One Weekend, One App

friendshipapi logo

Over the weekend, my husband and I put together FriendshipAPI.com. He did all the coding, while I wrote copy, designed a logo, and did a little bit of marketing. Christopher wrote up the technical side of launching an app in one weekend, so I figured a rundown of how I spent my time would be useful as well.

The Overall Goal

I saw a contest last week for creating apps based on Context.io’s API (which is especially good at analyzing big chunks of email). We decided to see what we could come up with on short notice; luckily, we already had a few ideas in the pipeline. Christopher and I have talked about how to stay in better touch with some of our friends, especially since we’ve moved cross-country a few times.

Because we were building Friendship API as a contest entry, rather than a business that we expect to be quickly self-sustaining, our goals were:

  • create an app that functions correctly
  • make an attractive site that showcases the app
  • get a little traffic to the site (mostly to get people to test out the app)

Getting more traffic might be nice, because the contest does have an award specifically for whoever grows their traffic the most. But, honestly, too much traffic would be a pain in the posterior for us because the app is running on Heroku’s free plan. If we actually got a serious number of visitors, we’d have to pay for a better plan.

A Full-Fledged Web App

Building a web app requires a fair amount of work, but just writing code is not enough. This is a big pet peeve of mine: hackathons, school projects, and all the other various quickie apps you might write have the same crappy look.

And before anyone tries to tell me that a weekend is too short a period of time to put together a design, let me tell you what we did: we bought a design from ThemeForest — this one, in fact. Starting from scratch on a design is tough in this short a timespan (although not impossible if you actually have access to a designer). But modifying an existing design is pretty doable.

If you do have some design skills and trying to move fast, I always recommend putting together three creative assets first off:

  1. A color palette
  2. A set of typefaces
  3. A logo

You can polish up an existing design quickly if you know what colors and typefaces you want to use and if you have a logo to add to the design. Super short on time? Use a typeface you don’t plan to use anywhere else on your website to make a text-only logo of your app’s name.

Friendship API is done in blues and gray; I used the blue built into the design already and added a darker shade for the logo and some design elements.

The logo is set in Unica One, which is available under an open license through Google Web Fonts.

A Quick Bit of Marketing

The real goal of our marketing Friendship API was to get some feedback on what we were doing: a weekend isn’t long enough to do real UX testing, but you can get people to tell you what they don’t like about your app through Twitter.

We were specifically looking for the sorts of people who will be judging the contest: startup nerds. That informed where we put our energy.

Our marketing plan broke down like this:

Twitter: I created a Twitter account for the site (mostly for tracking purposes on Twitter) and tweeted about the launch on the day of. I retweeted that tweet, along with writing a couple of original tweets for my account and my husband’s.

Blog: We launched with two blog posts — one on my husband’s site and one on Medium. I was able to write tweets about the blog posts, as well as share them on sites like Hacker News.

Private Channels: I wrote a couple of short messages to post on a few different private channels I have access to (Facebook groups, Slack teams, and the like).

We got about 100 visitors in the first day. Just like every other time I’ve launched a project, private channels brought us the most traffic — over two-thirds. Twitter came in a distant second.

We also got quite a bit of feedback, which is exactly what we were hoping for. We were able to make a couple of crucial adjustments before sending in our contest entry.

A Bug With A Logo?

Heartbleed

We all know that we need to take our online security seriously, but we rarely do anything to improve our own situations. Even when we hear about data breaches, the odds that we’ll go and change passwords are relatively slim. We might get occasional emails and updates from the sites we log into about our security, but we tend not to get worked up for anything less than proof someone has been messing around with our personal bank accounts.

But Heartbleed has been different.

From the first moment I heard about Heartbleed, everyone I know has been taking it fairly seriously. Part of that is due to the nature of this particular security breach: the amount of data that was made accessible by a vulnerability in OpenSSL is enormous. It would be easier to list which major websites weren’t affected than which were. But while the details of the Heartbleed breach are enough to get programmers and website publishers worked up, they’re probably too technical to really intrigue the average person browsing the web. So why do so many people seem to know about Heartbleed?

