Pressed for time? Cute tools that give immediate results

Last time around, I posted about not having enough time to blog. I’m trying to fix this by basically making time – but it seems a good point at which to list some tools that help you get ‘cool’ results with as little input as possible.

By this, I mean tools that use your media to create interesting publications or multimedia. In other words, the exact opposite of blogging. In that, writing a good, well researched, informative blog post takes a while and looks frankly boring, whereas some of these tools basically make people go ‘wow’ with the minimum of effort required.

Paper.li – newspapers from people you follow

I’ve often thought of Twitter as the ‘compressed web’, that is, people tend to tweet with a link to a web page, so you go from 140 characters to a page via Twitter. Paper.li have very cleverly demonstrated this, by automatically publishing a nicely formatted newspaper from people you follow on Twitter.

The idea is that, if you follow these people, it’s because you find them interesting in some way. In turn, the people who follow you might find them interesting too. So, ‘expand’ from the links of people you follow, package them into something attractive, and you’re promoting them and yourself in the process. It’s sort of curation, and you can click here to see mine live.

As you can see, you can give it a name, and you can choose how often to publish (daily makes sense given Twitter’s timescales). You can also use it to create newsletters from Facebook although I tried that with mixed success. It seems to promote/publish the tweets that have been retweeted the most.

What I’ve found is that people tend to retweet if they’re on it but I don’t know how well it works otherwise. Still, given that it’s free, takes virtually no time to put together and looks nice, it’s certainly something you can add to your client’s online presence.

Imagine how effective this would be if you then, say, print these off, put them in envelopes and mail them to people. Oh, wait…

Pummelvision – movies from your pictures

Pummelvision is cute. Point it at your Flickr account (or, as of fairly recently, Facebook, Tumblr and some other platforms) and it creates a nice movie from your images, synchronised to some quite cool music.

Here’s a fairly random example pulled from YouTube:

I think  it’s quite impressive. Take a ton of interesting pics at your next event, point Pummelvision its way, and when it’s rendered after a few minutes, you’ve got a video for presenting as a follow-up.

It would be nice if there were more customisation features, such as different music or arranging images by colour, but perhaps, as with the increased platform count, they’re in the pipeline. Like paper.li it’s just so quick and easy to put together, and it might just impress a client or two.

Xtranormal – cartoons from scripts

This one might not work so well for B2B because, well, it’s cartoons, but you can make some strong points with heavy irony and this might suit some brands. See below:

Here, you type in your script, choose the cartoon figures you want to use, and you can even put in small actions such as double-takes, glances to camera and so on.

It works well with small scripts but be warned, the script editor isn’t the easiest to use (for example, you can’t import from a word processor, you have to type it all in manually), and it can take a while to render the movie. I once tried to get it to perform Monty Python’s entire Cheese Shop Sketch, and after quite some time typing it all, it was still rendering 24 hours later, so I guess it just wasn’t to be.

Presentations from PDFs

No, not the other way around (ie PDFs from presentations). By this, I mean, adding a bit of pazazz to a client’s PDF simply by presenting it in an interesting new way. I’ve been looking around and there are packages out there that seem to do this, but I honestly cannot vouch for them and haven’t used any of them yet. I’ll report back when I have because I think this could be a very nice way to add a bit of spit n’polish to an annual report or corporate brochure, for example.

And finally… someone should invent this: Kinetic Typography software

Kinetic Typography is a buzz word par excellence. It means ‘moving text’ but, of course, we all have to invent clever terms for simple things, don’t we?

Once you’ve impressed your client with your ability to use seven syllables rather than three, you can start showing examples of what this means. Here are some:



Now, I’m sure this could be automated somehow, so you can just input text and get kinetic treatment out. I’ve looked and there’s a free package called Jahshaka that seems a bit unstable and could do with some interface refinement, and I’m not sure it does what I want it to. [post-edit: seems Cinefx have taken over development so perhaps I’ll give that a go sometime soon]

But I’m absolutely certain that someone with some nous would be able to develop software that lets you type in a script and use effects from a menu, very like xtranormal, with no need to understand graphics packages such as After Effects or programming. Perhaps you could coordinate it with music, a-la-Pummelvision, or create kinetic typography on the fly from Twitter input, like paper.li (kinetic microblogging typography anyone?).

Surely someone could do this. For free. Now. It’s so stunningly useful someone should invent it.

