Close
Close

How to Become more Popular (and Grow your Income) by Making your Topic Stupidly Easy

This guest post is by Johnny B Truant from Learn to Be Your Own V.A. and The Economy Isn’t Happening.

Back in early April, partially at the suggestion of Naomi Dunford of IttyBiz, I wrote a free e-book intended to make launching a standalone blog easy, fast, and cheap. It was a short book, comprised of screenshots and simple written instructions. All anyone had to do was read, point, and click.

Nearly four hundred people downloaded the e-book in the first few days, but in the following month, only three actually completed the process. People said that sure, it was easy, but there were still too many steps. So I announced that if they’d just get the hosting, I’d do the rest of the process for them for $39.

That did it.

I launched 40 blogs the following week, and was flooded with emails thanking me for making this complicated subject easy — and that brought me to an interesting realization. If I could be the guy who made things simple, people would love it and even pay me for it. Psychologists call this “Removing barriers to action.” I think of it as “making things stupidly easy.”

Know your topic. Make it simple. Profit.

What this means for you

Most blogs — especially those that try to make a profit — are about something. They’re about meditation, or custom window framing, or knitting, or blogging itself. They have a lesson to impart. Readers are there because they want to understand a topic they don’t know as well as the blog’s author does. The extent to which you are able to teach them will, in large part, determine whether they continue to read, tell their friends, link to you, and so on.

Sounds obvious, right? The sticking point is that not all teaching is created equal. It’s not always in line with what readers actually want and need.

How readers learn best

In early May, I conducted a survey among IttyBiz readers to see how they preferred to learn online. Throughout the survey, I asked participants to pretend that they were trying to learn a skill online that 1) they were not already an expert at, 2) didn’t involve a lot of creativity and hence was amenable to step-by-step explanation, and 3) was a sort of “middle of the road” skill — i.e., closer to “changing spark plugs” than “rebuilding an engine from scratch.”

Here’s what I found:

1. Readers really do want simplicity.

Only six percent of respondents said that “a vague sketch of how to do it” would be sufficient. Two thirds said that simple instructions were “important,” and thirty percent said it was “essential.” Nearly a third of the audience said that “Ideally, I’d like someone to show me exactly what to do each step of the way.” What’s more, 79% said that on a scale of 1-10, “simplicity and easy-to-follow instructions” are at least an eight when learning a new skill online. 23% of respondents ranked it as a ten.

2. Detailed tutorials and detailed text descriptions with photos are the best learning tools.

The learning tool that respondents thought would be most helpful when learning a new skill online was “Doing detailed step-by-step tutorials (Step one: Do this (with photo). Step two: Do this (with photo). Etc.).” 83% chose this option, following it at 79% with “Reading text, like blog posts, with accompanying photos” (Text without photos ranked at half that.) Surprisingly, the third-ranking medium — video — ranked at only 51%, followed by detailed e-books, Q&A, wikis, and interactive phone calls or web meetings.

3. People are willing to pay for easy-to-follow instruction.

50% of respondents said they’d be willing to pay for instructions that could make the process easier and faster than the alternatives, even if those more complicated alternatives were free. Another 20% said “Maybe.” (Caveat: Some respondents felt that their answers to this one would depend highly on the skill at hand.)

4. People are willing to pay up to $50 for info products that could make the process simpler.

Of the people who said they’d pay to make learning a skill easier, 44% said the maximum they’d pay for an info product would be $20, and another 32% said they’d pay up to $50. Only 5% were willing to pay more.

5. “Simple-making” is worth up to $50 per hour.

For bloggers who run a service business teaching people how to do things, your skills seem to be worth between $25 and $50 per hour. 40% indicated they would pay this much, with 37% indicating they’d only pay up to $25/hr, and 17% willing to go as high as $75/hr. (And again, respondents indicated what they’d pay would depend on the skill being taught.)

