Tuesday, 11 July 2017

The Magic Box Syndrome - Wizards & Websites


* Something a bit different from my usual run - this is about my work (or at least one of the things I do) and how Wizards and Warlocks are a big part of the digital content/biz website world.

So bear with me as I lay out some truth about digital content, Websites, Wizards and Magic Boxes of Mysterious Mystery.


Another Satisfied Customer 

You are in business, selling window-blinds, doll's houses, fountain pens or plumbing supplies.

You know you need a website, cool landing page, maybe an e-commerce platform, drop-down menus, snazzy UI interface, the whole nine yards! 

So what do you do? You find a Wizard.

What's the Budget?                 
I've been doing a lot of work recently in the area of digital content - from working on copy and content for established sites to getting stuck in at the start up phase, devising content & tone-of-voice, working up the brand-storytelling aspect, populating sites with copy and content - the basic building blocks of an online presence for any business or organisation. It can be very interesting work, and I'm able to call on more than two decades in newspapers and broadcasting to do it. 

But I am not - sadly - a Wizard. Nor do I know how to build a Magic Box of Mystery. 

Who are the Wizards? They are the guys who actually build/design the site. 

Often, the people who want a biz website have little or no idea how you go about actually designing or populating one - why should they? (although they suspect their teenage kids could do it for twenty quid). 

But they do know it's (probably) insanely complicated, requiring arcane skills, endless hours of dungeon-based toil and magic ingredients ranging from Eye of Newt to Toe Of Coder.

So they find a company or individual to design it for them. Now, the good ones will actually explain that it's really not that complex, take the client through a step-by-step explainer and generally try to take the mystery out of what looks like - to many "civilians" at least - like witchcraft. 

The less, er, straight-up or even clued-in Wizards will throw smoke-bombs, fling glitter into the air and incant magical phrases such as  "future-proof front-end flexibility", "Asynchronous JavaScript" and (seriously, this is an actual word I have heard used) "Automagically". 

Most of the time - it's not being done to deliberately bamboozle clients - this is just the way most of these dudes talk. 

And this is not, believe me, a rant against website designers - I'm kind of in awe myself of what they can do - having close to zero technical skills myself. 

But there is a disconnect. And it's not healthy. Clients go to website designers, they make their wish and the Wizard says; "Until I have have worked my magic, BEGONE, MORTAL!"

Your Typical Designer 
Six months later, after great time and expense, the client is presented with the Magic Box Of Mystery. 


"Great! How does it work!?"
"You don't need to know, it's a magic box".
"Er, ok, what abou...."
"MAGIC BOX!" 


Or - the job of overseeing the actual build gets left to "one of the lads in marketing, that's their kind of area". 

And here's the thing from the point of view of the copy/content side of things - it's often a case of budget is no object for building and designing the site, after all, Wizards and Magic Boxes don't come cheap! Seriously, if it looks really complicated, it MUST be really expensive! 

But words? Anybody can knock up a few sentences on a lap-top! Sure I could do that myself! It's not as if you are bringing me a Magic Box!

However, think of the actual copy/content on your website this way. You go to a fancy restaurant, great decor, designer table-ware, comfy seats. But if the food is flavour-less or worse, over complicated, will you be recommending it to your friends or rushing back? 

What can happen is the budget (and 90% of the time and effort) gets spent on the design and the actual content is an afterthought.

To torture my restaurant analogy to death - you don't spend all the money on hand-blocked wall-paper and then hire some guy off the street to grill fish-fingers.

Good website design is an art. And there are some incredibly skilled people doing it. But the actual words, content, copy, the ability to create an engaging tone-of-voice and tell your story, they are just as important. Probably more important in the long-run, given the way attention spans are going. 

It's great to have a snazzy magic box. But you don't want your audience watching it open, only to reveal a dead rabbit inside. 

* Hey, thanks for reading! 

ENDS  
















 


 




Thursday, 27 April 2017


My Cork Manifesto - Part II - How We Do It 


My last Blog was Cork City and how its people have forgotten our story...... now I want to talk about ideas for the future. 

