Foxmarks – review

Nowadays I do most of my design work on a Macbook Pro, but spend some of the rest of my time forced to work on a Windows laptop. One thing I got tired of was bookmarking something on one laptop and then not being able to find it when I am working on the other laptop.

I use Firefox on the Macbook and the Windows laptop so I downloaded Foxmarks to see if it would resolve the problem. It works really well and I can definitely recommend it.

It simply installs as a standard Firefox extension and sits in the status bar on the bottom right. When you bookmark something the icon changes, and at the next available opportunity it syncronises with a central server. When you connect to the net on your other machine it syncronises back and you have access to all the pages you just bookmarked.

That really is it, it does exactly what it says on the tim and it does it well. You can tick the option for “sync on shutdown” so you can be sure not to miss anything. It also remembers when you delete a bookmark, and deletes it on the other machine too.

If you don’t use Firefox or use different browsers on different machines then this is not for you. There are other such utilities but I haven’t used them so I can’t comment. What I can say is if you do use Firefox on multiple machines then this is an essential addon.

Building a successful forum

I promised a while back that I would write a post about building a successful forum community. My experience has come through building the world’s most active and successful BMW Z4 forum (title sounds too grand! LOL!). I came at this completely blind and have made some good decisions as well as some bad ones, so I thought I would share them with you so hopefully you can learn from my experience.

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Entrecard designs – Not being funny, but…

I have been running with the Entrecard system for a few weeks now and have been largely impressed with it. I like the way it brings new people to the site, and although traffic hasn’t increased dramatically it has brought a few regular posters in, which in my mind is a great thing.

One thing I have noticed though is from the amount of cards getting submitted for approval to go on my site, roughly 25% are nothing to do with my subject matter (ok, that is not necessarily a problem), but 25% simply look bad.

I spent a great deal of time crafting my site to look a certain way, and I expect entrecards to look neat and tidy and not an eyesore on my site. I don’t mind if there is not a great deal of design work, plain text on a coloured background would be fine, but a JPG graphic compressed to the extent it looks “muddy” is not going on my site, however good the content.

Do people really expect to get their adverts approved, when their cards look horrible? It’s like turning up to a job interview with an un-ironed shirt with yesterdays dinner on it!

How to compete – Lesson 3 : The personal touch

This lesson follows on from “be different” and in some ways is the same point, but I think this one deserves it’s own post because it is very pertinent to those likely to be reading this blog.

It may sound obvious but one reason some people prefer to deal with smaller organisations, or individuals, is the fact that they can get some personal attention, and they can feel important.

Large corporations can seem cold, and when you call up you will probably never speak to the same person twice. For a demonstration of this, call up your telecoms provider a few times and see if you speak to the same person.

Be a good little fish

Sometimes being a small fish in a big pond can seem daunting, but use it in the right way and you will find in many ways it can be a significant advantage. i have dealt with clients who are so impressed with the level of service and communication that what started out as a small job rapidly grew into more business, simply because I treated them personally, communicated effectively (and often!) and was transparent in the whole design process.

Call back!

I cannot stress this enough. If you promise to call a client at a specific date or time, DO IT! This may sound so obvious but it is amazing how often this does not happen. Large corporations are worse at it than small ones, I must say. What I will say is if you keep your promises you “may” have a customer for life, but if you fail to keep your promise you may not keep them til next week!

Follow up

This is one aspect that is often overlooked, and is something that can be very effective. Maybe it is because a lot of us designers come from design backgrounds as opposed to sales backgrounds. We prefer to get stuck in, producing products, designs etc.

If you speak to a successful sales person they will have a big list of clients. When they have a gap in their day they will be on the phone, checking in with their customers, keeping at the forefront of their mind. This is oh so easy to do, not necessarily by phone, but certainly by email. Even if you don’t get more business from it, it will no doubt be appreciated and make the customer feel important.

It’s not rocket science

This is probably one of the easiest posts to apply to your work. It is pretty much ALL common sense. Maybe you are doing it all already, maybe you can improve.

The overriding message here, I suppose, is make your customers like you. If your customers like you and respect you then guess what?… They will talk about you and recommend you. You will have heard it time and time again but personal recommendation is the best sort of business you can get. It is easy to achieve if you play your cards right and follow some simple rules, but is often overlooked.

Z4-forum.com hits 100,000 posts

Our first online forum has finally hit 100,000 posts. In terms of internet forums it is still young, and has a fair way to go to be as big as some of the others out there, but for just over a year old it has done very well.

The forum was created in June 2007 as its predecessor disappeared overnight and we needed a replacement. It has been a fast learning experience and I could recommend it to anyone, but a word of warning, there is actually quite a lot of hard work that goes into making a successful forum.

I won’t go into the details of what it takes to succeed in the forum world, that’s for another post, but I will say it is very rewarding when it really takes off.