6. More than half of the respondents would pay someone to just do it for them.

I asked people to consider a “middle of the road” skill that they didn’t know well, that could be outsourced, and that had to be done (as opposed to a hobby they wanted to learn how to do themselves) and asked if they would pay someone to just do it for them. 52% said they would, with another 18% responding with “Maybe.” Of the “Yes” responses, 44% said they would pay up to $100 total. Another 16% said they’d go up to $200, and 9% would pay up to $500.

What this means to the average blogger

Assuming your blog centers on a specific topic (rather than being a personal journal) this all means that there is money in being the person who makes your topic simple. Do you write about construction? If you made a simple, step-by-step online tutorial with plenty of pictures about how to install recessed lighting, readers might pay $20-$50 to access it. Do you blog about computer networking? That’s an insanely complex topic. If you could boil some of your best tips down into really, really easy step-by-step instructions (as video, e-books, or just an informative blog), you could likely sell that information. Or for local readers, you could easily charge $50/hr to teach them personally, or even more to set up networks for them.

Now: You may think you already make your topic easy, but keep in mind just how highly simplicity ranked in the survey. A third of people wanted to see every little step along the way. 23% said simplicity was important to the tune of 10 out of 10. Detailed step-by-step tutorials ranked at the very top of the methods readers prefer to use when learning. Sure, you’re explaining your topic. But are you making it stupidly easy?

The Net is a complicated place, full of free instruction that is often still confusing and hard to follow. Try being the person who can explain your topic to the layman in very, very, very easy-to-follow ways. If you can use your knowledge to distill the essence of what you know and put it across in a “stupidly easy” way, you may discover a huge market right at your fingertips.

In addition to being a weekly contributor to IttyBiz, Johnny writes Learn to Be Your Own V.A. (which is informative but not funny) and The Economy Isn’t Happening (which is funny but not at all informative). You can pick up his free blog launch e-book at the former.

Banishing Spammers and Trolls With .htaccess Files

In a guest post, Neil Matthews of WPDude.com writes about how comment spammers and trolls can be banished from your site by blocking their IP address using the .htaccess file.

Are you plagued by spammers and trolls inside of the comments section of your blog? If you are, I want to give you a simple little trick to kick them off your blog and keep them out by blocking their IP address.

I decided to use this technique on my own site when I noticed that 80% of my comment spam was coming from about five IP addresses. Enough was enough, although I was capturing the spammers using Akismet, I wanted to stop these people in their tracks. They were not welcome on my site.

This post is written with a WordPress bias, but check out your webserver and if it uses .htaccess there is a good chance you can adopt the techinques described here.

What is the .htaccess file?

The .htacess file is a web server level configuration file which sets certain rules for visitors to your site. It works at a level below WordPress (or any other blogging platform) analyses certain aspects of your web browsers interaction with the web server and if certain rules are met, you can generate an action.

In the example I am about to show, the rule is to check an IP address and the action is to restrict access.

.htaccess configuration is a huge topic. It can be used for redirection and a host of other functions. Much deeper reading can be found at http://httpd.apache.org/docs/trunk/howto/htaccess.html

Finding The Offenders IP address

WordPress does a great job helping you to discover the commentors IP address. Simply go to the comment section in your WordPress dashboard or to your spam moderation folder and below the email address and website is the IP address of the commentor. This is collected by WordPress for you.

Editing Your .htacess file

Lets start with a word of warning you can seriously damage your blog if you amend .htaccess incorrectly so take a backup of your file before you make any changes. I like to download the file to my local machine take a copy and edit the the original before uploading it back to my web server.

Some geekery for you, on unix or linux systems any file begining with a full stop/period is marked as a hidden file, and you will probably not be able to see the .htaccess file in the root of your WordPress installation by default. You will need to enable hidden files on your ftp client. I use Filezilla and that is located under server -> force show hidden files. Your ftp client will vary but the option will be there somewhere.

The default .htaccess file

A default WordPress .htaccess file will look like this:

# BEGIN WordPress

<IfModule mod_rewrite.c>

RewriteEngine On

RewriteBase /

RewriteCond %{REQUEST_FILENAME} !-f

RewriteCond %{REQUEST_FILENAME} !-d

RewriteRule . /index.php [L]

</IfModule>

# END WordPress

As you can see it has a number of re-write rules for wordpress and very little else.

