Coupon codes are a terrible idea! It’s time to re-evaluate your marketing.

Whether you celebrate Thanksgiving or not, it’s impossible to miss the massive frenzy of “black friday” and “cyber monday” discounts and deals that first started appearing a week ago and are disappearing as this post goes out.

Here’s something to ponder if you’re running a business: coupon codes are a terrible idea.

I mean this in two ways:

  1. Seasonal discounts are a terrible idea.
  2. Coupon codes are the worst way of doing discounts.

If you’ve just run a Thanksgiving sale, it may be time to rethink this for the New Year. I appreciate this probably isn’t what you want to hear, but whilst there are some exceptions (and we’ll come to them later), hear me out on this.

Seasonal discounts are a terrible idea

“Discounts punish your pre-existing customers and train future customers not to by until you have a discount.”Sean McCabe

I’m not a fan of discounts. They tell people who’ve already bought from you “you should have waited for a discount” and potential customers “don’t bother buying until we have a discount”.

Thinking of it like this shows discounts to be disincentivising purchases, the very opposite of what they’re supposed to be doing.

Here’s a quick case study: last week I purchased a bunch of Mac software. I thought it was a bit expensive at full price and the purchase was desirable but not urgent, so I just waited until the Black Friday sales I could see from Googling happen every year.

There is space for doing discounts within this framework, and this is more or less the only space I think they’re worth doing: launch discounts to reward early customers that are never repeated.

Launch discounts are an effective way of creating urgency and driving early sales, but for these to work the launch discount price needs to be the best price you ever offer. Those early adopters need to be rewarded by having the best possible price, not mocked/punished by seeing a lower price in six months when you run out of marketing ideas.

You could argue launch discounts are just a temporary lower price and there’s no discount at all, but the semantics are mostly irrelevant. The important point is when you do discounts you’re telling current customers if they’d waited they could have had a lower price and future customers to wait for a discount before purchasing. You’re disincentivising purchases.

Coupon codes are the worst way of doing discounts

The second line of my argument is coupon codes are the worst way of doing discounts.

Here’s why:

  1. I’m buying something from your shop.
  2. I decide what I want and add it to my basket.
  3. I go to pay. I’m ready to buy.
  4. I see a box for a coupon code. I don’t have one!
  5. I search for a discount and click an affiliate link to reveal a discount.
  6. I add the coupon code and purchase, with a 20% saving made.

You should never offer discounts once a customer has made a purchasing decision. Discounts should be used to ensure a purchasing decision is made, but offering them after that decision is just throwing money away.

By showing a coupon code box at the checkout, you’re telling customers who have already decided to buy that they can get a discount when they were literally about to purchase at full price. It’s not just me saying this btw.

When you offer the option to enter coupon codes at checkout, a decent proportion of your customers will now proceed to Google your site + discount and pocket whatever discount they can find.

What’s more, most sites collating coupons will then demand you click an affiliate link to reveal the discount – so you suddenly lose the x% on the coupon code and x% in affiliate payout. This could quite easily be 50%+ of the original price, lost totally unnecessarily.

You see what I mean when I say coupon codes are a terrible idea?

The solution here, if you are going to do discounts, is to do discounts without coupon codes. Append a query to your site’s URL instead, so the discount is only available to customers specifically coming from the place the discount was intended for. SellwithWP has details on how to do this with EDD and here’s how to do it with WooCommerce.

Other mooted solutions include conditionally displaying a coupon box, but the URL method is easier to implement. How you do this doesn’t really matter, what’s more important is you are doing something to hide the coupon box.

There are exceptions to this

And I’m not just saying this so friends reading this won’t think I’m being too much of a dick about it. There are some scenarios where discounts make sense and some ways of doing discounts better if you really want to do them.

The type of product is important. Are you selling a commoditised product or a luxury one? You can probably make a strong argument that commoditised products – where price is one of the main competition points – need discounts to keep sales up and customers expect to see occasional discounts. I’m not going to make such an argument, but I can see it could make sense. You cannot, however, make such an argument for luxury products.

You can avoid problems by keeping discounts quiet. Discounts disincentivise purchases as future customers can see lower prices are available and they should wait. If there’s no way of future customers finding your discounts, there’s no §disincentive. In practice this might mean offering exclusive discounts to your email list or perhaps to current customers on an additional purchase.

Note this rules out running big promotional discounts and posting to your blog or social media; I still maintain these are a bad idea.

Truly seasonal discounts are probably okay. I get I’m British and don’t really understand Thanksgiving. If you really want to do a Thanksgiving sale and be part of the community and all that, you can do, but make sure they’re truly seasonal sales and not run with the regularity that future customers can just wait for the next sale before purchasing.

You can mitigate some of the problems with coupon codes. If you really want to keep your coupon codes available to everyone, there are some things you can do to mitigate the problem:

  1. Keep tight control over what codes are available. Make sure “finished” codes expire and sites can’t collate dozens of possibly working coupons.
  2. Only offer codes to new customers, or for SaSS products for the first x months. This makes sure coupons work as lead generation.
  3. Dominate the search results for your own coupons. This is my favourite! Avoid paying out affiliate fees by making sure customers come to your site when they search for coupon codes. This is as simple as making a page on your site with a list of available coupon codes. Namecheap does this really well, as do WPZOOM.

Of course, the easiest way to avoid problems with coupon codes is simply not to use them 😉

I maintain coupon codes are rubbish

My thesis here is strong. Coupons tell potential customers “wait until we do a sale” and current customers “you should have waited for a sale”. Furthermore, the coupon box at checkout throws away a huge chunk of revenue in discounts and affiliate fees to customers who were just about to buy at full price.

If you really want to do discounts, there are ways of doing them better, but for most products I just don’t see the value.

So, in sum: coupon codes are a terrible idea.

P.S. If you’re reading this, nodding along and thinking you should change your marketing strategy but don’t know how… drop me an email.

Secrets from writing, editing and publishing 1,000+ blog posts

I write a lot of blog posts. In the last eight or nine years I’ve written over one thousand posts on WPShout, the old incarnation of this site, a video game review site I used to run with friends and assorted places like the Miniclip Blog.

These days I write here every week, I’m constantly writing for MasterWP and writing is an integral part of my freelance work.

In this time I’ve tried out more or less every writing trick and “hack” in the book. I’m always looking for ways to improve, but at this stage I’m pretty happy I’ve gotten the writing process well optimised.

If you’re writing anything — regularly, occasionally, or less than you want — then there’s likely something here that can help. This is what my writing process looks like, a thousand posts later.

Coming up with good ideas is the most important step

A lot of writing advice is “write more” or “just start writing 1,000 words per day”. This is only partially helpful. It’s misleading to suggest you can just sit down and write 1,000 words before breakfast; you first need to know what to write about.

In my experience, coming up with ideas is the most difficult part and once you’ve got a good idea the rest is pretty straightforward. Once you have a good idea, the rest is straightforward – but start with a bad or unoriginal post idea and you’re probably wasting your time.

I have two ways of coming up with ideas:

  1. Brainstorming: set aside an hour, sit down with a blank piece of paper and come up with ten blog post ideas and an outline for each. You’ll probably get to four or five fairly easily, but the rest will be tough: spend long enough sat there and you’ll eventually come up with the ideas.
  2. Randomly: the best post ideas come randomly. In the shower, on a run, doing some other work – for these stop right away and note down a title and outline. Any note-taking method will do, but I like Simplenote for its fast multi-platform tools.

The best post ideas come from experience. This is absolutely vital to understand. If you’re struggling to come up with ideas, think of things you’ve struggled with or solved in your own work. What new approach did you take that was helpful? How did you solve the problem? Write this up and you’ll have a great post.

On the other side of the coin, mediocre blog posts come from leveraging other people’s experiences.

I’ve been guilty of this in the past: if you’re heavily quoting other public work (i.e. other posts, books, talks etc) then you’re not contributing anything new, you’re just collating other opinions. The vast majority of posts that rely on block quotes for authority and to advance argument just aren’t that great. Where these quotes are original interviews we can make an exception, but these are a minority of cases.

The best posts are straight-up new ideas or old ideas done better. Write something new, write something interesting. Don’t just regurgitate what other people have said already.

 Writing faster by using a dedicated writing app

I publish everything in WordPress but do all my writing elsewhere for maximum writing productivity.