A Well-Branded Security Breach

Fundamentally, Heartbleed is different from security breaches that have come before. It’s been branded and marketed, something that no one has really tried to do historically. The traditional approach to announcing you’ve found a security exploit was to write out a brief description of the problem and send it around to everyone you expect the problem affected. There wasn’t exactly an incentive to take action.

For the researchers who uncover security breaches, there isn’t necessarily a clear benefit to promote their work in other ways, however: the status quo was enough to get them credit for their work and collect any financial rewards (like rewards offered by companies to researchers who found security breaches in their systems before those problems could be exploited).

Heartbleed’s branding may prove to be a turning point in what we expect from a security breach announcement.

That branding wasn’t a particularly major effort from the organization that launched Heartbleed.com. That company, Codenomicon, didn’t discover the vulnerability, but does help other organizations secure their systems against malicious attacks.

Miia Vuontisjärvi, a security analyst at Codenomicon, told TechCrunch that the site started as an internal Q&A that Codenomicon’s experts wrote in an effort to get a handle on Heartbleed’s potential impact.

“Experiencing the pain of the bug first hand we got a nagging feeling that this calls for a ‘Bugs 2.0′ approach in getting the message out in an emergency. Ossi, one of our experts came up with Heartbleed as an internal codeame and from there on thing lead to the other. The domain was available and our artist Leena Snidate did a an excellent job in putting our pain into the logo. It all went much faster than expected.

“When the vulnerability became public we realized that this is going to be a crisis communication. We said what we had to say in the Q&A with as little litter as possible. We put it available on a low latency and high bandwidth content delivery network so that it is very accessible for anyone in the need. Based on initial reactions we did some minor edits but we quickly saw the Internet community picked the issue up in an astonishing way.”

Crisis Management in Open Source

One of the most noteworthy points about Codenomicon’s efforts is that OpenSSL is an open source project; Codenomicon had the opportunity to step in because the developers behind OpenSSL are all volunteers. When software is developed by a single company as a proprietary product, there are typically more concrete procedures to handle bugs and security breaches — usually developed in order to minimize liability for the company in question. I can’t imagine an established company being able to vet and publish information about a security breach in this fashion.

But while Codenomicon stepped up and helped make information about a particular security exploit easier to understand and share, there have been plenty of problems with open source code in the past where no one took on that sort of leadership role. That’s partly because taking a leadership role in the middle of a crisis is tough; contributing to open source code bases doesn’t automatically enable you to field questions from the press, manage a user notification process, or brand an exploit so that users will upgrade their systems.

The open source community, as a whole, could benefit from establishing some best practices on how to handle this sort of flaw. At a minimum, just creating a check list that researchers can follow to make announcements more useful to the average internet user could be beneficial. While that’s not my area of expertise, there were both good and bad factors in the announcement of Heartbleed that could be used as a starting point for such a response framework:

  • Advance warning: Some large companies got advance warning of Heartbleed, which allowed them to patch their system before the exploit was announced more widely. While I have no problem with offering advance warning to companies likely to be hit hard by these sorts of breaches, there’s definitely room for a more systematic approach to deciding who to contact and how to handle the question of advance warning after the fact (if only so that complaining about not getting advance warning doesn’t become more of a story than the original exploit).
  • Embedded devices: As more devices are are plugged into the internet, security announcements need to at least mention what sort of systems will be affected by a given breach. It isn’t always possible to guess how a given piece of open source software may be used, but such warnings need to be offered to the greatest extent possible.
  • Points of contact: When we’re dealing with a breach in open source, where everyone involved is a volunteer, choosing who will serve as a point of contact is tough. These sorts of situations can require numerous hours to resolve, let alone to handle email. But someone has to do it, even if it’s someone outside the core development team.

Some of these points could be made easier with the application of a little money. With Heartbleed as motivation, several companies are looking at the value of investing some money into the open source infrastructure that drives their business ventures. Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and many other companies are on board to support a new group called The Core Infrastructure Initiative. Hopefully, this initiative will be enough to help major open source projects handle both security and breaches more effectively in the future.

Crying ‘Security Breach’ Too Often?

Heartbleed’s branding may be new, but researchers are starting to embrace the idea. In a post on a new vulnerability, researcher Matthew Green noted:

“First, if Heartbleed taught us one thing, it’s that when it comes to TLS vulnerabilities, branding is key. Henceforth, and with apologies to Bhargavan, Delignat-Lavaud, Pironti, Langley and Ray (who actually discovered the attack), for the rest of this post I will be referring to the vulnerability simply as “3Shake”. I’ve also taken the liberty of commissioning a logo. I hope you like it.”