What To Add

To block a particular IP address add the following lines below the #END WordPress section, replacing the details inside of {} with real IP addresses or host names.

#block spammers and troll’s IP addresses

order allow,deny

deny from {IP ADDRESS}

deny from {SECOND IP ADDRESS ONE PER LINE}

deny from {YOU CAN ALSO USE DOMAIN NAME trollhostname.com}

allow from all

# END spammers and trolls

Edit your .htaccess file with a text editor add your exclusions then upload it back to the root of your blog installation overwriting the old .htacess file.

Testing Your Changes

Any IP address added to the exclusion list will not be allowed access to your web server and a 403 forbidden message will be returned. The message from my web server is shown below:

Forbidden

You don’t have permission to access / on this server.

Additionally, a 403 Forbidden error was encountered while trying to use an ErrorDocument to handle the request.

You can test it works by leaving a test comment on your blog getting your IP address and adding it the the .htaccess file. Remember to take it out again or you will not have access to your blog.

It is Not Fool Proof

This work around is not fool proof, it comes with some limitations and they are:

  • Proxies – if you offender is behind a proxy IP address then anybody else using that same address will be banned. Some ISPs will use a shared IP address so everyone using that ISP will be banned from yoru site. Use with care.
  • Spoofing IP address – if your troll is particularly tech litereate they could spoof their IP address or use another one, they will then get through your barrier.

Using another machine – your troublesome visitor could simply go to a friends machine or to an internet cafe and get a new IP address.

Wrap Up

As mentioned this is not a fool proof way to stop offenders, but blocking IP addresses is a great way of stopping comment bots from fixed addresses and a way of sending out a real warning to trolls that there type of comments are not welcome.

If you use this trick in conjunction with anti-spam plugins and comment moderation techniques you should be able to reduce your spam and deter trolls.

15 Ways to Rework Your Next Blog Post Title

titles.pngThis post is task #32 (a bonus one) in the 31 Days to Build a Better Blog challenge.

Your task today is to rework the title of the next post that you write

OK – so you need to have a post written before you can do this one but assuming you have a post ready to go – here are a few reflections on getting the titles of blog posts right.

Why the Title is One of the Most Important Elements of Your Next Post

The title of your next post is the main factor that people use to determine whether they’ll read your next post. This is true in most places that people are going to stumble upon your post whether it be on a search engine, in an RSS feed, on a social media site, in a link from another blog etc.

A great title will draw people into the post and give them reason to read it.

A bad title will more often than not be ignored, glossed over and mean a post goes unread.

As a result – bloggers need to spend at least a few minutes thinking specifically about the post title before publishing. Without it all the effort that you put into your actual post could be wasted.

8 Tips for Writing Compelling Blog Post Titles

Much has been written on the topic of writing great blog post titles and I’ll link to some great resources below – but here are a few strategies and tips that I’ve found useful (note: to get a full explanation on each of these read my post How to Craft Post Titles that Draw Readers Into Your Blog):

  1. Communicate a Benefit – a title should tell readers something that they’ll ‘get’ by reading your post.
  2. Create Controversy or Debate – not suitable for every post title but there’s nothing like Debate to get people checking out a post.
  3. Ask a Question – in my experience posts with questions in the titles tend to get read more than others – they also are better at stimulating comments from readers.
  4. Personalize Titles – for example: using ‘you’ in your post title (and post) can have a real impact and take a post from the realm of ‘theory’ into a more personal post.
  5. Use Keywords – keywords that signal to readers and search engines what your post is about can help draw in significant traffic if you use them well.
  6. Use Power Words – Not all words are created equal – some evoke a powerful response in readers – words like ‘free’, ‘stunning’, ‘discover’, ‘warning’, ‘secrets’, ‘easy’ etc all work well in my experience of blogging.
  7. Make Claims and Promises – as long as you can back them up in your post – a big claim or promise can get someone’s attention.
  8. Humor Titles – be careful with this one – funny can work great but it can also leave your readers very confused if it’s too cryptic…. or if it’s just not funny.