I’ve tried a lot of unreasonably expensive writing apps and the best I’ve used is Ulysses. If you’re on Mac this is almost certainly the best option (see The Sweet Setup for more).

Ulysses’ distraction-free UI is useful for deep work when writing – it leaves you with your writing as the only thing on the screen and no space for distraction. I use the Yosemite theme for a nice dark background.

The word count goal is also useful: I’ll typically write posts in a couple of sittings, so I can aim for 1,000 words each time I sit down to write.

Ulysses for Mac is the best writing app. Display of the writing interface in Ulysses.

The hybrid markdown writing process is another strength. You get all the benefits of markdown but in a slightly more user-friendly way. Ulysses also has really good autocorrect that will fix even the most egregious typos and spelling mistakes. This is a huge time saver and lets you “keep the flow” when writing, instead of backspacing to fix errors.

Once I’m done writing in Ulysses I’ll copy the post as HTML and paste into WordPress. This retains all the formatting and links. From there you can optimise and add images. We’ll cover those later.

Quick note: if you’re using PC, sadly there’s not the same range of writing apps available. I used MarkdownPad for a long time and think that’s still the best available.

Editing

I’ve written about the importance of the editing process before. If you usually don’t edit your blog posts, read that first.

A lot of what I talk about in the editing process post is making writing web-ready. This involves using styling and paragraph breaks to highlight key points and generally being concise. After you’ve been doing this for a while it becomes something you do as you’re writing, so typically I don’t need to spend a lot of time editing.

That said, there are two types of post:

  1. Posts that are good and just need checking over. For these I’ll run After the Deadline (part of Jetpack) and read through the post in preview mode. This usually catches everything.
  2. Posts that need to be improved. These generally require improving arguments and reworking structure. Just gotta put the time in with these.

It’s much more preferable to get to editing and have a post which fits the first description. The best way to do this is to plan properly and read what you’ve written as you go through (effectively self-edit posts as you’re writing). I spoke about planning posts properly at WordCamp London.

I’ve also started working with a professional editor on larger freelance projects. I’m hoping this will further tighten my arguments and writing, but only started doing this very recently so the jury is out on recommending this. For regular blog posts self-editing as described above is perfectly adequate.

For bonus points on this, building a custom layout for your post can make it really engaging. Karol does a great job with this on codeinwp, and with a page builder (or Gutenberg!) this is pretty easy to do. WPShout reviewed Beaver Builder and highly recommends it, and I’m inclined to agree.

 Writing good titles

Once a post is finished I’ll look again at the title. I used to follow formulaic guidelines on writing titles, but I’ve found very little merit in doing this; you just get the same kinds of shitty clickbait titles everyone else has. These are no good.

The best technique I’ve found for coming up with good titles is to just come up with three of four different versions of the title. With each iteration, the title gets better. Here’s what I had for this post:

  • Tools I use to write, edit and publish blog posts
  • Tools I use to write, edit and publish blog posts quickly
  • How I write, edit and publish blog posts efficiently
  • How I wrote, edited and published 1000+ blog posts
  • Secrets from writing, editing and publishing 1,000+ blog posts

The first title is what the first draft of this post was written as. It accurately describes the content in the post, but isn’t very exciting. I kept on revising until I had something which adds intrigue (the “secrets”) and authority (I’ve written a lot of blog posts). The resulting title is a lot more exciting than the original.

Optimising images

Image optimisation is an important part of the editing process. If you’re writing in WordPress it makes sense to add your images as you go, but I prefer to do them all in bulk at once at the end.

This is not just a case of throwing some images into your post. I highly recommend using images to illustrate examples, but not just for the sake of it. You’ll note posts on this blog are virtually image-free – in part as an aesthetic choice and in part cause they’re only necessary in very few cases.

Alright, so once you have good images you can add them in. I run images through ImageOptim (Mac only but lists PC alternatives) to cut down files sizes. This little app does a great job (I’ve even started using it to compress my photo archive – you can preserve EXIF data and image quality) and can hugely cut file sizes. I generally don’t worry about resizing images as Jetpack handles this.

This isn’t hard: just make sure you’re doing it.

There’s more to publishing than pressing publish

Publishing is obviously just a case of hitting Publish in WordPress, but if you just do that chances are nobody will read your post. Promoting a post really doesn’t take long, but you do need to actually do it.

I have a set promotion plan for blog posts. I’d strongly recommend formulating one of your own and just repeating it every time you publish: this makes it a much faster process. Here’s what I do:

  • Automatically tweet the post. I use Jetpack for this.
  • Post on a minimum of two social sharing sites. Typically find an appropriate subreddit, ManageWP if it’s WordPress-related, Hacker News for tech/productivity stuff and GrowthHackers or Inbound for marketing content.
  • Contact anyone I’ve mentioned in the article and give them a link. I don’t do this a lot, but if I’ve heavily relied on a source or given someone a nice mention I’ll drop them an email or tweet with a link. I don’t ask for anything – just provide a link. They’ll share if they like it. Hunter is great for finding email addresses.
  • Outreach to relevant weekly link roundup emails or posts is great. Find these by Googling industry + weekly roundup but set the results to only show in the last month.

None of this is difficult, but because it feels like your post is “done” once you hit publish, seldom is enough time spent on promotion. Not every post will be a social hit, but don’t worry about; keep producing really good content and keep sharing it and eventually people will take notice.

Content promotion also isn’t an open-ended task: see above for what I do, but make a list of what’s best for the kind of content you produce and stick to it every time you publish a post.

Finally, I have a bunch of statistics I track which I enter every Monday morning. This lets me see how last week’s post did, how the site is growing (or not) and how changes in the last week fit in with the bigger picture.

A couple of tools I use here that are useful:

  • Jetpack (again) for site stats. I also have Google Analytics installed, by Jetpack is fine.
  • Serplab for checking keyword rankings. I enter the keyword for that week’s post and note any changes to other posts.
  • Majestic for checking backlinks. I just make a note of the total number and see how it’s changed from last week.

Other than this, I don’t check stats; scheduling it for once a week stops it being a procrastination task but makes sure you’re on top of what’s happening. I wrote more about my targets a couple of weeks ago.

Write more, write faster and keep publishing

You don’t have to write a thousand words before breakfast, but writing regularly is useful. Publishing regularly is even better. I’ve found when I get out of the habit of publishing putting any work out there becomes more difficult.

Not everything you write is going to be earth-shattering, but publish once a week and you’ll become a much better writer for it – and maybe then you’ll write something earth-shattering.

It’s also important not to overcomplicate this. Don’t feel you need the perfect writing app or the perfect post idea or the perfect title before you start. The “secrets” here are the things I’ve gotten better at in the last eight or so years, they’re not essential prerequisites for starting out now.

There’s a lot in this post. Don’t treat it as a must-follow blueprint, but take advantage of the things I’ve learned and use the ones which suit you to become a better writer. And, if you write a post that changes the world, do let me know 🙂

Here’s what you should do to escape the social media echo chamber

Nobody expected Donald Trump to become President-Elect Trump, not even his own team. The polls were wrong, the pundits were wrong but one of the most incredible things is 55 percent of Democrats and 58 percent of Republicans have very unfavourable views of the other party. Over half of both parties are “fearful” or “afraid” of the opposite party.

This last statistic is almost as incredible as Mr Trump winning the election: most voters on each side regard the other as something to be feared.

This is certainly a sentiment I’m familiar with: in May 2015 I found it inconceivable anyone could vote for David Cameron’s Conservatives (they won a majority) and in June this year I found it very difficult to see Brexit as an appealing option (that won as well).

The 2015 General Election election, Brexit and now President Trump has left me in no doubt the failure to understand the effect of the social media “echo chamber” is a serious cause of our collective failure to understand the opposition’s point of view.

There’s been collective outpouring in the media in recent days navel-gazing about how we got into this mess, but the more important question here is how do we get out of this mess?

Enter the echo chamber

Whilst I just gently mocked media navel-gazing about how we go to this state of affairs, to understand how to get out the echo chamber we need to understand how we got in the thing in the first place.

The idea of the echo chamber has been around for a long time (this paper was published in 1966), but social media has amplified its prevalence. An echo chamber is:

A phenomen whereby groups of people in possession of homogenous ideas exist in isolation to those who think differently from them.