But we need to consider if embracing this level of branding is a good idea for all security breaches. Embracing this sort of promotion can make it harder to get people to take action in the future: just like a child crying ‘wolf’ may not get attention when it matters, an important security breach can be lost in the mix. Reserving this level of branding for the truly crucial lapses in security is necessary to ensure it still works.

Security expert Bruce Schneier put it bluntly in an interview with the Harvard Business Review: “There’s a risk that we’re going to be accused of “crying wolf.” If there isn’t blood on the streets or planes colliding in midair, people are going to wonder what all the fuss was about — like Y2K. If you slap logos on every vulnerability, people will ignore them and distrust your motives. But it’s like storms. The bad ones get names for a reason.”

It’s also worth noting that Codenomicon helps its clients handle security issues. Making those security issues easier to understand and respond to is a brilliant piece of marketing work (along with a good deed that benefits internet users as a whole). But this sort of marketing effort is easy to exploit by companies that choose to do so. Whipping up a frenzy over relatively minor security breaches might make sense for some companies’ bottom lines. That’s absolutely not the case with Heartbleed and I’m not trying to make Codenomicon’s motives sound suspect, but it is a factor to consider as we see more security vulnerabilities branded for easy consumption.

Photo Credit: Leena Snidate

Your Starbucks Name Versus Your SEO Name

My name is great for SEO purposes: if you type my name into any of the major search engines, everything that comes up on the first page of results refers only to me. I thoroughly dominate the first several pages of results, too.

It’s unusual, though. I spend quite a bit of time searching for specific people (not in a creepy way, I promise) and there are fewer unique names than you’d expect. Even those people who have fairly unique names often get caught up in strange search results. There used to be a lot of results for my name that involved things like book clubs reading something by Bram Stoker next Thursday.

But while we’re all looking for unique names that can ensure that we’ll get found online, going with something too unique doesn’t work in many offline situations. I have plenty of friends who have what we call ‘Starbucks names’: rather than giving a name that the typical kid behind the Starbucks counter can’t handle, they give something very simple. ‘Vasily’ becomes ‘Bob,’ at least long enough to get his coffee. Starbucks names are usually consistent, since you need to remember what name you’re listening for to make sure you get your drink.

The Identity of the Moment

The concept that we each only have one identity is new. Of course, it’s not out of the question to have different nick names at home and at work. But it can go further. In many cultures, there are situations in which a person will take on a new name. Even if you’re based in a Western culture and managed to never encounter diversity, you’ve almost certainly seen a woman take a new last name when she married. In my family, marriage has even occasionally necessitated a change in first names: women who marry in and share a first name with another family member wind up with a nickname almost immediately.

But computers don’t particularly do well with the concept that someone who is named “Michael” today might be named “Mike” tomorrow — let alone that he might suddenly be named “Henry” next week. Computers like immutable, unique indentifiers. That’s one of the reasons that social media has forced many of us into using unique handles that may not make perfect sense. We often wind up defaulting to the same user name across multiple sites, making ourselves easier to use. A Starbucks name doesn’t work with computers.

It is no small matter to change over all your online accounts to a new name, but there are people who do exactly that. There are even those who do so on a fairly regular basis. If your goal is to be known online, however, the process of building a following is more difficult if you’re constantly changing your actual name or your business name. And if you finally get that break, you may very well wind up answering to a name that is far different than what is on your legal paperwork. Consider Penelope Trunk, who started out life as Adrienne Roston and has gone through several names in between.

I Don’t Know Real Names

If you’ve been active in social media or online businesses for a while, you may have noticed a certain phenomenon. When you’re talking shop, and someone mentions a name, you need a little more context: “Do you know John Doe? @doe? Doe.com?” You get a Twitter handle or a domain name. And that works: those online identifiers are a part of our larger identities.

I’ve actually ran into problems because I interact with some people much more online than off. I don’t always know everyone’s real name. I’ve been known to make introductions with folks’ Twitter handles, rather than their name. I don’t feel too bad about doing so, though, since I’ve had the same done to me.