Down By The River - Cork City Centre 
As a recent arrival home after many years away, I've looked at this most idiosyncratic of Irish cities, not really Irish at all, but a old mercantile port, an Atlantic City with ancient (and now renewed) connections to the rest of the world.

Road Bowling - A Cork Sport 
You can marvel at that staggering work of insight by clicking Here. But now I want to talk about re-branding or re-imagining Cork - and respond to those who have (fairly) put it up to me; "Alright, Genius - how do we do it?"

I've come home at a very interesting time for Cork. There's a real sense of change in the air, a buzz, an energy. But are we poised for a Great Leap Forward or (yet another) left turn into a dead end?

I'm Barrack Street born and bred. City Centre, South Parish. I've come back and see how Barrack Street is a perfect microcosm of Cork now - a bit shabby, a little stuck-in-transition - but with amazing history (a spectacular 17th Century Star Fort, right on my door-step) and lots of green shoots - such as three great bars and one great coffee shop. It could be poised for take-off, like the rest of the city - with smart investment - of the cash and imagination kind. 

I wouldn't claim to have all the answers. I do care.I want to stay here, see my daughter grow up here and play a part in seeing Cork city survive, thrive and reinvent itself as what it should be, a great destination city, a great place to work or start a business, a fantastically livable, compact, culturally-rich and energetic place.

I look to cities like Barcelona, Porto, Hamburg - thriving cities with a lot in common with Cork, Second-City mercantile ports that suffered for years after losing their trade, their way and their sense of themselves, only to be renewed and to find their mojo again. 

In 2004, as Berlin struggled to reinvent itself following the fall of the Wall and reunification, it's Mayor Klaus Wowereit declared; "Berlin ist arm, aber sexy!"  or - "Berlin is poor, but sexy!". 

It was a brilliant piece of branding in many ways. It turned the city's perceived problems into pluses and acted as a rallying cry for Berliners. Sure, we've been battered by history. We're shabby, we are not shiny and rich and modern like Frankfurt or Munich. But we are Us. And we have a story to tell.

So - what do we Leesiders do? (and by the way, this is not some great, unique wisdom from a genius prodigal son. I've had many conversations since I have returned, I know a LOT of people are thinking along these lines and there is already a whole lot of energy and activity going on).

But! I suggest we start by; 

Telling Our Story

We are an open, diverse, connected, culturally rich, sometimes quirky, always surprising north Atlantic port. We have always welcomed outsiders. They built the place, for feck's sake.

But we have not been great at projecting our worth and our assets. The city has tended to leave "The Tourists" to West Cork and Kerry, and held itself above such tawdry pursuits as drawing in people to stay and spend a bit of dosh. Thankfully, this is now changing with some strong initiatives coming down the track. The rapid growth in the number of cruise ships coming into the harbour is a very positive sign, even if the jury is out on how much the day-trippers actually spend in the city.

We have so much to offer as a top tier, compact destination city. Look at the great restaurants, pubs, cultural attractions and the, er, characterful people that we have. Let's all agree to tell a new story. Confident (and not chippy), open, ready to welcome all and show them a great time or a fantastic place to stay, live, work, play, start a business and raise a family. 

Write the fecking thing down (I already did, see my last blog), Agree on a style-book for every Cork institution that has any dealings with the outside world whatsoever. Tell the One Story. Project the One Brand, We are not the "Real Capital" - we are Cork, we're not better than anybody but nobody is better than us. And we have an amazing story to tell. Come and see for yourself.

(Also - help our schoolkids to learn and explore the true story of Cork. A module for all primary school kids telling the great, surprising history of their city and county. Start with the upcoming generation, make it a focus for regional confidence, and yes, pride). 

Loving The River

Sunset On The Quays, Cork
The two channels of the Lee surround us and embrace us. Our energy has always flowed down the river, past the docks and out through our epic harbour. It is our history and our destiny.