How to compete – Lesson 2 : Be different

If you want to compete in the online industry you will already know there is an enormous amount of competition. You can go head to head with the big hitters if you like, but you will always be going uphill. One advantage the smaller players have in this industry is versatility, the ability to change quickly without all the corporate red-tape restrictions. The ability to be different!

There are barriers to being different, like there are in many areas, but most of it is in your imagination. It is easy to doubt the wisdom of being different, and to think “if it was worth being different then everyone would be doing it”, but in actual fact you will find people tend to act a bit like sheep, following each other and doing the same thing. The ones that branch out and find a niche often do very well.

This may sound easy, but how do you go about it? Well firstly it is a case of either spotting a gap in the market, a need for a service that is not provided, or generating a gap in the market, providing a product and then convincing people they need it.  The first one is slightly easier to do, but the second one is more exciting!

One way to spot a gap in the market is to look at a good example of the service (or product) you wish to compete with. No matter how good it is, if you think hard enough you will no doubt be able to spot areas in which it could improve. If you can spot several of these and come up with how to improve upon it then you have taken the first step to spotting a gap in the market.

Example – a car wash

Car washes have been around for many years. They provide a fairly simple service of cleaning the outside of your car. You would think this had been done to death, or had it?

I used to take my car to carwashes every few weeks. The car came out quite clean but it always used to worry me what would happen if the rotating brushes caught a bit of grit. It never happened to me, but I have heard some horror stories.

A few years ago we saw brushless carwashes springing up. Now admittedly these wouldn’t clean a filthy car as well as a brush, but they take the fear out of the experience and that is enough to convince some to take their car there instead.

This is a classic example of spotting a problem that doesn’t have a solution, and providing a similar, yet different, alternative.

If the same person who came up with this idea had decided to compete with the same equipment I am sure they would have failed, or at least not succeeded to the extent they did.

Vive la Différence!

Whether you are starting out in business or looking to grow, consider your market and consider your options. Sometimes it is far less effort to step around the giant than to fight it head on.

Have a think about opportunities in the market. What do people struggle with? What do YOU struggle with? If you can answer these questions then you may be able to spot YOUR gap in the market!

Remember, some of the best inventions and products in t he world have come from people not following the herd.

Browser based applications – Are they the future?

There is a shift in the market at the moment towards browser based applications. There are the more visible (web based) ones produced by Google, but a lot of the software industry hard-hitters are ditching the traditional application clients for a browser based experience. Have we seen the end for a lot of (especially workgroup) applications?

In order to answer this question it is necessary to understand the issues involved in software support, whether it is paid for support or open source community support.

As a software vendor you deal day to day with issues found and raised by the customer. This can be an issue in the code (a bug), a user error, or an environment issue.

If you have ever worked supporting a software product you will know that an awful lot of issue are environmental issues, and a lot of these take a long time to diagnose. Depending on the complexity of the software you need to take into account everything from the Operating system (the version of Windows), the database drivers installed, the configuration scripts, the version of the client software, even idiosyncrasies within their user profile. Software support can be a web of complexity!

If you strip away some of this complexity this gets rid of a lot of the environmental issues and leaves you with user error and bugs. It also leaves you a lot more time to concentrate on what you should be doing, improving the product, instead of fire-fighting the issues people are having trying to run the existing product.

One way of stripping away the environmental issues is to use a web client. Largely it doesn’t matter what OS they are using, what drivers they have installed, or conflicting software, 9 times out of 10 if they have the supported web browser installed then the application will run fine.

A lot of companies are ditching the application clients to go with browser based solutions for this exact issue. It is a God-send from a support perspective, I speak from experience here.

Aside

There is also a link between browser based applications and web based applications. While they are similar they are also fundamentally different. Web based applications break out of the office domain and communicate with a server hosted by the software vendor. This has positives, negatives and many other issues, but that’s for another post.

Comment your way to the top

I have been chatting to various people about various marketing strategies over the past few weeks, as well as trying out Entrecard. My findings have been very interesting. The debate has largely been about whether different methods bring in visitors, and if those visitors are “valuable”.

Trying to get your head around marketing strategy can be really confusing. I find the easiest thing to do is consider yourself to be the “visitor”.

Do you consider yourself to be valuable? Personally I do think my visit is valuable. I don’t necessarily click on the adverts on someone’s blog, but I will read the posts, the comments, and I generally leave a comment along the way, providing I found the article interesting and have something useful to say.

Commenting as a strategy

Of course, when you leave a comment it also links back to your site. Some sites use no-follow and some do not, so in search engine terms the link may or may not be useful. For the purposes of this article we are talking about “useful” in human terms, not the world according to Google.