The only reason I care about ‘real’ identities these days is when I’m doing business. I don’t necessarily need a person’s name, as long as I’ve got her LLC down on the paperwork. But I do need some real, legal identity to make a contract and take care of my business. Beyond that, I’ll call you whatever you ask me to.

The Right to Your Identity

The internet hasn’t quite caught up to the realities of identity. We need better tools for handling the question of identity, especially when there are reasons to keep parts of an identity away from each other.

Currently, there are plenty of people who maintain separate email accounts, separate Facebook accounts and other divisions in their identity, often for nothing more than to protect their privacy. Most of the terms of service for such sites require you to only have one account, by the way. If you have 5,000 ‘friends’ on social media, it’s not unreasonable to have a more private space to connect with the people who you really know. Taking it a step further, there are plenty of people online who I would rather not know certain details of my identity — like my home address.

And that’s assuming the best: there have been plenty of stories about online sites accidentally exposing information about women to their abusive exes, because a site wanted to make sure it was dealing with real people. A failure to protect an individual’s identity can have long-term ramifications.

But protection is not necessarily enough. We should have a right to be who we are: many websites have difficulties dealing with the most basic elements of names, like if there is a space or a hyphen in someone’s last name. It’s rude to ask millions of people to change how they represent themselves because a busy programmer hasn’t handled things correctly. In addition, those details create inconsistent identities across the web, making SEO that much harder.

Handling Identity in a Practical Manner

Many of us already hold unique identifiers on the web: they’re called domain names. I spend a huge chunk of my time convincing friends and family members that they need their own domains, even if those URLs just redirect to a social media account.

But domain names make identity easier: if you’re dealing with two Jane Smiths and each has her own domain name, the computer can use that as a unique identifier and let each person use whatever name she wants. If a person needs to use different names in different spots, but wants a place to tell everyone all those elements of her identity, a website on her own domain name makes that pretty easy. If, however, she wants to keep all those elements of her identity separate, setting up separate domain names isn’t an impossible task. It’s a bit of a pie-in-the-sky approach currently, but it’s a good idea to go ahead and nail down a domain name now.

Image by Flickr user Erik Charlton

The Very Real Appeal of Random

5330056727_a98c97c3c5

For all that we can spend hours searching for exactly the right item to buy, the appeal of buying something random is always there. When a site like Woot offers up random items to its audience, the sheer number of people willing to put down money for a box without any hint of what will be in it is incredible. Woot’s ‘Bag of Crap’ sales sell out within seconds and have even been known to crash servers.

Randomness is appealing, on a level that we don’t always expect. Of course, we don’t like all surprises — receiving something in the mail that we can’t track back to an original sender is more likely to feel creepy than exciting. But when that unexpectedness is balanced with a little forewarning or explanation, it can be a very good thing.

An Element of Trust

More and more successful businesses have a few bits of randomness built in. Consider the genre of subscription services that now mail their customers a box every month or so — without saying exactly what will be in the box ahead of time. Quarterly Co. is among the leading lights in this new field: the company puts together packages of items chosen by relatively famous contributors and mails them out to subscribers. I say ‘relatively famous’ because they include bloggers with large followings, CEOs that may not be well-known outside of their own niche and other ‘internet famous’ types. The mechanics that Quarterly Co follows mean that every three months, subscribers to a particular curator get a box in the mail — they don’t know what’s coming, but have some assurance that it’s awesome. It’s even possible for a person to subscribe to multiple contributors and get several bits of random on a regular basis.

Quarterly Co. has rapidly become very popular in certain circles: while the company doesn’t make too many details available, but even early on the company reported that it was adding new subscriptions every five minutes. I can only assume that speed has increased since then.

The reason for Quarterly Co’s success is not necessarily obvious. Sure, they’re offering what amounts to a gift box full of cool stuff from cool people on a regular basis — and who doesn’t like that idea? But the ease of trust that Quarterly Co. provides is crucial to the process. It’s simple to trust the company: they’ve clearly done this sort of thing before. Even better, Quarterly Co’s presence in the process means that the crazy artists and other creatives they’ve enlisted are going to send things that are appropriate. If I were to subscribe to someone whose name I’m familiar with, I may also be familiar with any pranks she’s pulled in the past. I might have some questions about the quality of the items a person might curate. Quarterly Co. eliminates any concern I could have in that direction.

