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Inspiration: On schedule or sporadically?

“I couldn’t possibly come up with something new to write every week.”

I was at a writers’ conference when a man I was talking to said these words. I’d just told him that I had started blogging again after a couple years of not writing online.

I could tell from his face that he was very sincere in his conviction that writing something new, for a blog or anything else, every week, like clockwork, was just overwhelming.

It made me think about the venture I’d jumped back into. Things all seem good and doable when you’re just looking at them as a “someday” idea. But now it was real. I was facing that pressure of coming up with fresh and relevant content each week.

Thinking about the conversation later, I could hear other, unspoken parts of this man’s conundrum:

He said: “I couldn’t possibly come up with something new to write every week.”

That really covers several things:

That’s a lot of words.
Yup. But then again, you decide how long posts you write. Shorter is better if it gets done and out regularly. Truly, most people would rather read 350 words from you every week than one long tome that’s 3500 words every 10 weeks. Plus they’ll forget you exist in the time in-between posts at that rate.

How long is that supposed to be?
Like I said, it’s up to you. Good SEO practices (and we all love SEO), recommend at least 300 words. So I tell people at least 350 words. More like 500. 750 is really good. You can get somewhere in that many words.

There are actually indications that people respond better to longer posts. 1000-2000 words. But that can be for later.

Every week?
The key word is regular. So your audience knows when to expect a new post. That means the same day and maybe even the same time. I have a few podcasts I like to listen to when I walk and I know when new ones are released and on the appointed day go looking for the next episode. That’s the anticipation you want your readers to have.

The longer in-between posts, the harder it is to get people to become regular readers.

That said, a post every day, might be overwhelming for most readers, so knowing your audience helps in figuring out how often you post.

And like I said, regular trumps almost everything else.

That’s going to require me to write on schedule, week in and week out.
Yeah, it’s a drag to have to be creative on a schedule. I wonder how Michelangelo felt about going to work every day for 4 years painting that ceiling in the Sistine Chapel. I bet there were a few days in there he didn’t feel like showing up. I mean, who’d notice if there was one figure missing?

Seriously, mom was right when she said “practice makes perfect”. Writing is like a muscle. It needs to be exercised and used and then it gets better.

I only have 3 good ideas. Then what?
This is a very common concern. And valid enough. We’ve all heard of the authors who wrote one book that made it big and never published anything again. But you and I don’t have to be like that. I really believe that everyone has 3 good ideas for articles, posts or even books. And 3 ideas is all you need to get started. Write those 3 posts and see what happens.

Chances are that the process of writing those posts will generate other ideas. I started back in blogging and had a handful of ideas. Haven’t even used all of them yet. But have a long list of ideas waiting to be written now. Creativity is funny that way. The more we use it, the more it produces.

Have only 1 idea? Awesome. Write the very best post you can on that idea. See what happens. I predict that in the process of writing that post, or when you let some friends read it, there will be a question or thought that didn’t fit into the post. Great. There’s the kernel for another post.

What if I miss the deadline one week? People will be upset.
Here’s the thing: You’re just starting out. You’re not one of the Kardashians. You (or I) don’t have millions of people waiting for our next post with bated breath. Your 3 readers (and mom) will forgive you for missing a week. Maybe not 2 weeks, but one they’ll be understanding with. So just pick it back up and go on.

My writing won’t be any good. No it probably won’t be. Seriously, remember that bit about practice makes perfect? Yeah, we all have to start somewhere.

One of the first days in Photography School, our teacher had us all photograph a couple assignments: a portrait and a still life. Then we sealed up the finished pictures and put them away.

2 years later, when we were ready to graduate, he had us open those sealed images and take a look at our work from when we started the training. Did we do our best on those 2 first assignments? Sure. And 2 years later, when we were trained photographers, did we realize how awful they looked? Oh yeah. In fact, it would be pretty sad if we hadn’t majorly improved with 2 years of training and practice.

Your writing will be like that too. Write your best stuff now, keep writing and learning and in a few years, your writing will be much improved.

I could’t possibly come up with new content each week. Did I mention that?
Well, you might have. Steven Pressfield, author of fiction, non-fiction and screenplays, talks about resistance in writing. We all face it. Resistance in getting going, resistance to continuing and resistance to finishing.