Looking at people blogs it is quite clear some people are using commenting as a marketing strategy. The same people crop up blog after blog, seemingly on a quest to get that “first!” comment below a post, as if that will magically get extra clicks to their site.

On a personal level I don’t think I have ever clicked these. I quite often scan down the comments and where I see someone making well informed (or just generally witty) comments I do click through to their site. In terms of a marketing strategy I am not so sure, but every little helps, SO LONG AS YOUR COMMENTS ARE USEFUL.

The danger with all these sort of things is the minority spoil it for the rest of us. If you get a few of these “spammers” (for want of a better word) trying to compete for the “first!” comment then it does dilute the quality a bit. Fortunately this blog has not been affected (so far) by this, although I know a few that have.

I must admit I do make an effort to comment wherever I go. I think it is polite. If someone hands you a book they have written and then you hand it back, it is polite to comment on what you think of it, especially if they have not charged you for the privilege of reading it. Blogs are the same. If someone has taken the time to write an article I want to let them know what I think of it.

Go forth and comment!

Some people seem afraid of commenting on blog posts. Please do not be afraid, as someone who spends quite a bit of time writing articles I can definitely say that all comments are welcome (providing they are constructive). If there are aspects that I write about that you think are poor, could be done better etc, I want to know! I aim to improve my articles as time goes on, and the comments I receive (good and bad) help me to do this. If it is determining what I could improve on, or just find out what topics people like to read more of, comments are what make it worthwhile.

How to compete – Lesson 1 : Don’t under-sell yourself

It is very easy, especially when embarking on a new business, to undersell your services. Whether it is rear of not getting the “win”, or lack of confidence in your ability or value in your product, it is very easy to pitch too low, to undersell yourself and ultimately to de-value your product or service.

Valuing a product, especially a non-tangible product such as web or graphic design, is a difficult task. If you are new to the business or just starting out on your own it can be a daunting one. You are sat there with no clients, trying, hoping, praying for your first contract. It is all too easy to take “doing whatever it takes” a little too far and lowering your price just to win the deal.

That’s not to say that you don’t need to compromise at all in the beginning. Many a company has fallen by the wayside by being over-confident in their ability, and more importantly in their potential to sell. When you don’t have the reputation behind you and the large client base of the large firms you need something different, something that separates you from the big boys, but in a good way. Just try not to make “price” the difference.

You will no doubt be well aware of the saying “you get what you pay for”. It is a well known and long established saying, and that didn’t happen by accident. As much as people don’t want to pay over the odds, they will also be wary of people charging too little. It is a balancing act, and one that needs careful consideration.

If you have a competitor who is charging less than you, try to work out why. Where do they save over the costs you have? Are they an economy of scale? Do they cut corners? Are they using sub-standard materials, or heaven-forbid are you charging too much? Be honest about all of this and have confidence in your product.

If there are reasons why they are charging less and you can identify them, then that is half the battle. While there are customers happy to save a few bucks, there are also customers who are focused on quality. In the long run customers will not thank a supplier for a lower price at the expense of quality. In time you will speak to potential customers and you WILL find many who have had bad experiences from people who in hindsight seemed “too cheap”.

The key to all of this is have confidence in your product, know your market, set a price you believe in and stick to it. Lack of belief in these things is often the reason people under-sell themselves.

People will pay for good products and good service, but before you can convince them you must convince yourself in the value of your product.

Your weaker work may be better than you think

When you look back at some of the work you have done, whether it be in the office, drawing, photography, writing, or poetry, you will probably have a rough idea in your mind what was your better work and what was not. The question is, are you correct?

Firstly this is a bit of an unfair question, as people produce things for many reasons. If you are producing something purely for yourself for example, then what you think is your best work is correct. However, putting that aside for a moment assume you are putting your work “out there”. Assume you do care what the general public, your friends and family think of your work. Would they agree with what is good and what is not?

My friend Matt is a keen (and dare I say “rather good”) photographer. He has embarked on “Project 365” which, for those of you not in the know, is a project whereby he takes at least one photo every day for a year, and publishes it on Flickr.

I tend to look at the daily photo every day, and sometimes there are a few. The other day he posted 3 photos of paragliders (he does that too, dontcha know!). I immediately said I love one of them, the second is pretty good albeit a bit “normal”, and not as keen on the last one (hey, he asked for honest critique!).  The thing we laughed about is my opinion was the EXACT opposite of his. While he understood my opinion, his take on it was different.

Who was right and who was wrong? Hard to say really, having just 2 opinions, it will be interesting to see your comments on what you think of the 3 candidates.

paraglider

paraglider 1

paraglider 2

paraglider 2

paraglider 3

paraglider 3

My point over and above finding out which photo is best, is more to make the point that if you have produced some work that you are questioning “putting out there”, because you think you have done better, do it anyway, or at least get a second opinion.

Some of our best work is often something we did not think much of at the time.