The Surprise Business Model

While Quarterly Co. is taking a broad approach to what can be included in its subscriptions, offering some well-defined surprises is now a business model. My husband gets a package every month with five new inks for his fountain pen. He knows that he’ll get ink every time, but the colors and manufacturers are always a surprise. They aren’t randomly selected, but because there’s no interaction with the curator, the choices always feel a bit random on our end.

But these random selections lead to some good things, especially from the point of view of the ink seller who put together the ink subscription. As my husband has tried out a whole bunch of new inks, he’s found plenty that he wants more than the small sample that he’s already got. Not only is the subscription a money-maker, but it leads directly to follow up sales.

There are similar companies that send out samples exclusively in their packages, partnering with relevant companies to get products for free. There’s some serious flexibility in this business model in how someone can make money — and there’s plenty of business to be made. If you judge just based on the number of times a week I have to talk myself out of a new subscription, the companies involved barely have to work to make sales.

The Negligible Price Point

One of the reasons that these subscription services succeed, as well as other products that are sold with some randomness built in, is because of the low costs. We, as buyers, can’t justify paying high rates for something we don’t know we’ll be able to use or enjoy. We can, however, justifying a little bit of fun money for the right bit of randomness.

Quarterly Co. is at the higher end of random pricing, going occasionally as high as $50 per quarter. My husband’s inks are $10 per month (which is very cheap for the quantity of ink, if you don’t have a fountain pen addict in the house to set price points by). These companies target audiences for whom $10 or even $25 a month is easily forgettable. It’s almost low enough that the buyer can convince herself that a random package showing up is really a gift. And while I wouldn’t get a family member a ‘Bag of Crap,’ I would happily pay for a year’s subscription for some of those hard-to-shop-for relatives.

I’m well aware that an extra $10 per month isn’t a negligible expense for many people. And subscribing to multiple offers takes that amount higher very quickly. But for those demographics with higher incomes, buying something random can be seen as getting a surprise gift. Keeping those low price points are an excellent move, especially for anyone who can either get products inexpensively (or sometimes free in the case of samples) or already has sunk costs in inventory.

Buying Real Randomness

Darius Kazemi created Random Shopper, a bot with an Amazon account. It has a set spending limit, enforced with a gift card, but can buy absolutely random items off of Amazon and have them shipped to Kazemi. In an interview with BoingBoing, Kazemi explained that the bot’s purpose was “to see if somehow those purchases feel more or less meaningful than something he would have conscientiously chosen himself; a way, if you will, of exploring his attachment to that ‘crap.'”

He’s getting the full experience that many other companies emulate — no curation or pseudorandomness here. I admit that I’d be willing to buy a couple of gift cards for a bot like this, just to see what comes out. There’s an appeal to just pulling the lever and seeing what happens. It’s the same instinct that drives gambling, except that each of these options actually always results in a win, at least as far as getting something for the money.

Kazemi is getting exposed to music, videos and books he would never have encountered otherwise. There’s a definite value to the randomness he’s added to his life. The fact that the bot has the constant ability to surprise him may not work for everyone, though: most consumers like a little constraint on the subscriptions and other random products that they purchase. But for people who are able to move outside of those constraints, Kazemi’s bot may prove incredibly attractive.

The Benefit of Surprise

I don’t have any statistics to prove that people who regularly face unexpected situations generally do better in life, but anecdotally, it’s true. Such people are more likely to explore new ideas on their own, adapt more effectively to different situations and be able to handle new concepts. There’s an upper limit to just how many shocks a system can take, of course, but the ability to cope is something that can be exercised and improved.

Since unexpected situations in general can improve our abilities to deal with problems, there’s a clear benefit to adding some randomness to our lives, preferably with as few constraints as we feel comfortable with. It’s probably not possible to add enough randomness to a day with a subscription to a monthly delivery of ink samples, but it may be a step in the right direction. Those ink samples, after all, can get you out of the comfort zone of using the same ink, day after day.

Consider how you can cultivate surprises in your own life, as well as in others. You may find a new business model of your own, once you take a walk on the random side.