The Universal Process™. Or: the Gartner Hype Cycle of Life

Life. Work. Birth. Death. And everything in between. Read on.

I wrote some time ago about the process of writing. Unless I’m writing for myself – that is, when I had time for ‘recreational writing’, or even blogging for that matter – I tend to procrastinate. I sit in front of the monitor surrounded by swathes of research, I huff and I puff, I put my head in my hands, I wander off, stroke the cats, make a cup of tea, sit in the garden staring at a bush. I repeat this a few times, then, after the first paragraph or two, it’s there, in my head. I totally know where it’s going and what I’m doing and before I know it, the piece is written.

But then it needs redrafting, often several times, off my own bat and following feedback. In the end I’m heartily sick of it and I’m happy to dispatch it, but everyone seems happy with it. Then, some time later, I go through my own stuff and think “That’s pretty good. Did I really write that? I must have been intelligent back then. Perhaps I’m destroying my brain with too much TV/Guinness/social media.”

This hasn’t changed, and it’s telling me that it’s an essential part of the process. You need that time to fulminate. To ruminate. To think. People don’t pay you to think, but it is necessary. Then you become so familiar with something you just want rid of it. Then you look back on it a few weeks or months or years later, and you’re pretty pleased with what you did. It was all worth it in the end.

The more I work in other fields, the more I think this is a universal process. I’m going to call it the UP™.

An example: I used to be into home-based music production. It was a phase, albeit a fairly long one (about 8 years – you can hear the results here). The same would happen. I’d noodle a fair amount, then suddenly latch onto it and off I went. Then I would spend a very, very long time with the production. In the end, same thing: I had enough. But it had to be finished. So I would end up finishing it without really knowing if it was finished. And sometimes I listen to it even now and I quite like it. Does that make sense?

Another example: today, I put together a Facebook page for a client. I’ve done this before, but every client is different, and you pretty much find yourself starting from scratch every time. At first I was fairly overwhelmed. There were so many wrong ways to go about it, and I had to find the right way. So I looked through all the content I had – several times – then did some research about best practice, looked at what other people had done, etc etc. There was huffing and there was puffing, there was head in hands. There were cats stroked. Bushes were looked at. Tea was drunk.

About two hours later I was absolutely heading in the right direction. And now I’m really getting into it. And I thoroughly expect that, after we launch and promote it (and keep promoting it for the next few months) I will have had enough of it, and want to do something else instead. But I’m hoping the client will like it. And I’m hoping I’ll look back on it and like it too.

Copywriting, music, social media (and, for that matter, design and code, which is what I’m doing with the FB page). They all follow this pattern. Even research. I hate starting a social media audit. I love it when the figures come out. I hate having to keep plugging away and updating it. I love it when I look back and think I did a good job.

This process needs a model.

I like the Gartner Hype Cycle. I like its categories: the Trigger, the Peak of Inflated Expectations, the Trough of Disillusionment, the Slope of Enlightenment and finally the Plateau of Productivity. See below.

I think that applies to work, too, but with a different shape. My new categories? The Commission, the Trough of Despond, the upward Slope of Encouragement, the Peak of Productivity, the downward Slope of Dudgeon and finally, the Plateau of Reality. It’s the UP™. See below.

Let’s be philosophical. I wonder if life is like this? In which case The Commission is when mummy and daddy got friendly, the Trough of Despond is when you realise you’re probably not going to get that Ferrari (or in my case a Morgan, although my Spitfire is seeing me alright), the Upward Slope of Encouragement is when you think “Well, that’s ok, let’s focus on what’s important”, the Peak of Productivity is after you climb up (or my case, up a bit, across a bit, down a bit) the career ladder and start really enjoying life, the Downward Slope of Dudgeon is when you start confusing your grandchildren’s names with the cats and hoovering the garden, and the Plateau of Reality is… well, I don’t think I’m there yet. I’ll post you when I am.

Music to my ears (or rather, ear, since one of them’s deaf)

How cool is this? Click image for source.

How cool is this? Click image for source.

Isn’t it strange how things come around?

About two days ago, after moving house (again – permanently, this time) I put my home studio back together again. It’s nothing to shout about, just a keyboard, mic and acoustic guitars plugged into a laptop, but I can honestly say I’m at my happiest sitting on the floor plugging bits of hardware together in cruel and unusual ways. It’s probably a hangover from my days as an only child (yes, it shows, doesn’t it?) spending hours engrossed in Lego Technic sets. The similarly minded among you may remember the fork lift truck, the motorbike with sidecar, and, the apogee of technic, the car chassis with differential steering, adjustable seats, gears and suspension.

