire:

That means the Web site template of — “About Us, In the News, Services, Products, Contact Us, FAQ, a Search Box, Blog, Shopping Cart” — will no longer work. Obviously, Coca-Cola’s model isn’t for everyone. But for the market segments where it will work—likely retail, consumer tech and some B2B—we all have to start thinking more like publishers, reporters, bloggers, reviewers and authors.

It's high time we all started thinking and behaving more like publishers - because whether we know it or not, that's what we are. Every status update, tweet or email, we're publishing content and influencing an audience. The only question is what kind of an influence are we having?

If you're reading this and you're a Twitter user, or a blogger, then this concept is eye-rollingly obvious to you. But there are so many organizations, companies and influential people who haven't yet realized the shift that is happening and the importance of embracing it.

My hope is that with a brand like Coca-Cola making such a high-profile shift, that other organizations will finally take notice. The content we create cannot afford to be static. There is no "set it and forget it." To succeed and grow an audience, attract customers or build a donor base requires consistent, dedicated, focused content work. Writing, shooting, editing, sharing – over and over. 

While you're thinking about writing, Ann Handley's Nine Qualities of Good Writing is definitely worth your time and attention.

Value in the details

I'm currently teaching a course on Technology in the Not-for-Profit Sector with Western Continuing Studies and last week, while talking about email marketing, I showed my class Mailchimp.  

I'm a huge fan of Mailchimp, but I try to avoid in-class, on-screen demos as much as possible because it's ridiculously boring to watch someone use a computer and generally doesn't add much value. Because I wanted students to create a (free) Mailchimp account and try sending an email campaign, the need to show them the basics outweighed the snooze factor.

What struck me was how engaged they were with the on-screen demo. Aside from being intrigued by the possibilities that a platform like Mailchimp creates (list management, geographic targeting, inbox testing etc.), there were lots of chuckles and smiles as they watched me work through the process.  It's the little details that the Mailchimp team have refined that really made the difference.

Things like the subtle guides that greet a new user, or the great (and often funny) microcopy that is scattered throughout their interface have a unbelievable influence on new users' and their willingness to learn and adopt a new platform and UI.

This experience was a reminder to me that taking time, money and resources to improve the small, seemingly insignificant details in the things that we create go a long way towards making them more valuable and impactful. What looks simple and easy is really the product of an extraordinary amount of testing, measuring, iteration and just plain hard work.

Email marketing is not particularly exciting (unless you're a marketing nerd), but Mailchimp's attention to small details and users' experience has created a product and service that is extraordinarily effective and enjoyable to use – or even watch  someone use.

 P.S. If you're a student in NFPM6005, and you were snoozing during the Mailchimp demo, just don't tell me.