Image by Flickr user Daniel Dionne

Make Sure You’re Signed Up for the Newsletter, So You Don’t Miss Out on the Free Resources

I just want to give you all a head’s up: I’ve been working on those resources that we discussed a couple of weeks ago.

  • How to find new ideas on old topics
  • Time management for writers
  • Gig finding strategies for writers
  • Making money off your writing online

I’m getting ready to release them and I wanted to suggest that you either sign up for the newsletter or the RSS feed of this blog (both of which are available in the side bar) to make sure that you don’t miss the release. Of course, you can always unsubscribe after you get the resources — I won’t feel bad about it, I promise.

I’m very excited about this project and I have a feeling that these resources will really come in handy for you. I’m already thinking about what I might do next.

Content Marketing: Another Path for Writers

The amount of work out there for a writer is only going up. That’s because more and more businesses have found content marketing to be an effective strategy for selling their products. Content marketing includes blogging, offering ebooks and generally making a huge amount of content available online. Someone has to write all of that content, making it relatively easy for a writer with the right skill set to land work.

There are some concerns with offering content marketing services to clients, of course. While there are plenty of high paying clients out there, the spectrum starts much lower. My first paid blogging gig gave me $5 per post. I pulled up very quickly from there, but it’s very difficult to find a pay rate comparable to writing articles for magazines or similar projects when you’re just starting out.

Luckily, the higher end of the spectrum is very different. It’s not unheard of to get $100 or more for a post — and most of the time, these posts can take significantly less time than an article of a similar length. There are style differences and less research is generally necessary for blogging. Because blog posts are part of a continuing sequence of content, they don’t need to be as in-depth — you may not need to do a single interview to put together a good post, especially if you know the topic very well.

Making the Most of Content Marketing

All this means that, for writers, content marketing can be a lucrative arena. It takes some specialized skills beyond writing — although, what kind of writing doesn’t? The ability to use blogging software is first and foremost, and the ability to put content in other formats (such as creating an ebook) can help increase your rates. But if you’re able to do at least some of the promotion work online (the marketing part of ‘content marketing’), you’ll be in line for the real money. If you can consistently put together posts that draw attention to a site, you can land the higher paying clients easily.

There’s a certain sense in writers used to more traditional freelancing paths that promoting something you’ve written (like a magazine article) is a job for the publisher. But the fact of the matter is that, more and more, every type of writer is expected to be able to promote her work on some level — take a look at what the typical publishing house will do for their authors these days. But it’s especially important if you’re marketing a company with content. Even if you have to go out and bring in some help for the promotion side of things, you can push up the pay rate you ask for when you can say that you’ve written posts that have gotten hundreds of comments, wound up on the front page of Digg or have otherwise attracted plenty of online attention.

Image by Flickr user Zabriensky What?

Don’t Blog About Places You Want to Get Hired

Is there a client you’re trying to land, or even a day job that lets you use your writing skills? It may seem like an obvious rule, but you shouldn’t blog about those places, especially if you’re considering saying something less than pleasant.

There’s the obvious chance that you’ll lose out on the deal to begin with, but many prospective clients will walk away from a writer who has posted unfortunate things about clients in the past — they think ‘that could be my company up there next’ and start looking for another writer.

Yes, Even Anonymously

I’m sure you’re thinking that if you don’t name names, the problem is solved. There’s two approaches to keep names out of it: either you blog under your own name but you don’t use the name of the client you’re hoping to work with, or you write on a blog where your name never appears but you mention the name of the client. It is possible you could be blogging anonymously, as well as not naming names, but for the purpose of this post, I’m assuming that you’re trying to accomplish something specific with your blogging.

But the fact of the matter is that anonymous isn’t nearly as anonymous as you’d like. If someone from the company in question reads a post, he or she will probably be able to figure out what’s going on just from the general details. If you’re writing under your own name, many potential clients will read your blog as a matter of due diligence. If you use the client’s name, it’s relatively easy for the post to be found through a routine Google Search.

I’ve posted a very vague statement about something a client had done to upset me to Twitter (with no names or even much in the way of details). An hour later, I had an email from the client in question in my inbox, asking if I was talking about him. It was a sticky situation, to say the least.

Even If I’m Going to Say Something Nice?