Again – you can get a fuller description of each of these 8 strategies here.

7 More Tips on Writing Titles

1. Run it by Your Blog Buddy – on day 15 of the 31 Days to Build a Better Blog you were encouraged to find a blog buddy. The activity of writing titles is one thing that having a blog buddy is best for. I have a couple of fellow bloggers that I regularly ping with an instant message to bounce ideas off when it comes to titles. More often than not the quick conversation that follows improves the title considerably.

2. Consider Title Updates – I know that this will annoy some bloggers who don’t believe in updating posts after publishing them but I personally don’t have a problem with updating post titles after they’re published if it is clear that they are just not working. The only thing to remember is that some blog platforms derive their URLs from the title so you’ll only want to make updates if you can keep your old URLs in tact.

3. Write for Readers First and Search Engines Second – some bloggers try to write titles that are so optimized for search engine optimization that they forget their actual readers. It’s possible to have a post that ranks really well in Google but that is so poorly worded that even though it ranks #1 nobody will click on it – keep readers as your #1 priority.

4. Keep it Simple – I find that it is often the most simple and straight to the point titles that simply say what the post is about that work the best. There are times to be a little ‘clever’ but more often than not it is a title that clearly gives the topic and communicates a benefit of reading the post that will get clicked on most.

5. Learn what Works and Repeat it – Don’t feel you have the reinvent the wheel with every title that you write. The more posts you write on your blog the more you’ll begin to learn about what works and what doesn’t work. When you find a format that works well with your readers don’t be afraid to use it again. Of course you won’t want to use exactly the same title more than once but you’ll begin to see some formulas that work (see my link to a great series by Brian Clark below – it contains some title formulas to try).

6. Don’t Oversell Your Post – the temptation with blog posts is to make them so compelling and have such a big promise that they go beyond what the post itself can deliver. In doing this you create an expectation in your reader that you just can’t fulfill. Don’t oversell yourself or you’ll have disappointed readers on your hands.

7. Numbers and Lists – Tried and True – one of the most successful types of posts (and therefore titles of posts) are the good old ‘list post’. The title that tells readers how many points you’ve made has something about it that just seems to connect and compel people to click them.

Let me finish with the advice I started with – take your time with your blog post titles. You invest considerable time and effort into your actual posts – don’t short change yourself by slapping the first title that comes to mind on them.

Further Reading

For a little extra inspiration and instruction on how to craft great blog post titles check out these resources:

Has the Economy Impacted Blogger Job Listings?

In August 2006 I realized that I was regularly getting two types of email requests:

  1. Companies looking to hire bloggers
  2. Bloggers looking to be hired by companies

As a result I decided to start a Job Board for Bloggers.

The concept was simple. Those looking to hire bloggers could place an ad for 30 days for $50. Those looking to find a blog job could subscribe to the job board RSS feed to be notified of new jobs.

It has been 34 months since I launched the job boards. In that time we’ve seen 720 paid listings for jobs on the board.

As I was doing some analysis of the job listings over this period I realized that the data might be interesting to others also as an indicator of how the current economic climate has impacted the job hiring scene.

While I wouldn’t read too much into the data as the sample size is relatively small I found the following chart interesting.

blog-jobs.png

A few notes on the chart:

  1. the first month (Aug 06) was a partial month – we launched the job boards late that month
  2. the last month (May 09) is an estimate. We’re on track for 31 listings this month.
  3. the line is a moving average based upon the last 4 months/quarter of listings

A few observations:

  1. there are some definite cyclical trends to be observed – the most notable is that December has been a low month in each of the three years. November has also been a low month and October has been the highest month in each of the three years.
  2. looking at the moving average – the end of 2008 and start of 2009 saw a definite dip in job listings. Interestingly there’s been a definite upswing over the last 3 months with a new job being added each day.
  3. I don’t have a chart to show it but the RSS subscriber numbers for the job board are on the rise. The growth in those numbers has been quite steadily on the increase since the job board has been launched.