This becomes a problem when:

  1. People have Facebook friends who agree with them on political issues.
  2. Facebook becomes people’s number one news source.

If you get your news from Facebook and everyone on Facebook agrees with you, you can see how easily you could think the opposing party are outright dangerous.

The problem is heightened by Facebook’s news feed algorithm, which prioritises the most outrageous and click-friendly stories, rather than the “best” or most accurate.

Facebook’s news feed algorithm prioritises clickbait (if other users respond well to a post you’re more likely to see – so clickbait does best). Publishers quickly realised the best performing clickbait is the most outrageous articles.

Traditional publishers push this as far as they can: Vox and Daily Mail feel their feeds with fairly low quality stuff. This is annoying at best and mildly negative at worst, but at least content published in mainstream media outlets is true most of the time (mind the Mail is hardly a bastion of the truth).

False stories are the best clickbait

All links show the same on Facebook, and similarly all news sources all show up the same way, regardless of their credibility, so new pages and sources have sprung up, unrestrained by inconveniences such as “the truth” and happy to post the most outrageous clickbait possible.

Turns out the most outrageous clickbait possible is stories which are made up.

Buzzfeed found three large right and left wing Facebook pages published false stories 38 and 20% of the time respectively.

When Facebook is your primary news source, every third story you see being false becomes a problem. Buzzfeed cites these pages as one of the leading causes of Mr Trump’s rise:

The right-wing pages [and their false stories] are among the forces — perhaps as potent as the cable news shows that have gotten far more attention — that helped fuel the rise of Donald Trump.

Another Buzzfeed story epitomises the mess we’re in as entrepreneurial teenagers from Macedonia launched over 140 political blogs where they publish false Trump stories “for a easy way to make money” through ad revenue. One group of teens reported their sites launched this year have been averaging a million views a month.

When your news consumption has evolved to clickbait that’s evolved to stories trying so hard to be outrageous they make up the most outrageous thing possible, we have a problem.

Facebook produces homogenous thinking

Is Facebook to blame here? It probably needs to take some responsibility for offering partisans on both sides:

A limitless, on-demand narrative fix, occasionally punctuated by articles grounded in actual world events, when those suit their preferences.

Facebook has been roundly criticised, but it seems unwilling to change. Mark Zuckerberg said last week “the idea that fake news on Facebook… influenced the election in any way is a pretty crazy idea”.

I’d argue it’s utterly implausible that fake stories on people’s primary news source doesn’t influence their thinking. Facebook must be treated not solely as a technology company, as it would like, but as a technology/news distribution hybrid. It’s got to start taking some responsibility for what people share on their platform and can’t keep rewarding false reporting.

Apparently Facebook was concerned about this but declined to change anything, for fear of a backlash. News this morning has surfaced of movement towards action, but blocking the worst offenders still doesn’t fix the underlying echo chamber problem.

So – if Facebook isn’t going to help, how can you and I get out of this mess?

How do we get out of this mess?

Escaping the echo chamber requires recognising its existence and actively fighting it. It’s actually pretty straightforward from there. Here are some things you can do:

Stop using Facebook as a news source. Seriously, this mostly solves the problem in one stroke. Go back to seeing pictures of babies, parties and cats instead. I’d even argue you should just outright turn off your news feed. Use News Feed Eradicator and messenger.com.

Don’t use Twitter as your only news source. Twitter is still good for breaking news and doesn’t feature the same popularity algorithm, but it can still be bad if you’re only following people you agree with.

Actively look for people you disagree wth. Replace your Facebook news consumption with a range of quality news from a range of reputable outlets. This is harder in that it’s less convenient than just loading up Facebook, but bookmarking two or three sites isn’t especially burdensome. Podcasts are a convenient way of getting news, too.

Here are some sources I’d recommend:

Liberal

Conservative

  • The Economist (classical liberal rather than conservative; the magazine is very good and worth considering).
  • National Review (seen this recommended a lot recently).
  • Manhattan Institute (again, only recently picked this up; describes itself as a free market think tank).

Others

(You may be able to tell: I’m not a conservative. I’ve been trying to find who the really good Conservative commentators are. Still on the look out, but added a bunch of people to my reading list using this Quora question. Let me know if you have recommendations).

This is definitely a fixable problem

So, things are pretty bad.

Fortunately, whilst this is a serious problem it’s also easy to fix. Diversify your news consumption away from Facebook and you go a long way to fixing this.

Hopefully the options here can continue the Facebook conversation and start a movement in the right direction. Until then, we’re left with President Trump and an incomprehensible political opposition.

Enjoy.

Asking the right questions for accelerated productivity, clarity and growth

I’ve been self-employed full time for the last three months now (minus a bit of time in Japan and I’m starting to appreciate the importance of asking the right questions in life and in business – but mainly in business.

“Asking the right questions” is a key theme in any business book. It’s a genre one should generally err on the side of caution and skepticism with, but there are some very good examples.

One mostly good example is The Lean Startup by Eric Ries. Ries basically spends the whole time startups need to be “asking the right questions”. Furthermore, Ries argues if only managers were better at asking the right questions, there would be more innovation and fewer missed opportunities.

I think Ries has a point: asking the right questions is a way of getting the feedback you needed but perhaps didn’t know you wanted.

So what are the right questions? These are the queries I’ve been using to frame my thinking, split into different categories.

Targets

What are my goals? This is simple to the point it risks being vacuous, but this is a legitimate question to be answering: what are you trying to do? You’ll often see “10x your goal”, but you can’t do that if you don’t know what your goal is in the first place.

We all know this, but if you had to write down goals for three months, six months, two years right now, could you do it? I’m willing to bet you couldn’t answer it straight away.

Goals need to be specific and measurable to be of any use. Again, probably know this but there’s a difference between knowing something’s a good idea and putting into practice.

My "quantifiable goals" tracking for keyword ranking on this site.

My “quantifiable goals” tracking for keyword ranking on this site. Progress to be made.

So how do you put this into practice? I cribbed a great idea on this from Nat Eliason, I like to update a spreadsheet of “quantifiable goals” every Monday morning to see how I’m progressing vs where I need to be to meet goals. This keeps you laser focussed. Here’s Nat’s spreadsheet for doing this.

How do I go bigger on my goals? It’s so much more important to spend the time on what your goals are before you move on to thinking about how they can be bigger. Very clearly set your goals in the first place before you start doing this.

One of these is very clearly 10x bigger.

One of these is very clearly 10x bigger. Requires a different way of thinking.

Sketching out “what would this look like if it was 10x bigger” is a useful exercise: you’re forced to adopt a different mindset and think of how what your doing would work on a much bigger scale. You’ll often think of tactics which will help you reach your original goal faster.

You’re unlikely to get to 10x, unless your original goal was wildly wrong in the first place, but this kind of thinking can help you make sure you do get to the original goal. Anything over that’s a bonus.

Work

How would this work if it took half the time? This is a great one! Radically reimagine your workflow and only get the important things done.

I’ve long subscribed to a thesis somewhere between Basecamp’s four day week, Tim Ferriss’ four hour week and John Maynard Keynes’ Economic Possibilities of Our Grandchildren (written in 1930, argued only 15 hours of work a week would be necessary). Basically, if you have less time you’ll:

  1. Generally work faster.
  2. Spend less time on less important stuff (rather than the deep work).

Asking how your work could be done in half the time again forces the big thinking: you might not get to half the time, but 80% of the time would be a great result. Do that for everything and you can have an extra day a week off!

Reading other people’s advice

These absolutely applies to this post, just in case you’re wondering.

Is this post on Twitter/Reddit/Hacker News good, or just relatable? I have a new thesis that the content that gets the most shares is typically good and highly relatable, rather than excellent in its own right.

Good content is fine, but excellent content is better. I’ve found reading from high quality weekly newsletters is a much better option than checking Reddit or Twitter (I’d recommend Pocket Hits, Hacker Newsletter, The Modern DeskNat, Femke, Sean and… me).

Is this good advice? This is highly related the previous question. Bullshit advice, to quote an excellent piece by Henry Wismayer, is the stuff that:

“is utterly vapid, offering nothing beyond a few nauseating blandishments designed to appeal to the reader’s individualism and thirst for success”.