Yes, the flooding that strikes the city centre has to be addressed. But leaving politics aside, are giant concrete walls really the answer?

One of my favourite spots in the city is the little boardwalk outside the Electric bar & restaurant - where you can sit with a coffee or a pint, look down the river towards the docks or up towards the Gothic excess of St Finbarre's Cathedral. We should have ten, twenty spots like that along our open river quays. Seats, tables, greenery, cycle lanes, walks.

Build housing and hotels on the docks (I know this could be about to happen) - open marinas, put greenways down the banks to the harbour - use the rivers as transport arteries. Bring them back to life.

It's shocking how little we use our great river, port and harbour. Think of the Ras Mor - the mad dash down the river by hundreds of little boats every year as part of the Ocean to Sea festival. Is the city ever more alive or more in touch with its maritime heritage, its true beauty and soul? 

We should embrace the river, play along its banks, boat, sport and swim in it. In  1992, using the Olympics as the impetus, Barcelona - then dowdy and pretty overlooked - reinvented itself by turning back to its port and re-developing it's docklands - Cork needs to do the same. Urgently.

He's Not Really c
Get The Word Out  - We have traditionally been terrible at networking with our Cork diaspora - and they are everywhere, in London, Berlin, New York, Silicon Valley and on and on. Get them involved and energised. If they are true born sons and daughters of Cork, they are going to be patriotic, they are going to want to back there city & county (if only for the simple reason that they might want to come back to a better place). Here's a simple idea. A website for Cork ex-pats - "Cork Connects" - give them a place to talk and network, and - a practical and easily doable step - give them a information pack that talks about their home place, why it's such a great place to visit, to invest in, to live in. If you have a Cork guy working high-up in Silicon Valley - give him this simple tool, a digital package with details on investing and living in Cork, testimonies from the companies and entrepreneurs already here - so he can say to his boss, his colleagues, LinkdIn contacts whatever; "Here you go, look at this great place, It's my hometown and here's all you need to know about it".

Feck The Politics - As JFK (probably) said - there's two types of people in the world - those that want to move forward, and those that want to sit in the pub moaning; "You can't beat City Hall". We've had more than our fair share of the latter down the years. Stay where ye are, lads, we're moving on.

A Crowd In Town - JFK, Patrick Street, Cork June, 1963
Regionalism - Recognise the Real Enemy - Limerick.

Regionalism is happening fast in the UK - they are about to elect a powerful new mayor for the new "Metro Region" or the West Midlands. There is the (admittedly stalled) Northern Powerhouse, directly elected and increasingly powerful Mayors in many regions. It will happen in Ireland - it has to, given the ridiculous/destabilising gravitational pull and over-crowding of Dublin.

The new reality is that Dublin is not our enemy, or or rival. It's Limerick (and possibly those feckers in Galway). The Treaty City has come on in leaps and bounds recently, thanks to some smart thinking and progressive institutions like UL. This will be a fight to be the capital of Munster, or the South. Of our Atlantic Coast. Cork must be ready to position itself as the natural claimant, the entry point for everything from the Wild Atlantic Way to major FDIs, and the Tech sector.

Visible Branding - Street Furniture

When you are in Cork City Centre - there's not a lot to tell you that's where you are.

We already have some great, striking imagery/brands associated with the city - the UCC Skull and Crossbones being a pretty good example, Groups like Re-Imagine Cork/Mad About Cork have done great work in putting interesting/colourful imagery around the city centre. But we really could do more - more colour, more graphics, more murals & distinctively Cork Branding. Also - uniform, prominent signage - such as the obelisk style street maps they use in London.

We need to see murals/street art of Michael Collins, Christy Ring, Road Bowling, Hurling - Cork "brands" (if you pardon the marketing speak) across the city - open up sites and invite artists to do their thing. Use the city as our wide canvass, tell our story, splash some colour.