Again – I wouldn’t read too much into these figures due to the size of the sample and the natural growth of the site as it has become more well known but I do at least take a little comfort from the fact that there does seem to be hiring going on in the blogging industry despite what’s happening in the wider economy.

The Other Side Of ProBlogging: Making Real Money Right From The Start Of Your Blogging Career

In this post Ali Hale from the Office Diet shares some tips on how to make money from blogging by being a ‘Staff Blogger’. Learn more about Ali in the footer of this post.

You started a blog with the dream of making a living from writing about something you love. A month, or six months, or two years down the line, you’ve got a handful of subscribers, a few pennies accumulating in Google AdSense, and a growing sense of frustration. The gurus touted blogging as an “easy” way to make money: frankly, digging ditches is starting to look more appealing.

Even if you are willing to put in those early months of unpaid hard graft before you find an audience, you might just not have the time. In the current economy, you might need your blogging to start paying off now – not in two or three years.

I’ve got good news for you. Instead of struggling your way to an audience, you can start with a ready-made crowd of 50,000+ readers. Instead of watching those AdSense pennies trickle in, you can receive a fixed sum per post.

Staff Blogging – The Other Side Of ProBlogging

You might have noticed that ProBlogger has job boards. You might even have applied for a few jobs through them. This is just the tip of the iceberg of a blogging industry out there, where writers are hired and paid good money to write posts for large blogs.

If you love writing – and dislike the process of marketing, building traffic and doing techy things – you’ll find that staff blogging lets you have all the great bits of blogging without the tedious ones.

It’s not just about the money; it is also a lot of fun, especially if you enjoy writing and variety.

(Chris Garrett, ProBlogger: Secrets for Blogging Your Way to a Six Figure Income, p124)

So what exactly is staff blogging? It’s sometimes called “freelance blogging”, but bloggers often use that phrase to talk about traditional ProBlogging too – writing for themselves and making money through ads.

Staff blogging is writing regular posts for a blog (anything from several per day to one per month), and receiving a set fee per post.

Can You Really Make Money Like That?

Yes, you really can – and good money, at that. I’m paying my rent and bills purely from my staff blogging work, and I live in London in the UK – hardly the cheapest place in the world!

There are numerous blogs which pay writers a decent rate (I wouldn’t advise blogging for less than $20 per post, unless the posts are extremely short). Big names in the blogging industry advise high-powered bloggers to “outsource” the writing of content – and in many cases, the editing of the blog.

If you have cash to spare (err…invest) then paying for blog content is a great way to motivate people. If you are serious about building a blog network then you better be serious about rewarding your writers very well. (Yaro Starak, How To Grow A Great Blog Without Writing It Yourself)

How Do You Find Well-Paying Blogging Jobs?

Whenever I talk about staff blogging, this is what everyone wants to know: where are the well paid jobs, and how do you get them?

First, be proactive. Don’t sit around hoping that your dream job will appear on the ProBlogger boards: instead, look at the blogs which you read and see if any use multiple writers. If they do, there’s a good chance that they pay. Hunt around for pages like these:

Send a guest post to blogs which look promising, and mention that you’d be interested in becoming a regular, paid writer. Be a good guest blogger and don’t make careless mistakes that spoil your chances of success.

I’ve found all my best jobs through contacting editors personally in this way – not through trawling job boards. In a couple of cases, I didn’t even ask for a job: my guest post had landed in an editor’s inbox at just the right time, and I was offered a paid position:

I first met Ali Hale via a guest post submission. She sent an article to be published on Daily Writing Tips, and it was so good that I offered her the chance of becoming a paid staff writer on the blog. (Daniel Scocco, Daily Blog Tips Interview With Ali Hale)

Even if you’re applying speculatively, take the time to write a good email, to follow any guidelines (blogs may request guest posts or speculative posts in a certain format), and to behave as professionally as you would if you were applying to a blogging position listed on a jobs board.

Do I Need To Be A Great Writer?