Great advice goes beyond throwing in a couple of statistics, a click baiting title and please enter your email to discover these AMAZING techniques. It also doesn’t fall foul of survivorship bias. Great advice is actually practical, explained in such a way you can properly understand it and is transparent about potential pitfalls.

Understand what the underlying lesson is and take out specific ideas, but recognise most advice doesn’t directly transfer.

Getting the right answers

A lot of this is relatively obvious, but sits in the hole between “things we vaguely know” and “things we actually apply to our work”.

Get my point about the intersection of useful things and things we know?

Get my point about the intersection of useful things and things we know?

Nothing here is especially groundbreaking, but I hope it’s though-provoking and you’ll start to put these into practice.

When I spend the time working out what I need to be working on, what needs to be done to get there and how I’m doing along the way, I’m a lot better at getting there. I very much doubt I’m alone in this.

The key takeaway here should be you’ll get huge benefit thinking about “the right questions”, and it’s well worth the time it takes to do this. Time to get the thinking hat on 🎓

Lessons from failing to sell WordPress themes at the start of the gold rush

I’d like to take you back in time six years, to a time when the world of blogging was very different.

The “premium WordPress theme” was in its relative infancy, the default WordPress theme was Kubric (HuffPo claims “Kubrick has helped change the face of cyberspace”) and WordPress 2.9 had just launched, boasting the addition of being able to “trash” posts.

The default WordPress theme at the time, which "

The default WordPress theme at the time, which “helped change the face of cyperspace”.

At this time I was 15 and running writing a lot of WordPress tutorials, alongside studying for my GCSEs. I could see the gold rush to sell WordPress themes happening and reasonably assumed I could be part of it.

I spent six months building an okay theme with a partner and didn’t go great. The product failed. After talking about survivorship bias (and accusing the classic product case study of misleadingly highlight success) I figured I should share my story and (in an attempt to avoid survivorship bias) clearly say what I’d do differently now.

Let me walk you through what I did wrong and what lessons can be learned from my unsuccessful foray into the WordPress theme market.

Building an audience and then failing to leverage it

The number one product launch tip you see is “build an audience”. Build your audience, build your email list and you have a licence to print money – apparently.

At the time I was running WPShout and I did have an audience. Approximately 1,000 or so RSS subscribers (this was the key metric then) but no email list.

One of the ad banners we created for the theme.

One of the ad banners we created for the theme.

We spent six months building the product but only mentioned it once on WPShout, a couple of weeks before launch. In the WordPress gold rush we were scared people would like our (mildly innovative) ideas, so thought silence was the best approach.

We did collect 150 or so emails on a “coming soon” landing page, but… you guessed it, we failed to email them before the launch.

Plot twist: being silent about your product is not an effective marketing strategy.

We were scared of people nicking our ideas so shared literally nothing. This was a bad idea for two reasons:

  1. Once launched, the features we were keeping secret were copyable. Keeping it secret before the launch only gave us a couple of weeks head-start which, in the grand scheme of thing, isn’t all that much.
  2. Nobody was waiting for us to unannounced launch a WordPress theme, so when we did, nobody gave a shit. Give people a reason to be excited and give a shit (and also money).

Clearly, when people tell you to “build an audience”, they also mean to mention “you need to sell to that audience. Having an audience is good, but insufficient for a successful product launch. It’s imperative you tell your audience about your product – and do it lots. It’s obvious to you you’re building a great product, cause you’re spending all day working on it. Nobody else is sharing this.

lf I was re-launching this again now, I’d spend a lot more time strategising about the launch sequence. Leverage the pre-existing audience and add new people who are specifically interested in the new product. Let people know about the product a couple of months out and introduce more specifics as launch date gets closer.

Make people excited about your product in the run up to its launch. Don’t just build an audience, reach people who will be interested in your product and then go out of your way to tell them about it.

Invest in your business

We kept costs as rock-bottom low as possible. That’s a very honourable bootstrapped startup approach, but there’s a difference between being bootstrapped and failing to make the investments required to grow the business. As you can probably guess, we did the latter.

Two investment mistakes we made.

1. We didn’t buy the software that made buying a nice experience

We failed to buy the software required to make growth sustainable or to make the customer experience a flawless one.

The chief culprit here was membership software. Fully-featured membership software was required here, so that customers could login and access their purchases. Solutions like EDD, WooCommerce and Gumroad didn’t exist, so we went with eJunkie. It was pretty ugly but did work. We also didn’t choose reliable WordPress hosting (I agree with WPShout’s SiteGround review, and now happily use them).

Unfortunately, eJunkie didn’t offer any sort of membership management, so instead of spending $180 on the only membership package around, aMember, we settled for something from CodeCanyon that cost $5. It did work, but it didn’t work very well.

If I was doing this again now I’d make the investments needed to make sure we could smoothly sell WordPress themes and customers have a great experience. No need to go overboard on spending, but purchase the tools needed to do the job well.

2. We didn’t offer refunds

The second investment we failed to make was refunds. We didn’t offer refunds, reasoning the website gave you a good idea of what was included and we were offering a digital product that had no way of “returning”. Anyone could just ask for a refund and keep the product, right?

Technically yes, but in practice very very few people will do that. We only had one or two people ask for refunds – which we refused in both cases – but it’s just not worth it. Make sure your customers are happy. You want people to universally say good things about you. In nearly all cases it’s quicker and easier for all parties just to sort the refund and leave it.

If I was doing this again now I’d just offer refunds within 14 or 30 days. Don’t think of it as “your” money until that period has passed.

Have a marketing plan after launch

This sounds obvious, and probably is, but a big part of survivorship bias is ignoring these seemingly obvious things, so gonna talk about it anyway.

We did have a marketing plan for after we launched, but we didn’t have a good marketing plan for after we launched. I bought some ads on a handful of blogs but that was roughly the extent of it. We didn’t track the ads, so had no idea if any were successful.

Obviously, you need a good marketing plan which can deliver results you can quantifiably say are “good” or “bad”.

If I was doing this again now I’d spend a lot of time thinking about post-launch marketing and this would almost certainly involve affiliates.

We did have affiliates with our WordPress theme, but saw them as “taking” a cut of “our” revenue, so we offered the minimum commission we thought we could get away with and structured the program so you needed multiple sales before we’d pay out. This stacked the cards in our favour, but also mean nobody was really interested. I was able to leverage some contacts to get some support, but nobody was incentivised to really promote the product.

My thinking around affiliates has changed a lot since then. Affiliates are not “taking” revenue, they’re providing you with extra revenue. Therefore, more affiliates and more affiliate sales is a great thing!

Sell WordPress themes with or without affiliates?

Sell WordPress themes with no affiliates, sales = x$. With affiliates, sales = 10x$! Which is better?

What I’d do now – and what we did with MasterWP – is to make affiliates an offer too good to refuse. Offer 50% commission and be happy to do so. You want affiliates to be happy and excited to promote your product because there’s a lot in it for them.

The key to making this work is communication with affiliates. Inviting affiliates rather than having open signups is a good way of ensuring you’re working with high-quality sites and good people. If you’re doing that, make sure you clearly communicate what you’re doing and what you expect from them – and then make it easy for them. Write copy that can be used as a template, provide graphics and offer convenient metrics. Provide everything affiliates need to do a great job promoting your work.

There are worst post-launch ideas than buying ads on blogs, but it’s obvious that you must be able to track these for them to be of any use. I like affiliates as there’s no upfront cost to you, but by no means is this the only or best plan.

Lessons learned trying to sell WordPress themes?

I launched my WordPress theme the same day as another, Genesis 1.0. One of these is now a multi-million dollar business and the other is being dragged out from the internet archives so I have something to write about.

My project to sell WordPress themes was never going to be a million dollar business; we didn’t have the same quality or vision as StudioPress, but you get the point: it was a missed opportunity.

Furthermore, these are my lessons learned and what I’d do now, but that doesn’t mean this is what you should be doing. It’s thoroughly misleading for any product case study to claim this is the best or only way to do things.

As I said a couple of weeks ago, there’s no shortage of guides promising you “the secrets”, but “the notion that I made twenty thousand dollars in twenty four hours is endlessly appealing… but grossly misrepresents the reality that this is hard.” Hopefully this post offers a little perspective: I spent six months building a product six years ago and got basically nothing from it.