Spend enough time in Cork City and you will see bemused tourists wandering around gazing at maps and trying to work out where the hell they are (the two rivers don't help). It wouldn't be hard to fix, but it needs to look good.



Bit Mad - Looks Great - Cobh Colour 

And Finally -  Make Cork Beautiful - Conserve and restore the Huguenot/Georgian/Victorian and even Art Deco fabric of the city (again, look to the Electric Bar as a great example of repurposing a building while keeping and enhancing its character . Make more people aware of the Living Cities Initiative and schemes like it (seriously, 90% of the people in Cork I've talked to have not heard of this). Come up with a unified style-book for our streets, buildings and public places. This should not cost a fortune, but
make it more financially attractive for people to do the right thing by the fabric of our city. And more importantly, tell them how to do it.

When I think of Cork (city, Cobh, County and villages) I think of startling colour schemes on houses (such as in the village of Ballydehob) which are actually visually interesting and pretty unique (if a little bonkers).   

And we could start by bringing in a special grant to tackle the worst thing to happen to Cork since Collins was assassinated - Pebble-Dash.

* Hey Thanks for Reading










Getting A Crowd in The City Centre - People Wait for JFK On Brian Boru Bridge - June 28th 1963 

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

My Cork Manifesto - Put It To The Testo

Solar Eclipse & Shandon, by Marcin Lewandowski


* So - a little something different - and perhaps madly niche - unless you know and care about my home-town, the southern Irish port city of Cork.

A small island between two rivers running into a vast natural harbour. Picture the Venice of The North, but with slightly fewer Renaissance palaces.

I have recently returned home after many years abroad - in Dublin and most recently London.

And in the great tradition of prodigal sons just returned to their native lands, I am now the world's leading expert on everything regarding the town I haven't lived in for half my life.

For those that don't know Cork, or just think they know it, my hometown can be a peculiar place. It's people are often traduced as arrogant, difficult or just plain delusional.

But what outsiders (mostly Dubliners) see as "typical Cork arrogance" is (as more thoughtful Leesiders would tell you) a disguised insecurity, A defence mechanism. And it's not us. It's the result of a city that has forgotten its true history. And a people who have, despite being world-class talkers, struggled to recall and to tell their own story.

So in typical Cork style, I'm going to confidently lay out my grand vision, my Leeside Manifesto, a flight of fancy or the story Cork needs to tell about itself.

You don't have to agree. But thanks For Reading.


* Cork - in fairness, like - is not an Irish city. Never was.


That's not a conscious choice or a state of mind.

It's a fact dictated by geography and history.

Look at a map of southern Ireland and you will see Cork County, bordered on almost all sides by mountains. The city itself is in a steep river valley backed by more mountains, way down on the south coast of the island. .

Cork City Quays Circa 1950s 


Cork's history, since it started trading with France and Spain in the 14th Cent and then, later, with the wider world, made it a mercantile port, a place which exported the bounty of rich land behind it, with more in common with ports like Hamburg and Porto than Irish cities such as Kilkenny or even Galway.

The energy and destiny of the city has historically flowed down the river, out through the huge harbour and by centuries old sea-lanes to the far corners of the world.

Through it's long history, even though we have recently forgotten, Cork has not been an Irish city. It has always been an Atlantic City.

When sail ruled the waves, Cork exported vast quantities of the staples - sea-biscuits, butter, salt pork and beef - which sustained countless numbers of merchant and navy sailors for hundreds of years. And - in a darker chapter of our history - also made vast fortunes for the merchant clans who victualled the slave ships sailing the Atlantic.

At one stage, Cork butter was a world commodity, internationally traded, prized and priced in the same way grain, pork belly and beef futures are today.

Corkmen were sailors and sea-traders. It's in our DNA - so many Corkmen served in the British Navy that in the pre-WWI era of the fearsome Dreadnoughts - the British navy was said to be "steel on the outside - Cork on the inside".

For most of its long history, going back to the Vikings who settled and traded where the river meets the sea, Cork has been a city of outsiders coming in, to build, trade and define what this port was.

