Dear Mr. Whippy, Please Use Twitter

Recently, Julie and I serendipitously crossed paths with the Mr. Whippy man at the end of a fun run. It seems that the only way we’re currently meeting is by happy accident, so while he was dipping my cone in chocolate, I suggested that he use Twitter to update his location so that I can plan my next summer Saturday around ice-cream stops. His response was more along the lines of “ussa-twitta-who?” Granted, I was at the front of a queue of children waving money in the air, so there wasn’t a lot of time to give my pitch, but suffice it to say, in the few seconds I had, he wasn’t really won over by the concept.

Me eating a Mr Whippy Choc Nut cone.

First, let’s just take as a given that there are people who are willing to plan their day around ice cream. Second, I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that there might be a small cultural divide between those of us who spend our days fanatically trying out all the new stuff on the internet, and those that spend their days making delicious treats for children – so allow me to introduce the two of you:

Twitter: Mr. Whippy is a purveyor of soft serve ice cream, who roams the streets of New Zealand in search of children (ok, adults) that like ice cream.

Mr. Whippy: Twitter is a website where you post short messages to anyone who is interested in following you. You put where you’re at, or what you’re doing, and anyone who is interested can be updated in real-time. Think of it as a sort of public text message that anyone can receive. You can post a message (called a “tweet”) by sending a text to the service, where it will be broadcast for everyone. So ideally, Mr. Whippy will post something like “I’ll be in North Hagley, near the rugby fields for the next few hours.” Moments later, I’ll look at my phone, see your “tweet” and ride several miles out of the way I was intending.

Ok, now that we’re sorted on the introductions, let’s get you set up:

First, go to Twitter.com and get signed up. Pick a cool name like “ChchWhippy” or something like that – something people can remember. Add a little photo of a cone or the truck to flash it up a bit.

Next, grab your mobile and text “Start” to 8987, a special number just for Twitter that works on Telecom and Vodafone. Twitter will reply with a series of prompts. Tell it the cool name you came up with in the fist step and your password and you’re done. Try it out by texting “Who loves Mr. Whippy!?” to 8987. Save that number to your phone so you can post to Twitter every time you move the truck.

That’s it. Tell your friends to follow you, put a sign with your Twitter name on the truck or just let word spread. Soon, all the Mr. Whippy fans who use Twitter will be following you, and when they need a Whippy fix, they’ll know where to go.

Advanced Option:
If you really want to get nerdy, you can get a fancy internet-enabled phone like an iPhone or Blackberry. With one of those you can download a third-party apps like “Tweetie 2,” “TweetDeck” or “UberTwitter” that will let you attach a photo or GPS coordinates to your tweet, so people don’t even need to know their way around town to find the truck.

If you do me this one little favor, I promise to start bringing cash on bike rides.

Download Audiobooks from the Christchurch Library

I spend most of my time in front of a computer, which means I spend a large part of my day wearing headphones. Much of what i listen to is music of course, but a few years ago I started listening to podcasts to get my entertainment fix. Eventually that lead to an appetite for Audiobooks to listen to while I’m drawing or spending long spells working in Photoshop. For me, it’s a great way to stay up to date or to learn new things while working or doing chores around the house. I know that Audiobooks are also quite popular for those who spend lots of time driving or working in the garage, and they’re great for any time you’re working with your hands, but would like to take in a story.

Most libraries offer Audiobooks on CD for checkout. Some charge a small rental fee, and you’re limited to what you find on the shelf, or what is within reach of the library’s lending network. Despite listening to plenty of Audiobooks, I’ve checked out exactly zero of them from the library. If you’ve lifted one off the shelf lately, you no doubt noticed the size and weight of the thing. If you’re planning to walkabout town listening to a tome like the unabridged audio version of Thomas Friedman’s “The World is Flat,” be sure to bring a backpack so you’re prepared to carry the boxed set of fifteen full length CDs. Include in your load a discman and a quiver of batteries, and you’ll soon be toting around a few kilos. You’ll probably find the hard cover version to be more portable. This seems ridiculous when you consider that even a long book like Friedman’s can be represented by about 300MB of data, which would fit 10 times over on a memory card small enough to swallow.

I haven’t bought a CD in years, nor have I any idea where I might find my antique discman, so what I really want to do is get Audiobooks the same way I get podcasts and music: by downloading them from the web and syncing them onto my iPod or any device that plays MP3s. While podcasts are generally free, Audiobooks delivered digitally can be quite dear. I’ve used services like Audible.com, where you can download an Audiobook for between US$7 and US$27. Audible has a subscription scheme where you can buy credits at a discount, but if you really love to listen you can easily go through an Audiobook in a few days, leaving you to wait for your credits to arrive at the beginning of the month, or just leaving you to pay full price. The system works well, but your Audiobook habit can quickly become more expensive than Sky TV or your internet connection itself, especially when you consider that few people plan to listen to an Audiobook more than once.