The key takeaways from this are:

  • Make people excited about your product in the run up to its launch. Build an email list and make use of it. Provide a ton of value for people.
  • Share what you’re building.  You can’t keep the ideas powering your product secret. If you’ve got a particularly good unique selling point, flog it as much as you can.
  • Spend money where you need to.  Make sure your customers have a flawless experience – that way they’ll buy from you again.
  • Have a plan for after you launch. Affiliates are a good thing to be thinking about.

Failure is nothing to be especially ashamed of, it’s just a learning point which can be leveraged so next time can be better. With this post you can leverage some of the learning – without having to screw stuff up first.

Deep work in practice: reimagining my workflow for radically less distraction

One of the more embarrassing and self-indulgent challenges of our time is the task of relearning how to concentrate. The past decade has seen an unparalleled assault on our capacity to fix our minds steadily on anything. To sit still and think, without succumbing to an anxious reach for a machine, has become almost impossible.

– Alain de Botton

My recent survey of the last 50 days of my five minute journalling showed I have a serious problem with “deep work”.

Deep work refers to Cal Newport’s thesis (he expands on it vastly in his excellent book) that:

[Deep work is] cognitively demanding activities that leverage our training to generate rare and valuable results, and that push our abilities to continually improve… [. Deep work results in] improvement of the value of your work output… [and] an increase in the total quantity of valuable output you produce.

This is contrasted with “shallow work”, the tasks that “almost anyone, with a minimum of training, could accomplish” such as checking emails, planning, social media etc.

I read Deep Work more or less in one sitting on a twelve hour flight from Tokyo and it summarised much of my pre-held thoughts on productivity, I just hadn’t adopted to the same extent as Prof. Newport advocates. I think the basic thesis is very strong and I’m yet to find a better blueprint for work in the modern economy.

So why am I so bad at doing deep work? And how can you start using it in practice?

Are we getting more distracted?

Deep work requires prolonged periods of concentration on hard problems. For me that typically means writing of some kind and project planning. For you that may mean something similar; any sort of computer work and the concept stands.

As Alain de Botton commented up top, we’ve experienced an unparalleled assault on our capacity to fix our minds steadily on anything in recent years and this is a problem.

There are no end of op-eds and studies arguing we are hopelessly hooked and most people I know have problems with internet addiction and we’re creating a culture of distraction – and the economic data says the same thing: the US output per hour (a standard measure of labour productivity) has decreased from an annual rate of 3% between 1945 and the 1970s to 0.5% since 2010. The latest annualised productivity growth rate was minus 0.4%.

The internet “is designed to be an interruption system”, and we are “addicted to distraction”, argues Nicholas Carr. As a 90s kid I’ve grown up with the internet and all its benefits – but also can’t help myself from switching tabs the second I need to think about something difficult.

Social media and apps use the same principles as slot machines: intermittent reinforcement. When you pull to refresh Twitter or Facebook or your email you don’t know what you’re going to get – it may be nothing or it may be a really cool email. The randomness makes the action of checking addictive. Technology companies know and use this and we are ill-equipped to defend ourselves.

Distraction seems to be a well established problem but nobody wants to take it seriously or knows how to fix it.

How do I generally reduce distractions, anxiety and noise?

We’ve made two theses so far:

  1. The type of work that is valuable in the modern economy involves long periods of serious work and focus.
  2. We are easily distracted and find prolonged period of focus difficult.

Identifying these as problems is important and valuable in itself, but real progress will come from being able to properly put deep work into practice.

Trying to break the “distraction habit” is hard and this is by no means a comprehensive or exhaustive list, but this is what I’ve been doing and what has worked for me:

Be less distracted in general:

  • Delete social media apps from my phone (that aim to be addictive). I can still access from the mobile browser if I want, but its inconvenience puts me off.
  • Ban my phone from the toilet. Yup. This is actually a big one.
  • Stop keeping my phone near my bed. Check your email before you get out of bed? If you can’t reach it, you can’t.
  • Stop carrying my phone in my pocket. Keeping it in my bag instead makes it less convenient and me less prone to picking it up.

Be less distracted at work:

  • Recognise when I’m doing deep work and need to focus (this is useful for stopping yourself when you’re tempted to change tab).
  • Install Timewarp for Chrome. This doesn’t aggressively block websites (although you can if you wish), but puts up a timer for selected sites, showing you how much time you’ve spent on a site that day. Much more useful than sweary alternatives*.
  • Put my phone on do not disturb and keep it off my desk.
  • Use full screen mode in app and browser.
  • Remove the bookmarks bar from Chrome.
  • Close my email app and only open at set times.
  • Listen to more classical music.

I’ve long been a fan of the Pomodoro Technique and relied on it almost exclusively for the last two years of my degree, but I’ve not found it such a useful ally in the quest for deep work. It’s a prop for concentration rather than an outright fix – and I want to be able to fix my focus problem rather than cover it up. The Pomodoro timer (my favourite is Pomotodo) my come out again in the future, but for now I’m leaving it.

*I’ve received lots of recommendations for Chrome extensions after publishing this. A couple of note: Inbox When Ready hides your inbox by default, so you can compose email without getting distracted. News Feed Eradicator removes the news feed from Facebook (or just use Messenger.com to get chat-only Facebook instead). Finally, Forest offers an intense tree-killing alternative to Timewarp. For Mac Self Control is another more extreme option. See what works for you.

How do I get deep work done?

Two more things to think about. Your work schedule and what you’re working on.

The former is pretty simple: set aside time for working out what you’re working on, so when you sit down to work it’s just a case of getting on with the deep work. No time faffing working out what to work on.

The second appears simple but is more complex to fix: you need to be working on projects interesting enough that they can demand your attention. Something to think about.

Embracing deep work

Distraction is a problem. We’re probably reliant on or addicted to the internet more than we’d like to admit. Fixing this will be a work in progress, but acting now, recognising the problem and consciously trying to fix it is as good a first step as any.

For your convenience here are some of the key takeaways:

  • Deep work requires prolonged focus on hard things.
  • We’re addicted to the internet and distractions. Certain apps are especially bad for this.
  • Reducing distractions in general and at work is helpful.
  • Timewarp for Chrome is helpful.
  • Plan your schedule in advance.
  • This is all a lot easier if you’re working on interesting and important things.

There may be a magical fix for this. I’ll let you know if and when I find it.

Five minute journal: how could today have been even better?

Reviewing fifty days of using the five minute journal for better wellbeing and productivity. Does it work? Is it nonsense? Such mystery, wow.

Peer reviewed scientific research suggests “expressive writing” can improve mood disorders and boost memory as well as “lead to behavioural changes and improve happiness”.

This sounds one of three things:

  • Cool
  • Wrong
  • Self help bs

I’m normally pretty skeptical about such claims, but whilst a body of academic research could be wrong, it’s highly likely there research is making at least a decent point.

So if the research is right, how does one harness the benefits in an actually useful way?

Introducing the five minute journal

I’ve been working from home as a full-time freelancer for the last six weeks or so. In that time I’ve been practicing the five minute journal.

I came across it from Tim Ferriss. Whilst Tim recommends a lot of things (and probably the vast majority can be safely ignored), he cites the journal as the one thing that makes the biggest impact on his day and life outlook:

“The five-minute journal is a therapeutic intervention… that allows me to not only get more done during the day but to also feel better throughout the entire day, to be a happier person, to be a more content person.”

The idea comes from author Julia Cameron, who developed the practice of morning pages “as a mind dump to get rid of the clutter in your brain”. Julia’s practice involves writing 750 words – or three A4 pages – every morning on whatever you like.

The five minute journal is a more structured, shorter and more accessible version of the morning pages. The concept is very simple: you spend five minutes at the start of your day setting out what you’re going to do that day (and what you’re grateful for) and five minutes at the end of the day reviewing.

The journal gets its structure from three set questions in the morning and two at the end of the work day:

The five minute journal template, showing the questions asked in the journal.

You can get the journal as an expensive purpose made thing or just use any journal (I like hard cover large ruled Moleskines cause they look nice) and write out the questions yourself. I have a document saved in Notion with the questions I load up every morning.

For your convenience here are the set questions for the morning:

I am grateful for:

1.

2.

3.

What would make today great?

1.

2.

3.

Daily affirmations. I am:

1.

And then in the evening:

Amazing things that happened today.

1.

2.

3.

How could today have been even better?