I’m a little wary of even posting nice things about a prospective client — I don’t want to be known as that writer who will suck up just to land a client. If I have something genuinely important that I think is worthwhile to say, I might bring it out here, but if it’s just something run of the mill, I’m far less inclined to bring it up.

There is something worth noting here: one of the easiest ways to get someone’s attention online is to blog about that person. Many technologically-savvy types have Google Alerts set up for their names, so a couple of mentions of them on your blog can create an opportunity for an introduction. But I’d generally restrict that approach to the absolute preliminaries and I’d avoid making a habit of it — after all, if you’ve got a blog, you’ve hopefully got at least a few readers you want to keep entertained. Keep Google Alerts in mind, though: that’s one of the fastest ways for someone to learn you’re writing about them, good or bad.

Image by Flickr user Yohann Aberkane

The Writer as Brand

J.K. Rowling is a brand. So is Stephen King. So are you. In writing, along with most creative pursuits, the brand has to be a personal matter — no matter how many marketers you can afford to hire. Editors hire writers because one individual writer is very different from another. The same holds true when someone is browsing at a bookstore: they look first and foremost for names they recognize.

There are some other brands that are very recognizable when it comes to writing. Tor’s website has gone far towards creating a brand that is recognizable within the science fiction and fantasy community, while there’s no disputing that the New York Times is a well-known brand. But the fact of the matter is that the individual writer still takes precedence.

Personal Branding and Writing

Personal branding has become a popular topic lately. Job hunters use blogs to get themselves hired, bloggers build up presences on social media to make money and so forth. Individuals market themselves without a company or a broader brand. Of course, this isn’t a new concept to many writers. Book authors have had to market themselves and their work all along and the same goes for freelance writers. But the techniques available are evolving, making it useful to get a handle on personal branding. If you’ve got to compete with thousands of job hunters for eyeballs, you need to at least know what techniques they’re using and which will work for you. If you need an entry point to the many books and blogs on personal branding, I would suggest Dan Schawbel’s book, Me 2.0(D) (which has just been updated and re-released), or his personal branding blog.

No matter how trendy personal branding may seem, don’t discount it. When you’re in a line of work, like writing, where what you create will be entirely different from what another person might come up with, you’re just as much a selling point as your work.

A Writer’s Brand

Since personality comes through in writing, it’s important to make your brand at least a little personal. You don’t have to disclose anything you don’t want to, but in your marketing efforts, let your personality come across. If, for instance, you write a blog, the voice you write in is just as important as if you’re working on an assignment for a magazine or a piece of poetry.

It’s worth remembering that, as a writer, you already have a leg up on all the different folks out there trying to create a personal brand. You already know how to communicate in writing, something some paper pusher looking for a new job will likely have to learn. Make use of your talents and use them to actually get across the message that you’re a great writer without having to pound it into anyone’s head.

Image by Flickr user Randy Lemoine

3 Things a Nine-Hour Drive Taught Me About Writing

Over the weekend, I went to Fan Expo in Toronto, which required a nine-hour drive up from Maryland. The drive wasn’t bad and, over the course of the weekend, I made some observations about writing that are going to be worthwhile.

They Did It First, We Do It Better

We drove through Buffalo, New York, which meant that we simply had to stop for wings. On the way to Toronto, we stopped at Duff’s Famous Wings and noticed the wait staff wearing shirts that read “They did it first. We do it better.” It didn’t make sense until our drive home, when we stopped at the Anchor Bar on our way home.

The Anchor Bar proudly proclaims itself the home of the original Buffalo chicken wing. The two restaurants are considered the best in Buffalo for wings and have something of a rivalry going. And, as far as my opinion goes, Duff’s has it right. The Anchor Bar may have invented the Buffalo chicken wing, but Duff’s does it better.

It’s a good lesson to keep in mind in the hustle and bustle of writing online. There always seems to be some new strategy coming out for SEO or social media, which some enterprising individual is pioneering in order to make a name for herself. But just because someone else got to a strategy first, you shouldn’t write it off. Looking for the next newest thing can be a tough way to build a writing business. Rather, picking up the strategies that you can be the best at — whether or not you were first — makes sense.