That’s why I was very excited to learn that the Christchurch City Library now has an OverDrive Audiobook Collection. If you’re not familiar with the system, it’s pretty straightforward. You go to your library’s website, and click through to their OverDrive portal. There you can browse the collection and download what you like, sync to your iPod or MP3 player, or even burn it to the aforementioned mountain of CDs.

OverDrive Media Console on Windows

OverDrive Media Console on Windows

To get started you’ll need to download OverDrive Media Console. OverDrive uses a proprietary player, which is necessary to manage and enforce the lending period, as that kind of functionality isn’t built into any of the media players you may already have installed, such as Windows Media Player or iTunes. Once that’s ready, you can log into the catalogue with your library card and have a look through the available titles. If you see something you like, and it’s available, you can simply add it to your basket and click checkout, just as you would when buying anything online, except you’ll be asked to log in with your library card and pin. After checkout you’ll be prompted to download a file. This file is not actually your media, but a .odm file. Think of it as the ticket for your media files. Once downloaded, simply open this file with OverDrive Media Console, and the program will begin to download the Audiobook media. The media is broken into many parts, and you can begin listening as soon as the first part is downloaded. In most cases, you have a fortnight to listen to the title. When your time is expired, the title will be “returned” to the library, meaning it will be removed from your computer, whether you’re finished or not.

If your title is not available, you can place a hold on it, and you’ll be notified by email when the title becomes available. You’ll have a few days to check it out before it’s goes to the next person waiting on the list.

Publisher Restriction Key in OverDrive Catalogue

Publisher Restriction Key in OverDrive Catalogue

The system does have a few drawbacks. As a Windows Media Player-based solution, most titles are only available as Windows Media Audio (.wma) format files, which only playback on Windows PC’s. Those with Mac’s can use OverDrive’s new Media Console for Mac, but due to publishers’ restrictions, Mac users will have less titles to chose from. You can sync most of the .wma format files to a Windows Mobile-based phone, but not all titles are available to sync onto your iPod, and fewer are available to sync onto a non-iPod MP3 player or burned to a CD, which limits the usefulness for those of us that like to listen to an Audiobook for those long drives in the car. It should also be noted that if the catalogue indicates that the title is available for iPod, but not for Mac, that means you can use it only on an iPod formatted for a PC, so you won’t be able to use your Mac-format iPod as a workaround for lack of support on your Mac computer. The array of restrictions and caveats probably says more about the state of the publishing industry, and less about the OverDrive system or your library, but it’s something to be aware of before you check out an Audiobook, and it’s a mute point if you plan to listen on your Windows PC. Fortunately the OverDrive catalogue makes it as easy as possible to navigate the restrictions. Each title in the catalogue has a key of icons, indicating which titles are available for which platforms, so that you can see at a glance whether or not your title will be available for your needs.

Overall it’s a wonderful and modern use of the library’s classic mission, and a welcome addition to Christchurch City Libraries.

Now There’s Some Tasty Spam

I get a lot of email, but I rarely get spam due to GMail’s amazing spam filter. Of course, just because I don’t get a bunch of emails pushing Fake Rolexes and Generic Viagra doesn’t mean I don’t have a heap of advertisements in my inbox every morning. Most of those are things that I’ve opted into in one way or another: a race that I ran a year ago is expanding, a store that I used to frequent is having a sale. These messages don’t actually meet the qualifications for being characterised as ‘Spam’ or ‘Unsolicted Commercial Email (UCE),” because somewhere along the way I’ve asked to be sent this information, and that means that I found value, or thought I would find value in what that store or race director had to say.

Just the same, I have a lot of stuff in my inbox, stuff I delete without opening. Most of it is stuff I thought I would like to hear about, and sometime since the day I signed up I’ve decided that I didn’t. Many of these changes can be attributed to changes in my life; I moved to New Zealand, and am probably not going to be doing any snowy 5k’s in November, and I’m also not as interested in the specials at my favourite bike shop as I once was. But from a marketers perspective, you’d have to argue that many of these are simply missed opportunities. There are a few retailers that I regularly receive emails from whose ads never seem to spark my interest. For example, you would think that a co-operative outdoor equipment store, where I have been a member for years, would detect that I am far more likely to buy a new set of studded bike tires than a baby-jogger, but you wouldn’t know it from their emails. In fact, their emails don’t seem to be targeted at all. I counter imprecise marketing with the imprecise unsubscribe link at the bottom of each message.