Pre-judging the ability to come up with ideas to write about is just that: experiencing resistance.

Nothing worth writing about ever happens to me.
Uh no, I’m pretty sure it does. But I get you. I know speakers who always have all these illustrations of what’s happened to them and experiences they’ve had. It’s not that they have so much more exciting lives. You and I can have good stories and illustrations too. It starts by making notes. Things happen to us and around us each and every day. It’s a mindset to note them down for later. Many successful writers journal. It’s not a coincidence.

Writer at computer, visibly struggling for inspiration
That’s a lot of stuff to remember!
Sure. Really comes down to this though: Don’t say you can’t until you’ve tried it. Really tried it. Put writing time on the calendar so you remember to do it. Start and then do it. And keep at it.

At this year’s Tribe Conference, Jeff Goins, writer and speaker, showed the 8 blogs he started (and dropped) before he made it as a writer. What finally made the difference for him was making a commitment to showing up, doing the work on a regular basis and keeping on doing that over time.

That’s where it starts for any of us: Moving out of “I can’t” or “Maybe someday” to “I’m going to do it now.” And then keeping at it long enough to see how and if it will fly.

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Is Google marking your website “Not Secure”?

It’s finally happened. Google is visibly marking websites as “not secure”.

They told us they would do it, a long time ago. And now they are.

So it’s not a problem, right?

Wrong. There are still lots of websites that are “Not Secure”.

Is yours one of them?

What’s the deal? A website is a website is a website, right?

Not when it comes to the security of your information.

Chrome browser shows page is Not Secure once text is entered on form
Start typing on the form — even one letter — and Google Chrome displays the HTTP page as “Not Secure”

Here’s what Google is now doing in their Chrome browser: When you go to a regular HTTP website page that has any place to enter information (search field, message form, order form and so on), the very moment you start typing, the page will display “Not Secure” in the address field at the top of the browser window.

And if you use the incognito mode in Chrome, ALL webpages that are HTTP will display “Not Secure”.

Is that bad? YES!!

That’s enough to make me think twice about entering personal information on that website. That means missed inquiries, lost orders, fewer donations!

Just a rough guesstimate: How much will this cost your organization? (Hint: more than the cost to upgrade to HTTPS)

I covered the details of what a secure website is in this post earlier this year. Check it out for all the details: Is your website secure?

On a regular HTTP website (that’s been the standard until recently), when you enter information anywhere on that site (search field, message form, order form, payment info), that information is sent back to the server where the website resides in PLAIN TEXT. Makes it really easy to steal that info.

It’s like putting all your banking info on a postcard and mailing it off. Of course you wouldn’t do that.

The better and new standard is for communication between your browser and the website server to be encrypted, so it can’t be read along the way by prying eyes. Banks have used HTTPS for a long time. It’s time for the rest of us to wake up and think secure.

It’s a relatively simple change for most website owners. It does involve some cost and may mean moving to a new website host or at least a different hosting plan, but the added security is well worth it.

Just stop and think for a moment: Will your customers or constituents be happy to provide their personal information on a form that clearly displays “Not Secure” in the address field?

You may say, oh, but that’s only in Google’s Chrome browser. I don’t use that browser.

Great. Can you vouch for all your customers or constituents that they don’t use Chrome?

I predict that now that Chrome has opened the floodgate on tagging web pages with forms that are not secure, the other browsers will follow suit and it won’t be long before sites that are using regular HTTP will be displayed as “Not Secure” even if you don’t have a form on the page.

All the phishing and spoofing where-less-than-honest people create look-alike websites to get unsuspecting website visitors to give up their personal information means this will not go away.

HTTPS is the new standard for all websites. Don’t be the last to make the switch.

Today there is absolutely no reason to launch a new website that isn’t using HTTPS. Even if it’s just one page, with no form.

And there’s no reason to not update any and all existing websites to HTTPS. None at all.

Will my web hosting costs go up? Maybe a bit, depending on if you have to change hosting plans and the cost of your security certificate. But if you upgrade to a better hosting plan in the process, your website will be faster and more reliable, so a win-win.