1.

Try it out, does it work?

I’ve been doing the five minute journal for the last 50 days or so in a row and feel reasonably well qualified to comment on its usefulness. The verdict is very useful.

I start work reasonably early and may not be totally awake when I sit down at my desk, but writing what I’m going to achieve and then “I am ready to get going now” really helps set intentions and kickstart progress.

Reviewing progress at the end of the day is also helpful so I can see clearly what I’ve achieved and properly switch off from work after I’m done.

The most interesting question the journal asks is “how could today have been even better?”. I usually answer this quickly, close my journal and am finished with work for the day.

I don’t tend to look back on previous days’ entries – they’re relatively self contained – but the last question is one that is reviewable. Not for checking up how any given day could be a bit better, but for picking up on problems I’m consistently having – and working out how to address them.

How could today have been even better?

I reviewed and categorised all my answers to my self assessment of “how could today have been even better?” and came up with the following simplified list of common problems:

Five minute journal review results.

Clearly, I have a problem focussing on deep work. I kinda knew this, but the extent to which I have a problem focussing for sustained periods of time on single, difficult tasks, hadn’t really struck me until I reviewed my journal entries. I now know what I need to work on.

It’s also fun to analyse how the most common categories change over time. Review this in another fifty days: have I made any progress?

Exercise is a good example here: I work from home where my commute is approximately six seconds and have no obligation to go outside, so it’s perhaps surprising I’ve only felt once like I needed more exercise. Since noting it down, I’ve consciously scheduled in a proper running routine and don’t find it a problem any more. Progress.

Taking ten minutes out for a better day

If you’re doing any kind of modern creative work the morning pages approach is well worth considering. It’s hard to pin-point exactly what is responsible, but in general I would say my happiness is higher since starting the practice.

The practice also helps me better switch off from work at the end of the day (Deep Work is again good on this), which is more important and harder when working from home.

The five minute journal takes five minutes to set you up for a better day. You don’t need any fancy tools: any notebook and piece of paper will do fine. The accessibility means there’s really little excuse to try it, at least for a couple of weeks. I’d highly recommend giving it a go.

Survivorship bias: understanding “how to” case studies that make everything look easy

A mainstay of the modern product creator’s marketing toolkit is the case study. They typically walk you through step-by-step what the creator did and show how you too can do this.

They typically come with a title that looks something like:

  • I made this many thousand dollars in this many hours whilst doing surprising thing.
  • I got this much traffic whilst not doing thing you expect me to do and in this timeframe.

After all – after you’ve made said achievement it’s easy to milk it a little bit extra by sharing the tantalising secrets to your incredible success.

survivorship bias in marketing case studies

The problem with these case studies is they make it look easy. Whatever “it” is, it’s always just a straight road from a blank page all the way to watching the money flood in.

I have a problem with this: very very rarely is any of this easy. If it was easy, someone else would have already executed your idea.

The notion that I made twenty thousand dollars in twenty four hours is endlessly appealing – who doesn’t want to do that – but grossly misrepresents the reality that this is hard.

In misrepresenting reality, I argue these case studies are of exceptionally limited use. They satisfy a curiosity to check up on how other people are doing but fail to offer anything actionable you can take away and implement.

This is classic survivorship bias. Survivorship bias is the tendency to focus on only those processes which have “survived” and overlook those which failed. It’s typically seen in medical and investing fields, but applies well to marketing – and especially mega case studies.

Ian Lurie explains the concept nicely:

In marketing:…We only write about the winners. If we only write about the winners, then you only read about tactics as part of success stories.

Survivorship bias often makes the wrong tactics look right. We see those tactics and stop digging…. Always ask ‘Why, really, did this work?’

Given learning from people with a track record of success is a pretty good idea and these articles have the potential to be useful, how should one analyse them? How do you account for the bias and take away something actually useful?

Here are some of the questions you should be asking.

What preconditions for success are there?

Start by asking what role preexisting audience, network and influence play. How does this compare to your situation? Will this work as well if you have none of the preconditions the author is able to leverage?

If preconditions are important (they probably are) then can you get to the same point? If you can’t (say the author leverages five years of networking and you have three months) then is this a deal breaker? Probably not, a deal breaker but may have an impact. If that’s the case, ascertain the impact this is likely to have on your own execution.

At the same time, if a post is promising to show how I increased x by xx%, what was the starting point? Going from 20 visitors to 100 is a 500% increase, but 100 visitors is rarely something to write home about. Where stats are relative, be cautious.

What’s the one thing success is reliant on?

This is a great thing to be asking: work this out and you can establish where to focus your efforts. There’s often one pivotal point which accelerates the success of the project, but it’s rarely highlighted.

Social media posting is often pivotal here. Prominence on any one of a number of social sites can put rocket boosters on all sorts of metrics, but there’s often a huge amount of luck involved here.

Social sharing was a big problem we ran into with MasterWP. We produced a free email course and needed to get it in front of people. Week one posted on a host of social sites and got nothing. A week later tried again and hit the top of the /r/wordpress subreddit. Without this we wouldn’t have had enough interest to move forwards. It seemed whether our social posting was successful or not was random.

Chance and luck play a big role and it’s hard to account for them. Were you just unlucky, or does your product suck? Still, working out social sharing isn’t a level playing field gives you time to work out how to get an advantage.

Social media posting is a good example but by no means an exhaustive list. Working out where those pivotal moments are lets you plan and mitigate for them.

Is this ethical?

The most sensational case study headlines often rely on the sketchiest of tactics:

  • Pre-order numbers that rely on deception.
  • Signup numbers that rely on really annoying popups and/or other misleading tactics.

When startup speak meets a desire to make the numbers work no matter what, you end up with (actual) case studies which say this:

“we ultimately relied on a bit of deception to validate the idea”

It may be possible to achieve sensational numbers with the tactics described in these case studies, but do you actually want to use them? Think about the long term damage to your brand.

How much work went into this? Am I prepared to commit and make sacrifices?

This is one of my favourites. Let’s call it the “totally unreasonable amount of work required hack”. Case studies often hide behind phrases such as we wrote the whole course over an intensive weekend or repeat these steps with everything you publish.

Often these are disguising the truth: the “intensive weekend” turns out to be ten days without doing anything else at all (and conveniently not having a regular job or bills to pay in that time) and the “couple of steps” you have to repeat takes up an entire day’s work which I’m sure you happened to have spare.

It’s so easy to take the advice of those who are already successful as the gold standard, but you’ve got to ask if the level of commitment required is desirable.

A year ago whilst I was doing my degree I experimented with getting up at 6am to write blog posts (#6amclub) on the basis of Sean McCabe’s recommendation. I’d watch Casey Neistat and be super inspired to work unreasonably hard. It fell to my girlfriend to remind me: these people are workaholics. Their lifestyle resolves solely around work and that’s totally undesirable.

You know what – she was right. I have things other than work that are important to me. When a case study is making something look easy, take a close look at how much work they’re advocating.

What am I not being told?

It’s fun to portray a story of vast success in which there were small challenges but these were triumphantly overcome. The big challenges detract from the narrative of I know precisely what I’m doing and are thus glossed over with some literary gymnastics.

Working out what you’re not being told is important as when you come to do it, it’ll never go to plan. There are going to be difficult challenges and you need to know what those are. There may be points where it looks like the project is fucked and it’s not worth continuing and you need to know how to respond.

The reason you’re reading a case study from someone who’s done something successfully is they’ve had the tenacity to keep going, even when shit got tough. Sure, they’re under no obligation to share the difficult details with you, but it’d be a hell of a lot more practical use if and when you come to use the case study and feel like giving up yourself if you knew how those offering themselves as models reacted when things got really shit.

Take inspiration from the one-sentence clues that things might get really difficult and if and when things don’t work out, use these clues to help you decide how to respond.

 Product launch case studies that are useful

Case studies can be useful and inspiring resources. They can also, however, be thoroughly misleading and give the impression of ease when it’s definitely not the case. A case study offering only the good bits is showing off, not sharing anything useful.

To demonstrate my point about well-done case studies being helpful, these are a couple I got a lot of value from:

Take off the rose-tinted glasses, settle down to the reality that hard things are hard and remember if what you’re doing was easy, someone else probably would have gotten there first.