Countdown Specials Email

Countdown Specials Email

I’ve often thought this blunt-force direct email to be a squandered marketing opportunity, because all that customer history is probably sitting in the same database that is feeding addresses to the email server. But today, my partner Julie amazed me when she showed me an email she received from our local supermarket, Church Corner Countdown (of recent Apple v. Woolies logo dispute fame.) They use the same kind of rewards/loyalty card scheme that has made all our wallets thick with plastic. The idea is pretty simple; I save a few cents for being a “member” and the store gathers information about the sort of thing people like to buy. I used to be a developer at a company that made marketing analytics and reporting software, so there’s certainly tonnes of value in that data. But for some reason that data isn’t ever used to directly market back to the customer. Today Julie’s email proved it can be done, as Countdown provided some genuinely useful commercial email marketing. The email pictures of a number of items that we often buy, with photos and prices, and it notes that we could save $9.29 total if we bought the lot. They also provide a link to get more specials on other things we buy, again, based on our spending habits. The whole system is pretty straightforward and intuitive, and a little box tells me how much I’ve saved so far this year by buying items on special.

Granted, I can’t hide my obsession with Bagel Crisps from Julie any more, but it’s good to know when I can buy them.

Your Content is Your Keyword

A common trick from mid-90s web development was to add a tag like: <meta name=”keywords” content=”keywords, my, site”/>. Known as the “meta keywords” or just simply “keywords” it was often heavily loaded with terms customers would be searching for, and the theory was that the more you had, the better your ranking on Google. The belief was that Google and other search engines used this tag to get an idea about your site’s content, and so it was common for people to build sites with hundreds of different keywords. Many sites would even use their competitors name to drive traffic to their site, sometimes causing angry responses when discovered.

People who work in web development have known for quite some time that the effectiveness of this practice has diminished over the last several years, especially with Google. We’ve found that there is more weight given to the use of a keyword within a page, the page’s title, a link to the site containing the term, the proximity of that word to other search terms and any highlighting of the term by bold or italicized type.Basically, great content drives results better than behind-the-scenes trickery, which leads the SEO set to fall back on the common phrase “Content is King.” The theory applies broadly to a company’s message, with the general idea being that despite anyone’s best efforts to trick the search engines into loving your website, your energies are probably better spent creating quality material for it. Not only are you likely to create better search results and more relevant (if not greater numbers of) hits, but you’ll see better sales when you give your visitorsaccurate information about your company and the products you provide. Recall that the reason we build websites is to sell products and services, not just create arbitrary hits.

Of course webmasters, who regularly promote themselves on their ability to get a website highly ranked on a search engine, and getting to the top of Google for a specific search term is most client’s top request. While a lot of promises are made, the reality is that Google’s famous algorithm changes regularly and web developers need to keep up to date with the latest techniques in garnering attention from the almighty Google. The games we used to play with keywords, meta tags, and hidden strings of text are less effective today than they once were, and some of those techniques can actually make your rank worse. In fact today, in a rare official statement about how their algorithm works, Matt Cutts from Google explains that they don’t use the meta keywords at all. Basically, they were too prone to abuse, and since the actual content of a website is what people are looking for anyway, it makes sense to use only human readable text to shape results.

For the small business website that means careful copywriting, carefully choosing the title of each page, and selecting key text to put in bold or italics. More than anything else, Google’s picture of your website is going to be formed by the text on the page more than any other element of the design. Photos, videos and graphics are absolutely necessary to entice the human user once they’re on the site, but for now at least, Google sees your website in text-only mode.

Wordle's Visualisation of this Post

Wordle's Visualisation of this Post

So one should be aware of the picture Google is getting of your website from the text you provide. If you’re visual like I am, you can use a tool like Wordle to get a feel for how your website looks to a search engine, in terms of keyword density, which is another metric SEO gurus like to argue about. You want to make sure that what you’re writing accurately reflects the message that you are trying to send. You want to verify that your writing reflects all the services that you offer, and make sure there isn’t too much overlap between the pages within your site. At the same time you need to be mindful that your copy is most of all there to entice individual human readers to buy your products. Converting Google searches to hits is just the first step, our ultimate goal is to turn hits into sales; so remember that a jumbled mess of keywords may make it to the top of Yahoo, but users will quickly bounce off your home page when they can’t find what they’re looking for. So don’t get carried away or swear off pronouns for the sake of keyword loading to pump up the density, as it turns off users, and creating a suspiciously high keyword density might even turn off the search bots.

Remember that to improve search ranking, we strive to improve the breadth and depth of information on each of our pages, so its more important to highlight key text, and write concise, relevant titles, and not rely on tricks like we used to do with meta tags and keyword loading. Essentially we’re trying to create a website that is a wealth of information about the business, product, or service that it’s dedicated to. Which means we’re not really gaming search rank on Google so much as Google is teaching us to build high-quality websites full of relevant information.