One thing that worries a lot of potential staff bloggers is whether their writing is good enough. Of course, you need to have a good grasp of the English language – but you definitely don’t need to be the next Shakespeare. Blog readers want posts that are written in a clear, straightforward and engaging manner – and editors like to give their readers what they want!

Don’t try to use long, ponderous or difficult words in an attempt to impress. Sonia Simone calls this “fancy nancy” writing and warns against it on CopyBlogger, telling bloggers that instead they should just keep things simple and direct:

Write plainly and with vigor. Get your point across directly, with as much grace as you can muster. You can’t make a connection if your reader has no earthly idea what you’re talking about. (Sonia Simone, Are You a Fancy Nancy Writer, CopyBlogger)

If you do want to improve your writing style, these blogs are packed with tips and advice:

  • Daily Writing Tips (especially good if English isn’t your first language, or if you need to brush up on the basics)
  • CopyBlogger (which has a focus on blogging for marketing purposes, but lots of general advice too – good for intermediate and advanced writers)
  • Men With Pens (a mixture of writing and freelancing advice, much of it aimed at bloggers)

These two posts are particularly worth a look for some quick tips:

How Staff Blogging Can Help Traditional ProBloggers

Perhaps you don’t get a thrill just out of writing: you’re motivated by the idea of owning your own Technorati Top 100 blog, like Darren. You might have thought about writing for pay, but it seems like a waste of your time. You may even have been advised not to work for other people’s blogs, with warnings that staff bloggers work for

…a flat one-time fee with no residuals. If such bloggers stop writing, they stop earning. And apparently there’s no shortage of bloggers willing to work for such rates. (Steve Pavlina, How Much Is a Blog Post Worth? Would You Believe $2400 Each?)

Steve goes on to recommend that bloggers stick with writing on their own blogs, citing himself as an example of how this would be financially beneficial – he calculates that each post on his blog has brought in $2400. (This was in 2006, I imagine it’s considerably more by now.)

I’m going to have to disagree with Steve here. Most of us don’t have the writing and business talents that he does, and most of us aren’t anywhere near making $24/post on our own blogs, let alone $2400. Besides, getting some staff blogging experience is hugely beneficial for your own blogs. This could mean:

  1. Improved skills: The more you write for blogs, the better you’ll get at blogging. Writing for several different blogs gives you the chance to try out different styles and voices – this could help you to discover your blogging voice. And having your posts edited can teach you where you’re going wrong: writing for Dumb Little Man taught me to craft more engaging introductions to posts.
  2. Better discipline: Have you ever run out of ideas? Suffered from “blogger’s block”? Have you felt uninspired about your own blog, and lacked the motivation to write? Have you been “too busy” to blog? Getting a staff blogging gig will drive all your excuses away: when an editor’s expecting a post every week, you’ll find that you can write to a deadline.
  3. Traffic for your own blog: Some blogs which I’ve written for (Dumb Little Man is a good example) give me a short bio line as well as paying. This means I get great traffic and exposure.
  4. Google juice for your own blog: Most blogs that use staff writers will have a page listing those writers’ bios and linking to their sites. Since blogs that can afford to pay tend to be long-standing ones that rank well in Google, that link will improve your own Google ranking.

And, on top of that, staff blogging can give you some vital extra cash early on in your journey towards the blogging A-list. You can staff blog and write for your own blog as well: it’s not an either-or decision.

So what are you waiting for? Take a browse through some of the blogs that you love, look to see which have several regular writers, and shoot the editor a great guest post. Follow it up with a polite enquiry about getting paid to write for them, and you may well hit lucky…

Bio: Ali has been paying her rent and bills through staff blogging since September ‘08. She’s just released the “Staff Blogging Course” – a short, self-study ebook course packed with advice, tips and practical exercises and handouts. The course sells for $19, but ProBlogger readers can get a $5 discount by entering the code “ProBlogger” (no quotes, not case sensitive).

11 Striking Findings From an Eye Tracking Study

eye-tracking.jpg

image by s-revenge

If you’ve got a spare 10 minutes today check out Eyetrack III who have published some great findings in their latest eye tracking studies of news and multimedia content sites (found via Direct Creative Blog).