It's architecture and streetscape is a mish-mash of foreign influences. A faint echo of Viking, traces of Elizabethan Planter, the distinctive doll houses of French Huguenots and later, and most profoundly, Quaker, Presbyterian and Protestant merchants, sea traders and servants of Empire. These "outsiders" built the city. And for hundreds of years ships sailed up the river and docked right in the heart of the town.

The City Floods Regularly - A Chance to Make Your Own Entertainment
So Cork was always an open, diverse, welcoming city. It had to be. Open your front door of a morning and you would find a ship in from Holland, France, South America or anywhere in the vast British Empire parked there right in front of you. You had to get used to seeing strangers around the gaff.

But that all changed with the worst thing that ever happened to Cork - Irish independence. Overnight Cork was cut-off from the Empire. (And by the way, the Rebel County thing? It has nothing to do with Tom Barry or Michael Collins and the fight for Irish freedom, but all to do with the Derek Zoolander of the War of the Roses - for more on that bizarre, Very Cork slice of history - see Here)

Ireland retreated and turned inwards, established trade, cultural and psychic barriers against the outside world. Cork City and its port went into its long decline and the once great mercantile city turned inwards on itself, literally, putting its back to the river and the increasingly sleepy docks and losing the energy and connectivity that once flowed through the river, harbour and the wide Atlantic Ocean.
Jack Lynch ; Hurler, Footballer,  Politician, Male Model

We became a little bitter. We made grim jibes about being the Real Capital. How dat lot up in Dublin never did nothin' for us.

We left. Or worse - we forgot.

So the story of Cork became the story of lost mercantile greatness and fading, shabby grandeur. Slow, inexorable decline and the bitter word. Or worse, a chip-on-the-shoulder, put-on arrogance that has annoyed the rest of the country and baffled anyone from the wider world.

We still retained that distinct sense of Corkness. Our customs and language have always been a little....off. We have Bonfire Night in the middle of the Summer (St John's Eve, a strange echo of pagan times that we share with those on the Celtic fringes of Northern Europe). I could do a whole other blog on how Cork people have a weird way with language, syntax, vocabulary. Have a conversation with a Leesider and you will be doing a lot of; "Wait, what!?" The humour is surreal. The attitude is a little ...Mediterranean? Anarchic? Individual?

But we lost a lot. We held on to the small stuff, the little quirks, but couldn't retain the real sense of ourselves. Our story.

However, now, if we can only see it, we have come full (or full-ish) circle.

How's this for a symbol? The Hibernia Express undersea cable - the most modern fibre optic cable connecting north America & Europe and the first new one in almost a decade - came ashore in Cork in 2015. Another one is on the way.

Trace the line of these cables and they follow the copper telegraph cables that first spanned the Atlantic. Trace them back further and they overset the sea-lanes and trade routes taken by ships sailing to and from Cork for centuries.

In recent years, home-grown and international tech, pharma, agri-biz and bio-science companies have brought an incredibly diverse population back into the city and county.

Cork is connected once more. Diverse once more. Open once more. It's a compact, brilliantly livable city. We need to get that message out to people in Dublin, London, San Francisco, Paris and Berlin. Imagine a compact, open, affordable city where you can live, work and play on the most beautiful, uncrowded, unspoilt Atlantic Coastline in Northern Europe. With the best food, the best schools and the best quality of life you could hope to find.

It should also be a great destination city for those looking for something a little different, a little intangible, a little eccentric.

And that, my fellow Leesiders (and ye children of a lesser God) is the story we need to tell about the city today. Shout about Cork. From the rooftops, with one, clear, unified voice.

An Atlantic City, open and connected to the world. A port city where the energy and focus flows in and out with river and tide through the harbour.

It's time we defined ourselves once again. And told our own story. It's a good one.

And by the way, New Rule. The next Langer who utters the phrase "De Real Capital" gets strung up by the balls from that Goldie Fish atop of Shandon.

**** Hey! Thanks for reading.