Creativity is Easy, Money is Hard

At the FanExpo, I met some incredibly creative and passionate people, but several people told me that while they’re willing to shell out $500 bucks just for a booth at FanExpo, it’s not something that they expect to ever make money at. Being the consummate networker I am, I started asking about the promotion strategies they use (especially whether they use content to promote themselves).

For a surprising number, their promotional efforts amounted to building a website and showing up at FanExpo. They would love to take their projects full-time, but they’re focusing entirely on the creative aspects. That’s okay if it’s going to remain a hobby, but if you’re serious about something like that, you’ve got to give a fair amount of time to marketing. It’s hard (especially if you’re also working full-time), but if you want to make a living writing fantasy novels, putting together an online television show or pursuing some other creative venture, your only option is to push hard.

It’s been done before and it will be done again, but it will never be easy.

Warm Audiences Are Always Easier

There were big name draws at FanExpo — William Shatner and Stan Lee were both there. But there were also attendees who came specifically because their favorite vendor or their favorite web comic had announced they’d be attending. An email newsletter was enough to bring out fifty committed buyers for one vendor I talked with. He sees the same truly excited fans at every convention he goes to and those fans always buy something.

In comparison, he has to work hard to get cold audiences to come to him. He spends three days straight yelling, cajoling and tempting people who have never heard of him to come to his booth and look at what he’s selling, while taking the money of the fans already on his mailing list.

It’s a good comparison of what happens when a writer wants to sell a product or land a new client. The more we can do to warm up an audience ahead of time, the more likely we are to walk away with money at the end of the day. Maybe we run blogs that cater to our target clients so that they’re already warm to our names and ideas before we ever start talking about money. Maybe we warm up a cold audience at a convention by using social media to see who is going to be there ahead of time — then we can reach out and make sure that an introduction in person is simply a matter of continuing an online conversation.

FanExpo is one of the first events in a while that I didn’t have an idea (beyond the speakers) of who would be there and who I wanted to talk to. It wasn’t a conference I wanted to work, but honestly, since I knew so few people ahead of time, it was harder to get into the swing of things. I do wish I’d at least looked a little bit online before heading up there.

Image by Flickr user Benson Kua

I’m Writing an Article on Spec: Why I’m Not Scared

I used to absolutely refuse to ever write articles on spec. If I didn’t have a contract in my hands, I wasn’t going to write the article. This is not uncommon: many freelance writers have gotten this advice from on high (freelance writing blogs, forums and so on).

I’m not really at a point where I’m hurting for work, either. In theory, I should still be staying away from the spec article system. So why am I putting together 1,000 words that could easily be rejected?

Writing with Multiple Purposes

Putting together evergreen content is an easy way to increase your freelance writing income: anything that you can sell reprint rights to (either to magazines or through content mills) after you’ve seen it run somewhere else first is a great investment of your time.

But it’s possible to extend that principle. When you’re writing anything these days, considering multiple purposes is just good sense. You can turn blog posts into an ebook, turn old articles into marketing pieces. It is, more than anything else, a question of thinking of the multiple purposes with which you can use any given piece of writing.

I’m primarily talking about writing articles here — this works with other types of writing, but is extremely difficult with something like copy writing. Reusing copy from a client’s site is a big non-no. The only exception I can think of is if you were to collect a couple of different pieces of copy writing you’ve done previously to use as examples in an article or an ebook.

Multiple Purposes for Spec

First of all, I’ve picked the spec markets I’m interested in submitting to very carefully. They do pay well as a general rule, but my goal isn’t necessarily to make money off these articles — the money is more of an added bonus. Instead, I’m interested in raising my profile in some very specific publications. I only write about a couple of topics these days, but I want to make sure that I’m the go-to-gal for those topics. So the spec publications I’m interested in have some sort of prestige associated with them.

Second, I always work on an article with other homes in mind in case it is rejected. Each of the spec articles I’ve put together could easily be sold to another publication, used as a guest post to raise interest in something else I’m doing or otherwise be published right here (saving me some writing the next time I need a post).

I only write on spec under my own terms. I certainly won’t write on spec for a client who has brought me a project — in that direction lies frustration and financial disaster — or for silly contests meant to get someone a cheap first round of creative work. Instead, I make sure any spec work thoroughly benefits me and moves me directly towards my goals.

Image by Flickr user Marcin Wichary