There’s loads of juicy goodness in the full article but here are 11 of the main points that grabbed my attention:

  1. “Dominant headlines most often draw the eye first upon entering the page”
  2. “Smaller type encourages focused viewing behavior…. larger type promotes lighter scanning”
  3. “a headline has less than a second of a site visitor’s attention”
  4. “For headlines — especially longer ones — it would appear that the first couple of words need to be real attention-grabbers”
  5. “Navigation placed at the top of a homepage performed best”
  6. “Shorter paragraphs performed better in Eyetrack III research than longer ones.”
  7. “We found that ads in the top and left portions of a homepage received the most eye fixations”
  8. “Size matters. Bigger ads had a better chance of being seen”
  9. “Close proximity to popular editorial content really helped ads get seen”
  10. “the bigger the image, the more time people took to look at it.”
  11. “Our research also shows that clean, clear faces in images attract more eye fixations on homepages”

Light or Dark Blog Backgrounds? [POLL RESULTS]

Our last poll asked readers whether they preferred light or dark backgrounds in blog design. The results were:

blog-backgrounds-poll-results.png

The majority like ‘Light’ backgrounds but a fair chunk of readers think it depends upon the blog design.

Megatrends and Blogging

Yesterday I spent most of the day at a conference here in Melbourne called the Future Summit. My role was ‘guest twitterer’ on the official Twitter account for the summit for a few of the sessions.

The presentation that I found most helpful today was by Alison Sander from Boston Consulting Group who spent 45 minutes talking about ‘Megatrends’.

The time she was given was not long enough to adequately cover the topic (I could have listened to her all day) but she did use her time well.

Alison Sander described four types of trends (forgive me for a very poor paraphrase):

  1. Linear Trends – those that are quite predictable (imagine a graph trending up in a straight diagonal line). She argued that while most predictable these trends are most rare.
  2. Cyclical Trends – trends that come and go in a cycle.
  3. Fads – one off trends – in this case the graph would have a sharp rise and then sharp fall
  4. Mega Trends – trends that not only trend up but do so exponentially with an ever increasing rise

Sander spent the rest of the session looking at Megatrends which she described as trends that are not going away, trends that are relatively recession proof and trends that are hard to spot at the beginning (but if you do spot them you make ALOT of money). She also made the point that if you don’t spot them early but get into them later there is still opportunity but that there also is a rise in risk in investing into them. She used the internet as an example of this type of trend.

Sander then went on to talk about 18 types of Megatrends. I’ll list them below but won’t describe each one as she was unable to focus upon each in the short time given.

  • Economic Volatility
  • Globalization
  • Connectivity
  • Rise of Trust and Transparency
  • Global Warming and Rise of Green Products
  • Innovation Imperative
  • Rise of Asia (China/India)
  • Rise of Services
  • Rise of Urbanization/Infrastructure
  • Risk and Security
  • Energy Volatility
  • Rise in Natural Disasters
  • Aging/Demographic Shifts
  • Global Divides
  • Health and Wellness
  • RDE Challenges
  • Health spending/biotech
  • Rise of Entertainment/Celebrity

What struck me as Alison talked today was that her list was actually a pretty rich list of topics that bloggers might want to focus upon and align themselves with.

While these trends have moved beyond the early stages opportunity exists to invest time into them, to learn about, to develop expertise in, to create online communities around, to facilitate discussions in etc.

Of course these are massive topics so a wise blogger would be breaking them down and looking for opportunities within the larger topics to develop a profile on subtopics.

Designing a Custom WordPress Theme – Working with a Designer [PART 2]

Today, Amir Helzer from WPML (WordPress Multilingual) shares his experience building a custom WordPress theme.

In my previous post, I talked about what I do when commissioning custom WordPress theme design. It left where the job started. In this post, I’ll talk about the steps that follow – working with the designer towards a complete and functional theme, reviewing it and finalizing the project.