Isn’t it a lot of hassle to switch to HTTPS? A little work, yes. But it’s a one-time deal.

Will my website be unavailable for a long time when making the switch? No. Good planning will minimize any downtime to a time when your site doesn’t receive much traffic anyway. Downtime could be as little as 20-30 minutes.

Value of increased customer confidence? Priceless.

HTTPS secure website displayed in Safari, Firefox and Chrome on the left. HTTP website displayed in  Firefox and Chrome (with "Not Secure" warning" on right.
Now tell me which you’d rather trust: The one on the left that shows up in ANY browser as SECURE (with a padlock) or the one on the right with no indicator by it and that displays “Not Secure” as soon as you enter any information on it in the Chrome browser?

Okay, I’m convinced. What do I need to do?

  • Talk to your webmaster or hosting provider. They are familiar with your current hosting setup and can advise you on what changes/upgrades need to be made to switch over to HTTPS for your website.
  • Don’t have a webmaster? Thinking of changing your hosting provider? Contact me for a free Website Review or Consultation and I can explore your options with you. Contact me now.
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One logo does not a brand make

Coffee shop in the morning. I’m there meeting with a small business owner who wants a website. He’s good at what he does, has been doing it for a while, and now wants a website to promote his business. Fair enough.

We start talking. About him. About what he does. About his customers. The word “branding” drops into the conversation. I get a blank look from him, as he ponders. Then he perks up:

“I have a logo. With green and blue. That’s branding, right?”

I have to give him a partial point. Logo and colors are part of branding. But that’s just it — only a small part of something much larger.

What is branding anyway?

More than ever, branding is about perception. The customer’s perception far more than the business owner’s.

Some approach branding as the business owner’s opportunity to define what she wants her business to be and then tell the world. However, the world may or may not agree.

When my daughter was 3 and I’d say something she didn’t agree with, her go-to phrase was: “Dad, you’re ruining my perception.”

Yeah, no idea where she picked up that big word, but couldn’t fool her. And that’s true for a business and its customers as well. If the branding isn’t consistent and doesn’t resonate with the customers, it just won’t work. No matter how fancy the logo or pretty the colors. This is true for a product or service and it’s true for an entire brand.

Branding is about perception and getting your perception and that of your customers to match as much as possible.

2 big “Why’s”

Another thing my daughter did when she was 3, was to always ask “Why?” Quick, simple explanations didn’t work. There was always a “Why?” coming.

In branding there are 2 big Why’s that we need to deal with.

The first is your big altruistic why. That’s a fancy way of saying you need to really know why you’re in business. It’s your mission.

A couple examples:

Google, from 1998: “Organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”

Nike: “To bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world.”

The second is your selfish why. You need to know this because it’s what keeps you going when things get tough. But it’s not necessarily something you’ll put out in front of everybody.

Example: “My business allows me to live the lifestyle I choose, while having flexible hours and work locations, taking time out when I need to for family activities.”

Figuring out those 2 why’s clears up a lot of confusion. While you may know the selfish why right off the bat, the altruistic why will crystallize out much later in the process, after the next several steps.

Ask around

Branding is about perception, so we need to find out what people think.

If you already have customers, ask them. What do they think of your business/organization? What is the value you provide them that others don’t/can’t? What 3-5 words would they use to describe you and your service/product? What are you not providing them that you could provide them?

Get in a dialog. Have conversations. Ideally, talk to people face to face or on the phone. With a larger customer base, a survey will help you learn more about your customers’ needs and wants.

If you haven’t started yet, or have a small customer base, step out and connect with people in your target audience. What makes them tick? What are their needs in your area of service/product? What are their pain points? Where do they go to gather information?

As always, the quality of the information gathered will depend on the level of questions asked and how the conversations are conducted.

You may also find that customers are more open to talking about your business (good and not so good) when it’s a 3rd party asking the questions and they know they won’t be identified.

And now for a diagram

Branding is about collecting a lot of different pieces of information and putting them together in a way that makes sense. Often a Venn diagram is used. It shows all the possible relationships between the involved variables.