I digress. So, after a few false starts the studio is back up and running. Press a key on the keyboard and you get a thunderous noise coming from the monitors. And once you stop the feedback, you get a nice noise coming from them.

It’s strange, then, that three music-related things happen over the next couple of days. To wit:

See what I mean? I feel a ‘musicy’ episode coming on.

Given that this blog really should be about copywriting with a smattering of social meeja thrown in (and, it seems, me tripping out on my own ego, in this post at least), I should add that I recently discovered I’m the top hit for social media copywriter on Google (I’ve set up a Google Adwords account for that term too, just so I can get to grips with Adwords a bit more).

This astonishes me, but moreover, gives me a way to find out truly how much this blog is now worth. I need to find out a) how many times that search term is used and b) how much it would cost for me to appear top every time it is used.

But, seeing as I’m still getting to grips with Adwords I’m not absolutely sure how I would find either of those things out.

Any ideas?

* In case you think I’m being a bit high-brow here, I also bought the entire Star Trek movie set.

Measurement Camp, the BBC, and The Next Big Thing

So last Wednesday I was at Measurement Camp, this time in the swanky offices of Dare Digital.

The format is still evolving under the laid-back yet effective stewardship of Will McInnes (check out his survey, it’s hilarious), so this time we had a couple of presentations from past projects, then some quicker breakouts in which we focussed on individual problems.

Obviously I cannot reveal the details of any of the cases we discussed but here are my overall impressions:

  • QDOS was mentioned as a measurement tool. I had seen it before and thought ‘meh’, but Beth Granter pointed out how it could be used, and backed this up with bullet points explaining exactly what they do measure, and how. I like this creative approach, finding innovative new ways of using existing tools. The same went for Twitter Grader where she made it plain that it could be a very useful metric (and in fact I am already using it).
  • Facebook Ads seemed to loom quite large in several conversations. There was no denying the sharp increase in fanbase as a reaction to ads – I’ve seen it happen myself – but I would like to see how this continues. As with my post on the BBC so-called viral (which has, I just noticed, been quoted on the BBC site but without a link back – nice one, guys) I’d like to see whether ads – and let’s face it, these are adverts, not PR or word-of-mouth – create a long-lasting effect. But then again clients love to see numbers and charts going upward, so where’s the harm? Perhaps you really do need both.
  • While we were being debriefed by Will – a uniquely pleasurable experience – I was standing up (it’s easier that way), and had a quick look around. I noticed that the usual PR demographics were completely reversed, so we had mostly guys, a lot fewer girls. I think this is unfortunate. I’ve said before that, as a slightly geeky guy (I’m not really that geeky, I do have social skills) I wonder whether someone like me is best placed to evangelise about social media. People think that you need to be technical to ‘get it’. You don’t. I mean, what’s technical about typing a web address into a browser and having a quick look at what’s being said? Hopefully this will change, but for now it does seem that social media measurement at least is still quite butch.

Finally, towards the end I had one of those funny little insights that crawl up the inside of my trouser leg and give me a tickle in a private little boy’s place. Someone mentioned Second Life – remember that? – and how, just because it’s dropped off the radar recently, this might not always be the case.

It got me to thinking how brilliant a fully immersive online game could be, with no installs, downloads or upgrades, especially if we could in some way measure activity within it. And that made me wonder whether The Next Big Thing is going to be multimedia apps delivered over the web.

My reasoning? We’re just getting to the stage whereby the web is fast, big and reliable enough to deliver applications as well as data, and this is essentially what cloud computing is about. But the applications themselves are fairly limited. Google Docs does not make anyone’s jaw drop. So, when I cast my mind back to my Salford Uni days, the parallel is that we had computers with word processors, spreadsheets etc crunching the data in a very boring, decidely non-multimedia kind of way. Then multimedia-capable machines came along, and everything changed.

So, it seems reasonable to suggest that, now we have applications running online, the next logical step will be multimedia applications running online. We’re talking graphics, video and audio here. Someone, somewhere, build me a thin-end Cubase client that I can run in the cloud, and I’ll buy that for a dollar.

Spotify – another business model on the hoof?