The editing process for taking blog posts from good to great (five fast editing wins)

Nobody looks forward to editing blog posts. This is sad, because the blog post editing process is where posts can go from good to great. Refine your thoughts, tighten your writing and produce something of real value.

Getting out of the habit of hitting publish the second you finish a blog post is really valuable. Spend just a quarter of the time you spend writing on editing and you’ll come away with a much better piece of writing. In this post we’ll cover:

  • Making sure you always get the basics right.
  • Styling techniques to highlight key points and make content ultra-readable.
  • Cutting quantity in favour of quality.
  • Writing a really good conclusion.
  • Graphics better than shitty stock images.

All sounds pretty great to me. Sound good to you? Let’s get to it.

1. Spelling, grammar and good English

All the shine in the world on your blog posts goes to waste if you don’t get the basics right. Typos, spelling and grammar slips are inevitable so it’s imperative you spot them and fix them.

Getting the basics right means actually reading through your posts a couple of times and correcting as you go. It’ll only take you a minute. Don’t skimp on it.
Of course, technology can make things easier. The Spelling and Grammar module built into Jetpack does a pretty good job. It’ll pick up spelling mishaps, grammar mistakes and make stylistic suggestions.

Covering the basics is essential, but there’s a little more to it than that. As Sue Anne Dunlevie writes there are some “fussy” grammar points to check:

  • Speak like you’d write: use contractions like I’ll, or she’d rather than I will or she would. It looks unnatural and unnecessarily formal.
  • Use apostrophes properly. Read this if you’re unsure.
  • Look out for homonyms (words which sound the same but have different meanings), i.e. you’re/your. Spellcheckers often miss these.
  • Be consistent: if you’re wrong at least do it every time and readers will think it’s your writing style.

How do you catch every mistake? Sagan Morrow recommends printing posts out to check through them. I used to do this when checking really long college essays. It’s probably overkill for all but the biggest and most important blog posts, in which case reading in “preview” mode on your site will do a good job.

Bonus tip: ask a friend. A second set of eyes can be very helpful. Any friend will be able to give you feedback on spelling, grammar and content but a friend with expertise in what you’re writing about can do the above plus feedback on your ideas and arguments.

The latter is much more valuable – establish mutual blog post feedback arrangements and you’ll be a huge help. Don’t let this be an excuse to skimp on checking content yourself, though. Make it easy for whomever is checking your posts by doing the bulk of the work yourself and getting them to give the feedback you couldn’t figure out yourself. Public Post Preview will allow you to share your post before it’s published.

2. Use styling and paragraph breaks to highlight key points (and keep it readable)

Annoyingly, people don’t tend to read whole blog posts. We’re all busy, right? It’s much more common just to scan a post, grab some vague platitude and move on.

Two questions arise from this:

  1. If some readers stubbornly scan posts, how do you make sure they get something useful?
  2. How do you hold a reader’s attention throughout the post?

Let’s look at the first question. Highlighting quick takeaways throughout your post and then recapping again at the end can ensure even those who scan your content are going to learn something.

Doing this can be as simple as using the same template you use every time. Sean McCabe’s podcast show notes have precisely the same format each time, with an introduction followed by “Highlights, Takeaways, & Quick Wins”.

Sean McCabe's "highlights, takeaways and quick wins" are really well done.

Sean McCabe’s “highlights, takeaways and quick wins” are really well done.

Sean lists roughly ten things you can learn from the podcast immediately, without even listening to it. The value you get is immediate but you’re also encouraged to stick around and learn more about the points raised.

A good conclusion is also essential in this. We’ll get to them later.

You’ll also want to highlight key points throughout your post. Bold and italics are really useful for this and for making web-writing readable.

How much emphasis you want to use is up to you. I generally prefer italics for single words or very short phrases and then bold for longer clauses or whole sentences. Generally you’ll want to only bold one or two sections per paragraph; if everything is emphasised it loses its effectiveness.

Styling breaks up the text nicely and draws the attention of readers scanning through what you’re saying.

Another useful trick for highlighting key points ties into our secondary goal of holding a reader’s attention throughout the post: using short sentences and paragraph breaks. These are a key tenet of web-readability and the web would be a better place if more people used them.

Right?

There’s research backing this: frequent paragraph breaks improve readability. Baymard Institute reports on the optimal line length for your content, advocating between 50 and 75 characters per line on average:

“If a line of text is too long the reader’s eyes will have a hard time focusing on the text… In order to… energize your readers and keep them engaged, we suggest keeping your text within the range of 50-75 characters per line.”

Design, styling and line breaks all intersect. Nail all three and your readers are going to have a beautiful experience consuming your content.

3. Cut a quarter of what you’ve written

It’s easy to get obsessed with word counts.

My post won’t be good unless it’s 1000 words.

If I’m not writing long form nobody will be interested.

This is the wrong way to think about it.  Think about your posts in terms of value created, not word count.

Cut the crap, keep the value. Quality beats quantity every single day. Be concerned about what you’re writing, not how many words you’re writing it in.

You don’t have to specifically cut a quarter of what you’ve written, but you want that kind of approach. Once you’ve finished writing, make a note of the word count and go through cutting out anything that is superfluous or isn’t directly providing value. You’ll probably have ended up cutting out a quarter.

Hemingway is a great tool for helping here. It will analyse your writing and give you a readability rating, highlighting complex sentences, errors and passages which are hard to read.

If you’re writing with sentence structures that are difficult to understand Hemingway is going to tell you and you can make the appropriate adjustments. You don’t have to make all the changes Hemingway recommends (it can level-down too much), but a quick check and correcting any serious mistakes is worth the time.

Making sure your writing is comprehendible and concise is going to make a huge improvement to your writing.

Bonus tip: check you’re not overusing words. This tool is handy for seeing if you’re frequently repeating anything. Hat tip Akshay Hallur for this.

4. Write a really good conclusion

Once you’ve written the main bulk of your post, conclude. The conclusion is not a place to say “and that’s that! follow me on twitter and let me know what you think in the comments”.

The conclusion does so much more and understanding this is key to crafting really good blog posts. Here’s what you should be doing:

  • Show how the ideas introduced in the introduction have been developed or achieved.
  • Tie everything you’ve said together (don’t introduce any new ideas).
  • Recap the key points you’ve made.
  • Link to further study and analysis.
  • Encourage further discussion.

You need to be bringing everything together here and make it easy for readers to be clear what you’ve just said, what they can take away and where they can go next. This is why a conclusion is important 🙂

5. Have really good images, kinda

I originally wrote this post about a year ago and included a section on having really good engaging images. I linked up to Nathan Barry’s post on killer graphics and again mentioned Sean McCabe’s hand drawn graphics. I advocated using better stock photos.

This is all good advice and if you want better images you should check out all of those. But – I don’t practice what I preach. On this site I’m using images sparingly, preferring to focus on writing and where I do use images I like to use photos I’ve taken in order to add more personality (hat tip Tynan). Adding generic stock photos for the sake of having photos seems a bit of a waste of time.

What I do like doing instead of images is screencasts. These add something really unique to posts and are easier to do than ever. Opentest is a free Chrome addon that lets you really really easily record screencasts. If it suits you can add camera and voice narration. Upload the finished video to YouTube and you’re done. Really convenient and useful.

Your editing just seriously improved your blog post

We’ve explored a pretty formulaic approach to editing posts but it’s a highly sound method which will result in better content. It’s kinda a pain to do but if you’re serious about the quality of your writing it’s well worth the time.

Here’s a handy recap of what you want to be checking:

  1. Check spelling and grammar. Actually read your post fully + look out for uncommon mistakes then ask a friend to read it through (and use this plugin to do that).
  2. Make sure your content is easy to read. Use paragraph breaks and styling for emphasis.
  3. Cut words viciously. Leave the good stuff, bin the rest.
  4. Make sure you’ve got a really good conclusion with easy takeaways.
  5. Add images if it’s appropriate. Otherwise, don’t.

I can’t stress enough how much better you’re going to make your posts by following these steps.

This is the kind of stuff that gives your blog the edge.

Let me know your thoughts @AlexDenning.

 

Successfully managing freelance work through college (how to balance study, work and social)

Freelance work is one of the best jobs for college students. You get to pick your own schedule and work from home. You can pick up part time work and fit around your schedule.