Venn diagram for branding showing how the different components overlap and interact to form the brandStarting with “What I offer” and “Who I serve”, those usually are fairly easy to figure out. “How I am different” can get trickier. It’s often not what we think it is. For instance, “I provide personal service” won’t cut it. I may feel that’s very unique, but so do many of the others out there doing what I do.

Once those 3 are defined, we can look at Niche (combination of Offer and Serve), Tribe (where Serve and Different overlap) and Value (where Offer and Different overlap).

Finally that small area where all overlap gets us to the Brand.

The process involves writing statements for each area, moving inwards, ending up with the Brand, which is the sum of all the other items.

It’s a process that will take work, refinement and iteration, but once done, produces a roadmap that is very helpful for determining messaging and how I relate to customers.

Are we there yet?

All this is a starting point. But if you get this far, you’ve gone further than many other businesses and organizations and as a result, you know yourself and your customers far better.

Formulating new branding starts with lots of research and dialog. That provides a solid foundation to get creative with brand messaging, value proposition, design direction, and yes, eventually that new logo.

To go through a whole branding process in one blog post is impossible. What should be clear is that your branding is so much more than a logo and a couple colors. A very key component is understanding your customers.

Time and effort spent on a branding process is well worth it as the result will help set you apart from competition as well as connect you with your customers for a long time to come.

Finally, a good brand is always developing, always refining. The dialog with customers must never stop.

What won’t work is to expect someone else to just come up with all the branding for you, with no involvement from you.

Can you do this by yourself? Maybe. There are lots of resources available. But it really helps to have someone from the outside who can look at things dispassionately involved in the process. That will push the process deeper and bring better results.

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Back to the future

“We’re too late to do a full campaign this year, since Thanksgiving is next week,” the Boss said. “But next year, we’ll definitely start earlier and have a killer setup for Black Friday and Cyber Monday.”

Question: Do you think that a year from now the Boss will:
A — have an awesome campaign in place, prepared well in advance and no last minute panic
B — repeat the line above, while promising to really, really have a killer setup for the next year

If you picked B, congratulations, you have keen insight into the Boss’ mind.

I’ve worked in a too many places over the years where last minute seemed to reign (and lost opportunities were abundant).

Wish I’d thought of that sooner

There was the summer job in print shop waaay back in High School. A festival rolled into town and the print shop owner, Lars, had the brilliant idea to sell T-shirts there. Because everyone wants a T-shirt. Never mind that the festival was already going.

Of course, now we were buying the T-shirts (plain, white) at full retail, wherever we could find them in town.

Next we printed those T-shirts and then Lars was off to the festival with his buddies to hawk them. It went well at first. Then not so well.

You have to know your audience demographics to predict sizing quantities. We didn’t.

So the festival ended, Lars was stuck with a bunch of unsold T-shirts in odd sizes and I still wonder if he actually made any money at all.

How different it could have been if he had planned ahead and started several months earlier. T-shirts could have been purchased wholesale at much lower cost and in a proper range of sizes. Arrangements could have been made to make the selling easier and so on.

Broadcast deadlines or the show must go on

When I worked at Iowa State University, I produced an annual TV series that aired on Public TV in Iowa. 4 programs in a series, air dates set in stone months ahead. No fudging. If I didn’t deliver the tape to the TV station by deadline, it didn’t go on. So I had to be sure to set a realistic schedule for how long it would take to write, edit and finish each program. (Research, travel and recording all happened earlier in the year.)

In script writing, I’d send drafts to the content specialists for their input. If none came by the deadline, I moved on and they lost their chance to give input.

In video editing, I had clear goals of how much finished video needed to be created in each hour of editing. Scripts were color coded to show their state of completion so I could tell how much work was left at any given moment

Finally, I’d drive the finished tape over to Iowa Public TV, always with a just a little time to spare.

Most of us in business exist somewhere between those 2 extremes. We hit some deadlines or milestone dates right on and others, well, we’ll try better next time.

Saving Mary

Many businesses function in a cycle. It may be the seasons of the year or events that happen at the same time every year or holidays during the year. For some the cycle mirrors the academic calendar.

Very few businesses/organizations have no cycle at all. (If you think you fit in this category, think again about your customers/constituents. What cycles are their lives governed by that might affect how they connect with your business/organization?