I was very interested to read the recent Guardian coverage of the music streaming service Spotify, especially having been part of the beta programme and written about Spotify quite a while ago and a couple of times since.

My initial impressions were very positive. I liked the clean interface and the incredibly quick response times. But on using the service more, I started to notice that there seemed to be issues with the sound quality, and whereas I recanted to an extent, it does seem that others have picked up on this. And then there’s the adverts, which I do feel intrude on the music. I’ve been told this is why the service is free, but Last.FM and Musicovery are free and they don’t interrupt your listening pleasure with ads, that I’m aware.

But the real problem with Spotify seems to have been its licensing situation. It would appear that overnight, thousands of titles were recently removed on orders from the publishers. It’s even been noted that a lot of Radiohead is missing, which I find very peculiar considering they’ve been quite literally giving their music away.

So, the service is launched, then radically changed. Sounds horribly familiar to me. Isn’t this what happened with Pandora, which was my previous service of choice? Lovely interface, nice algorithm, then suddenly the plug is pulled for anyone outside the US. And only this week we have Facebook attempting to hold the rights to users’ content – forever – then deciding it needs to think about it some more, in a manner reminiscent of its recanting of the Beacon advertising system.

What is going on? Exactly how thoroughly have these services really thought about their business models before going to market? I would like to think Facebook in particular would have thought long and hard about the legal complexities of what they want to achieve. At the very least they should know that the very networks they enable have collective voices powerful enough to give them real problems. But it seems Pandora and Spotify have also gone like a bull at a gate to get their services online, then suddenly realised they haven’t quite thought it through.

Is it the mentality of the ‘permanent beta’, the idea that software is in constant development when delivered over the web? If so, it’s a powerful way to deliver software, but I’m not sure it’s such a good way to run a business.

And on… and on…

I notice that Chris Nee has linked up to me with a very nice description but mentions that I’ve been a bit quiet lately.

This is going to continue for another week at least – being quiet, that is. Because I still don’t have broadband. I might even stop being friendly too if it goes on any longer (see right).

You see, I know that somewhere there is a Big Switch. All that needs to happen, for me to get online, is for Virgin Media and BT jointly to flip it. So far all efforts to do this have been thwarted by three faults at the local BT exchange, Virgin Media cancelling my account rather than moving it, and midway through all this my new landlord insisting I change the telephone number, which effectively put me back to square one.

There’s so much I want to write about. I want to wrap up the old year and look ahead to the new. I want to put across quite pointed views about something I read on the BBC last year in which academics think the web is being used for ‘the wrong thing’ (have you ever read anything online by an academic that was of use to you? See, told you I was going to be pointed). I want to tell you about Clay Shirky’s piece in The Guardian today. I want to tell you what I’ve been up to and what I’ll be up to regarding social media.

I want to tell you about my shiny new PC and laptop and how I’m putting together the music studio again (not social media or PR but I get excited just thinking about it).

And of course there are all the other ‘it just occurred to me’ moments that inspire a blog post. Which I can’t post about because I’m not online to post about them most of the time.

Arse.

Oh well. As I said before you can still follow me on Twitter but it’s not quite the same, now is it?

Audio here, there, but not quite everywhere

I’m a big fan of online streaming audio. I loved Pandora before it became US-only. I quite like Last.FM. Musicovery has a lovely approach in its interface and mood-based approach. Now – at last – we have Spotify, and another great utility I came across this week, Simplify Media.

I’ve covered Spotify before. I saw a pre-beta version and was very impressed with the immediacy of Spotify’s streaming. Then it went to invite-only beta so I was delighted to receive an invite last week and I’ve been playing around with it since. It has good technical points but I think it’s missing a big marketing trick.

Just to round up the current offerings, with my take on each:

  • Pandora uses the Music Genome Project in which musicologists analyse a song using many parameters, starting from the basic – tempo, style and so on – and then really dig down to whether it’s guitar-based, solo, male/female vocals etc. It’s not very community-based – that is, it doesn’t become more sophisticated through referrals and relies on the possibly subjective analysis of a small community – but I loved the results. Type in Nick Drake and you could spend a wonderful afternoon with the likes of Bob Dylan, Jeff Buckley et al. It just… worked. Unfortunately its business model didn’t and so it had to batten down the hatches in the face of prohibitive licensing costs and is no longer available outside the US. You can try IP-rerouting to trick it, but with limited success.
  • Last.FM is the leader and adopts a pureplay referral system. In the same way you see references on, say, Amazon telling you what other people have bought that is similar to the product you’re looking at, Last.FM infers that, because you like song A, you’ll like song B, because other people with similar tastes liked them too. It’s a great theory and it works well with, say, electrical goods or DVDs, but I’m not so sure the algorithm works as well for music. You can stream by artist or by tag and of the two, tag works best. If I listen by artist I’m often dismayed that Last.FM will give me American soft rock when I want to listen to music that is ‘similar’ to Beck, for example, simply because other people’s tastes straddle the two. But you can specify a tag – eg jazz – and have a reasonably consistent listening experience.
  • Musicovery’s great insight is that you tend to be in a certain mood when listening to music, or want to specify music to reflect your mood or change it. So you can specify whether to listen to light-hearted music, or something a bit darker, and the tempo, choose across many genres, even specify the decade of the music, and be up and running with a very pretty Flash-based interface. It can throw up interesting results – I did not know there was a jazz version of OK Computer, for example – and I like it for that. It truly is music discovery.

So Spotify needs to find its niche within these established players. On first glance it looks very much like a greyscale version of iTunes but is initially blank, which I found quite offputting at first. I just wanted to see at least some initial offerings to choose from.

But type in your artist and it immediately springs to life. And how. It’s incredibly responsive. Click a track and it almost instantaneously starts to stream. It’s very easy to create or share playlists. And you can choose to listen to ‘stations’ made up of genres and, like Musicovery, timelines. 1960s Heavy Metal digs up Steppenwolf’s Born to be Wild, while 1950s Reggae gives… interesting results.

What we have here is essentially an iTunes interface to an online streaming music database. It’s designed from the ground up to live online. And this is where I don’t get part of Spotify’s proposition. As far as I can tell it’s a completely self-contained system. I doesn’t seem to offer any capability to integrate with other systems. For example, you can’t scrobble audio with Last.FM. And, more importantly, there are no widgets, for example for Facebook.

Isn’t this missing a trick? If you’re web-based then isn’t this something you would immediately implement? I can only imagine this is part of the plan, to be rolled out post-beta (assuming it’s not a permanent beta like so many web apps nowadays), or maybe there are licensing restrictions.

I also think another challenge for Spotify – as with all the other systems mentioned so far – is the sound quality. It’s ok on my low-end DigiTheatre surround-sound system in the lounge because that’s not a hi-fi. But when I listen to it on my studio monitors, the limitations of the sample rate become immediately apparent. It’s compressed, there are artefacts, and a like-for-like comparison with my own music library shows how locally-stored MP3s are far superior. Hmmmm.

POST EDIT: Following comments from Daniel at Spotify, I looked at (and listened to)  this more closely and the differences are not as clear as I first thought. Please see my reply on this subject.

This is where Simplify Media could offer an alternative. It enables music sharing across IP, and integrates with iTunes and Winamp. Download the client – at a hefty 14MB it’s not exactly light – set up an account, and share your music. Get up to 30 friends to do the same and suddenly you have access to many thousands of tracks.

Last night, for example, I listened to the Bob Dylan tracks on my friend Paul Borge‘s MacBook Pro, in my lounge. Quite apart from the mind-blowing technical feat here – from his machine, across his wireless network, across the web, through my wireless network and onto my machine – the sound came through with, as far as I could tell, original quality. It sparkled (inasmuch as one could describe Bob Dylan’s whine as ‘sparkling’).

Again Simplify Media doesn’t integrate with Last.FM scrobbling or Apple’s new Genius playlist feature, but you can kind of forgive this. It’s strictly a music sharing system, as opposed to fileshare, and I like it a lot.

What I’d really like to see is a system that enables the ‘DNA’ of the music to be tagged like Pandora, in a sort of ultra-high resolution folksonomy, not just broad categories such as genre; the community dynamics of Last.FM; the clever interface of Musicovery; the agility of Spotify; the quality of Simplify Media; and full integration with widgets across the most popular social networks.

Maybe each of these systems is addressing a different way of listening to music. But, in the same way as we’re getting aggregators of aggregators in Friendfeed, or blog editors that interface across many platforms such as Live Writer, I’m wondering whether someone, somewhere, is going to come up with a system that has all the advantages of each of these approaches, and none of the drawbacks.

Me? I’d have been quite happy with Pandora to be honest. Maybe I should move stateside.