I spent my first year of college (or University, as I called it), thinking it wasn’t really possible to manage freelance work, academic work and a social life. On these grounds, I sold my blog, stopped doing freelance work and basically disappeared from social networks.

In my second year I added a ton of responsibilities running societies, started taking my academic work more seriously but started accepting a little bit of freelance work.

In my third (and final) year, concious I wanted to transition to freelancing full time after graduating, I took on roughly one day a week of freelance work – the very thing I thought two years ago wasn’t possible. It was possible, but required a lot of forward planning (this all looks very similar to freelancing next to a full-time job).

College is a normally a tripartite beast where one is required to stay on top of:

  1. Academic work
  2. Social life
  3. Your wellbeing

Adding freelance work throws a spanner to the work. Now you have:

  1. Work
    • Academic work
    • Freelance work
  2. Social life
  3. Your wellbeing

You don’t really want to compromise on any of these, which is where the difficulty comes in. It can be done though. Here are some of the things I learned about successfully managing freelance work for college students.

Finding part time work for students

I’m not going to spend too much time on this as I was able to leverage contacts from building and running WPShout to get work. If I had no online presence and was starting out, I’d ask these questions:

  • What skills do I have or could I develop?
  • How can I position myself in a market where my skills are valued, rather than a market where there’s a race to the bottom?
Here’s an example: writing is a frequently recommended field and for good reason: there’s no problem working remotely and as a student you’re already well skilled in writing.

The obvious problem is lots of other people are also good at writing. Instead of working in the very low end of the market, writing for $5-a-time content mills, how can you add value? Look at how you can leverage your writing skills to break into other markets.

For me that was WordPress, later social media and later still marketing. For you? What do you find interesting? Does this offer a route in? Do some Googling and think about it.

Once you can identify a market to be working in, you can establish yourself as someone whose skills are to be valued and an authority by setting up a website and blog and publishing regularly. I’d recommend using WordPress for this.

Start publishing good stuff and promoting it in the market you want to work in. After a month of regular content creation you can start advertising you’re available for hire or – the more effective method – get in touch with people who you think would want your services, tell them what you can do for them and ask them to hire you. I got the vast majority of my early freelance work this way.

You don’t need to mention to clients that you’re a student. As long as you get the work done, it’s not a problem (although you may wish to have some time off around busy academic periods – more on that later). I’ve never had a client value my time less because I’m also in full time education, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it happens.

Be exceptionally disciplined

You must be exceptionally disciplined. You will not succeed as a freelancer if you don’t show up without fail and reliably do the work.

I liked to keep a schedule. I had one day of contact hours (lectures and seminars), one day for study for each of my four modules) and then one day for freelance work. The seventh day in the week provided some leeway for fun or essay writing when necessary.

Knowing what work was to be done on which day meant I spent no time working out what needed to be done, I just got on with it. I liked to use weekly repeating tasks in OmniFocus (expensive but well worth the money imo). Plus, the regular schedule meant I always got my academic work done (and often did more reading/seminar preparation than my peers) and also always got my freelance work done.

Having a schedule is one thing, but you need to religiously stick to it. This is where the discipline comes in. By taking on freelance work next to your academic work you’re reducing your leeway for spare time, so you’ve got to show up and get the work done.

Be exceptionally disciplined. Set a regular schedule, show up and do the work

Say no to things so you don’t burn out

Saying no to opportunities was something I’d rarely done before, but realising I needed to do it was a big eye-opener. Clarity on this came from reading Greg McKeown’s Essentialism.

The book makes the same point again and again, but it’s a good point so it gets away with it: identify what’s important to you and focus on it, and cut out everything which is secondary to your primary focus.

If your focus is on the tripartite beast we discussed before – work, social and wellbeing – then things secondary to that focus need to go.

I cut out a number of commitments after this minor revelation, declining to continue my involvement with running societies, turning down extra client hours when I thought it would negatively impact on other areas and making a call on when my own projects were not worth pursuing (this meant putting my blog on hiatus).

Identifying your focus is of extreme importance here. I’m making the assumption work, wellbeing and social life are important, but for you that may be different. Well worth thinking very seriously about what it is you’re focussing on, and how all the work you’re doing fits in around that primary focus.

Be smart about academic work

Successfully managing freelance work through college involves being successful with academic work. You don’t want to compromise on academic results or the growth from pursuing interesting ideas and asking difficult questions.

We’ve established keeping a schedule is important, but a schedule only works if you can consistently get work done in the time you’ve allotted. You can resolve needing to do all your academic work but only having a fixed time to do it in by being smart about it.

Keeping on top of studying is a lot easier when you’re smart about it.

The arguments of the pareto principle, that 80% of work comes from 20% of effort, are well rehearsed. Given students don’t start from a point of doing 100% of work (does anyone do 100% of the reading lists for semianrs?) you can’t just cut your work to a fifth and expect to maintain results. You can, however, make intelligent decisions about which work to do.

As a Politics student a lot of my work was reading for seminars which wasn’t assessed. A lot of my peers did the bare minimum reading, but turn up knowing nothing and you’ll take nothing from the seminars. So how to do the reading, just faster? A number of things:

  • Find tools to work faster. I needed to read books and journal articles and take notes. I wanted digital notes but most PDF readers don’t let you copy text, so I’d just type out notes. Solution: get a dedicated PDF highlighting app and switch to Evernote, which can handle notetaking better.
  • Know when to do more work, when to do less work. I had a lot of choice for what I was assessed on. Identifying topics I wanted to choose way in advance, from looking over the schedule at the start of the year, would mean I could focus especially on those weeks. Equally, if I definitely wasn’t planning on doing any assessed for on a topic I could safely cover the basics but leave the advanced reading.
  • Start early. Being a week ahead with reading brings a huge amount of leeway into your schedule. It’s really easy to do: in the long holidays just start on the next term’s work the week before term starts. Knowing you’ve got a week spare brings a huge amount of flexibility.

Subjects with more frequent assessment may find this less effective, but there will definitely be ways to work smarter and work less whilst maintaining results.

You also need to know when to prioritise academic work above all else. Around exam times and when essays are due you need to be able to focus exclusively on those. This just involves keeping on top of those dates. Let clients know way in advance when you won’t be able to work for a couple of weeks and there shouldn’t be a problem. Try and squeeze everything in – and that’s just not going to work.

Practice deep work

I read Cal Newport’s Deep Work over the summer and virtually everything there resonated very strongly with me. A grossly simplified summary of the basic thesis is for maximum productivity one should schedule “deep work” sessions where you focus wholly on the task in hand. All distractions are to be ignored, Facebook and Twitter are to remain unchecked.

This is really good advice. Working out how to be really productive is the final piece in the puzzle of making this all work.

I swore by the Pomodoro Technique. It’s a productivity system whereby you work in 25 minute blocks with no distractions, then have a five minute break. You then repeat. I adapted it to work in 50 minute blocks followed by 10 minute breaks. Do whatever to make it work best for you.

My entire work schedule revolved around these 50 minute “deep work” sessions and I’d highly recommend it. The time pressure guilts you out of any (or at least most) procrastination and facilitates the getting done of a lot of work. I liked using Pomotodo to track my sessions. Sara Laughed has some interesting ideas worth thinking about on this. See also Ransom Patterson on this.

I’d also recommend starting work earlier. It doesn’t have to be anything extreme – just starting at 7.30am instead of 9am makes a huge difference. You can still finish at 6pm, just you’ll have gotten a lot more productive hours done each day.

It can work and it can work well

Writing this has made freelancing through college seem herculanean, zero fun and stoic. I’m probably guilty of slightly overdramatising; it’s not like you make the choice to earn money in place of having fun.

I wanted to do freelance work but I didn’t want to compromise my academic work, so the solution was just a lot of work. A lot of my friends and peers were doing just as much work, but where I was working freelance they were teaching and marking, running societies, working more traditional jobs and/or engaging in hobbies. Freelance work was just a different type of demand on my time.

It is absolutely possible to manage freelance work, academic work and a social life whilst at college or University. You just need to keep on top of everything, make strategic compromises and make your work count. I’m now graduated but if I was doing it again I’d probably do slightly less freelance work and trade it for more time off, but on the whole I have no regrets about the experience.

I hope this post inspires some action. If you’re wondering about the feasibility of work, go for it. I’d be very interested to hear your experiences – let me know @AlexDenning.