Last year I sat down with a small business owner, Mary, who was struggling to have the right message/promotion out to her customers at the right times of the year. I asked her how much it would be worth to her not to worry about that and have it all just happen. “A lot,” she said with no hesitation.

So we pulled out a calendar and an hour later had a rough plan for the next year. Things became much clearer when we looked at a whole year on one sheet of paper.

It didn’t take long to pinpoint the key events and holidays during the year that needed special messaging. Then we could fill in around that with suitable messaging and promotions based on the month or season.

Planning wasn’t that hard. Execution is another matter and Mary was happy to let me worry about that part.

The secret sauce is backtiming (aka starting at the end)

The master calendar has the overview of the year. From there, each event, holiday message, piece of content can be backtimed to when prep needs to start, based on when it’s happening.

Project calendar showing backtiming at work, starting with project due date and including all componentsLet’s do an example
If Thanksgiving is on November 23, and the Thanksgiving message should be on your website for 2 weeks prior, that means it has to be live on 11/9. But we don’t want to get materials delivered “just in time”, because things happen. So allow 2 days for a buffer. Then we know that writing needs 2 days and graphics 2 days. That takes us to 11/3, but that’s if we work through the weekend (we don’t), so really need to start 11/1. Prior to that someone has to figure out what the content of the message should be. Figure the muse needs 2 days, so that has to start on 10/30.

And there you have it. Start on 10/30, everyone does their part and sticks to the milestone dates – life will be good and content published right on schedule.

Here’s the process again:

  • Consider every step that goes into producing the product, post or message.
  • Assign realistic time to each step.
  • Add in a bit of a buffer at the end or between milestones if it’s a long project. Because Murphy.
  • You know when it has to be done and live/in use.
  • From that count backwards and assign real dates to when each step needs to be started.

As a bonus, the end result will be so much better than the rushed product that happens with no pre-planning.

Rinse and repeat

Yes, it’s a pain to do all that the first time around. Fortunately processes repeat. Events during the year will have similar/same steps and time requirements. Same is true for writing content for your website or holiday messages. It’s getting easier already.

You now have a detailed master calendar that includes important steps along the way. You can look at any given day and see what needs to be done next to keep everything on schedule.

Just one more ingredient: Discipline to actually do these items when they pop up on the calendar. Yes, we built in a little fudge time, but too much fudge, well, it’s not good for the waistline or the deadline.

One more thing

Once the launch date/publication date is past, take a moment right then to review the process. Make notes of what worked well and what didn’t. Adjust the plan for next time. Because in a year when this rolls around again, you will have forgotten these lessons. And then it will be relearning all over.

Questions:
Does your business have a masterplan for product, content and promotions for the year? How could you improve that plan?
Do you find yourself repeatedly starting out late to prep for the next upcoming thing? What can you do today towards changing that?

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Set a goal to finish

I was somewhere halfway through the process of raising support to become a missionary. As I started that process, goals were set. Make calls, meet with people, get new donors on your team, raise X $ of new support each week and complete the process in 2 years. Sounded easy enough. Should be doable.

But now it was almost 2 years into the process and I was only about halfway there. The perfectionist in me was not happy with the progress. Then one late night, a missionary friend, Jerry, called and asked how I was doing. I told him. What he said next, surprised me.

I expected him to reiterate the goal and tell me that I needed to work harder. Instead he simply said: “Claes, you may need to adjust the goal a bit.” After I picked up the phone from dropping it, I felt a weight lifted. Here was a man I admired, who had been through the same process, with the same expectations, who told me that maybe the goal was unrealistic for how life was playing out and needed to be adjusted. What he did not say was that I was a loser and fired.

With his encouragement (and others), I went on to finish the support raising (yes, it took longer than planned) and served as a missionary for over 10 years, with many faithful supporters who stood by me and my family the whole time.

Goals are a very elusive thing. Did you know that 90+% of New Year’s resolutions fail? Before the end of January!

And over time we tend to remember those FAILURES even more than the goals we did accomplish.

There’s even a name for remembering interrupted or incomplete tasks: The Zeigarnik Effect (No, this is not going to turn into an episode of the Big Bang Theory — this will stay very plain, for regular folks like you and me.)