Reviewing prototypes

The first thing the designer needs to send me are prototypes of the website. These are non-functional documents (images). The designer isn’t creating a real web page for that, but rather using a drawing tool. Prototyping is a creative process. It’s when the web designer’s creative abilities get to shine.

Let the designer design, don’t do a review by committee

If you were a graphics designer, you’d have probably built your theme yourself. You’re probably not, so you asked a professional designer to help. The problem is, people don’t know how to review what they get so we start asking for feedback from others. The wife, our friends and colleagues all have something to say. Then, we compile that ‘rejects list’ and send to the designer. What we’ve done right now is make sure the designer can’t do anything.

Graphics design is a creative process and produces subjective results. Any given design will always generate criticism. If our objective is to come up with a design that makes everyone happy, we’ll end up with a pale design that has no character and no impact. Our site will not be memorable and will have no branding.

My suggestion is – leave the creative work to the designer and concentrate my efforts on functionality.

For WPML, these are the issues I raised during the prototyping stage:

  1. Make the top banner smaller and consume less page real estate.
  2. Make the text background white so it’s easier to read.
  3. Add a search box and language selector and integrate them in the top banner.
  4. Make the screen shots in the features page larger.

Create a detailed theme checklist

As the designer is building your theme, take the time to compile a comprehensive checklist of items you’re going to check. When get the first delivery, it’s like a new toy. You’ll want to play with it and show it around. It will be very helpful if you have a checklist to go through for each delivery, so nothing gets left out.

Here is my list:

  • All pages are HTML clean. To verify this, I review the theme in Firefox and use the HTML Validator extension. It displays the validation status of every page viewed so you can tell right away where there’s a problem.
  • Pages look the same in Firefox and IE7. Even if all pages are 100% HTML valid, they might display differently in different browsers (due to different CSS defaults).
    Check the home page (if it’s a the blog’s index or if it’s a special page).
  • Check samples of different templates (check for both enabled and disabled comments).
  • Check a post with and without comments.
  • Check a category page.
  • Check a tag page.
  • Check the search results page (and make sure that the search box is placed where it should).
  • Sidebar supports widgets.
  • Comments are threaded and properly coded (when I click on ‘reply to comment, the JS kicks in and the reply box is displayed under the comment).
  • Use the site navigation and see that I can get to any page.

Just to illustrate what I mean by testing on different browsers, have a look at these two screen shots:

Menu problem on IE7 - incorrect Z order of floating menu

Menu problem on IE7 - incorrect Z order of floating menu


fixed_problem_on_ie7_1

After correcting the Z-order - menus display correctly on IE7 and FF

These two shots were taken from a page that is 100% valid XHTML. No errors and no warnings. Still you can see that the navigation is completely broken on the top image and looks fine on the bottom one. This happened due to a weird IE7 bug which mixes z-order for elements if a page has more than one relative position blocks.

When the designer is ready with a new version the the theme, I review it in two stages. First on their server and then on my. If there are obvious errors, I like to see them immediately on their server before spending time uploading and installing it on my.

Logo graphics

An important part of the design is the logo. The logo that comes with the theme is great, but you also need to use it in other places. I use my logo graphics for business cards, banner ads and even in plugins. For this to work, you need to request the logo in a way that is independent of the rest of the theme design. I ask for the graphics as a high resolution transparent PNG (Portable Network Graphics).

Logo on red backgroundThen, when the designer sends me the logo, I put it on different backgrounds and magnify. This way, any artifacts are easier to spot. For starters, try while, black and red. If your transparent logo shows strange edges, it means that the transparency isn’t right and it needs fixing.

My logo includes the graphics itself and some text. I ask to get them separately, so that I can use either one or the other. Also remember to take note of the font type used in your logo. You’ll need that when creating printed material with it.

Wrap up

A custom theme for your blog will give it an identity. Like any other design project, it has its risks. When defined and managed properly, this can be a fun thing to do and produce excellent results that will bring your blog to the next level.

I hope that these tips help. Tell us about your experience getting custom design work.

This post was written by Amir Helzer, founder of WPML, a mega-plugin that aims to turn WordPress into a fully featured multilingual content management system.