The Zeigarnik Effect describes a phenomenon where for instance a waiter has better recollection of incomplete orders than of completed ones. After the order is complete and paid, he might not be able to recall the details of that order.

So what does that have to do with goals for life or work? Glad you asked. The idea is that when we set goals and then don’t complete them (for whatever reason), we’ll recall those goals more vividly than goals we did accomplish.

I talked with James who had just celebrated his 50th wedding anniversary. For the celebration, his kids had put together a big photo and video montage showing 50 years of marriage playing out. I commented on how many trips and events were included in that program. James’ response: “Yes, I guess we did do a lot.” To him the years all blended together and he wasn’t seeing all the accomplishments along the way.

That happens for me too. There are evenings when I write my journal and I have to mentally stretch to recall what took place during the day. Because the tasks were completed and I moved on.

But the goal from last year I didn’t reach, I remember most vividly.

If we’re not careful, that becomes our narrative: “I don’t get anything done. I set goals and then don’t complete them. Failure is my middle name.”

The solution?

I’ve worked with people who love the idea of BHAG, Big Hairy, Audacious Goal. The bigger the better. After all, that sounds really awesome in a meeting with the leadership team. Trouble is, it’s easy to proclaim and a lot more difficult to deliver. While some BHAGs are completed (think John F Kennedy’s goal in 1961 of putting a man on the moon before the end of the decade), all too many are great proclamations that fizzle and get swept under the carpet, never to be heard from again.

Instead, consider author and leadership mentor Michael Hyatt’s favorite: AACTION goals:

  • Actionable — begins with a verb
  • Aligned — with season of life, values and other goals
  • Challenging — set high enough to demand your best efforts
  • Time-bound — actual dates to accomplish the goal by (but not the same date for all)
  • Inspiring — exciting, motivating, definitely not boring
  • Objective — includes internal criteria by which progress can be evaluated
  • Narrow — focused, specific, not general

Okay, that makes sense. It’s a bit of work to write out goals in this format, but the process makes you think it all through. You now have a good roadmap for the journey ahead.

Business coach and brand strategist Marisa Murgatroyd encourages 3 level goals:

  • Minimum goal — what I really absolutely have to get done
  • Target goal — what should get done and is possible given time and resources
  • Stretch goal — what would be really nice to accomplish and would provide a surplus effect

The idea is that the Minimum Goal is a worthy goal, although on the safe side. Likelihood of reaching it is quite good, assuming I do the work.

The Target goal is in the realm of possible, but will require some serious effort to reach.

The Stretch goal is when the stars align and things go really well. Out there, but still in the same galaxy. It could happen.

Reaching any of the goal levels equals accomplishing the goal. The celebration will be bigger or smaller depending on which level you reached. I like this approach.

Just one more tweak.

Recently at the Tribe Conference, bestselling author Jon Acuff was one of the speakers. If you have a room full of writers and creatives, the thing to definitely do is bring in the guy who wrote the book on finishing (in case you didn’t know, creative types are notorious for not finishing things).*

Jon focuses on getting the size of the goal right. We think we can get more done in the available time than we really can. But if we cut the goal in half, we’re 63% more likely to succeed.

So it’s important to dream right from the start.

He also stresses the importance of FUN. Make the goal fun if you want it done.

When we ignore the above, we’re really planning to fail.

Equally important is to understand our motivation for accomplishing the goal. Is it to gain a reward or because we fear a consequence?

At the end of the day, where would you rather be at the end of the year?

With 3 awesome, huge, stupendous goals unaccomplished (but thanks for playing and trying, better luck next time, your mileage may vary, batteries not included) or with 3 right-sized goals accomplished? Which will make you feel better and put you in a good position for the next set of goals? And which outcome will involve a celebration?

Okay, one more thing.

My friend Jerry helped me see when a goal had become unrealistic and make adjustments. Having a trusted friend or two we can share goals with and who ask how we are really doing is worth its weight in gold.

As I write this, October is right around the corner. Time to review how this year has gone and make a good finish, while also thinking about next year. Definitely time for right-sized goals.

*Jon Acuff did write the book on finishing. It’s called Finish. Get it on Amazon and become a finisher.

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