Author - Kristian Carter

Books For Creative Business (The Reading List)

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To be successful at creative business, you’re going to have to read to get ahead of your competition.

I shouldn’t have been able to progress as far in my career as I have.  I’m a Philosophy major. Yet, despite the fact that most business concepts should be beyond me, I’ve been able to survive in a rapidly changing job market.

Over the years though, I have got really good at learning my trade. I may not be able to trade in my brain for one that can readily cope with science, tech, math and engineering, but I’ve managed to strike a pretty good balance between doing what I love and earning enough to support myself.

I’ve done this by getting pretty good at doing deliberate practice – sharpening the saw by reading books above my level.

To be successful in creative business, you’re going to have to do the same thing. What was cool and trendy five years ago (copywriting chops and social media, anyone?) is pretty much the baseline nowadays, and now techniques like inbound and nurture marketing are coming into fashion.

It’s only be stretching yourself and exposing yourself to ideas and techniques that make you uncomfortable that you can progress.  These are some of the books that have really influenced my thinking. Treat this as a starting point, and then either pick up the “People Who Bought This Also Bought” on Amazon or follow the chain of citations.

Books To Learn Digital Marketing From

How To ‘Do Creative Business’

Of course, you should be looking for your own inspiration too. For a while, ASOS nurture emails were the best in the world and contained nothing but images (lately, not so much, at least for me.) And you should always be looking for the latest developments that will influence your art.

You should be reading the internet with a critical eye. What style of headlines is blowing up at the moment? (Curiosity gap is so done). Great work is everywhere, and sometimes it turns up in unexpected places. And you should definitely be avoiding leaning back on cliches. 

Training, particularly the web based stuff, can be really valuable and people are starting to experiment with new formats. Even if you’re not planning a podcast (but especially if you are) you should check out Alex Blumberg from Planet Money’s “Power Your Podcast With Storytelling” course over at Creative Live. If you’re in London, Campus London in Shoreditch is a great resource for creative business owners.

The way creative business is done today is different to how it was done five years ago. In another five years, it’s going to be different again.

That can work two ways – either you invest now and get ahead of people and profit in the future, or you stick with what’s working now and have people catch you. What’s it going to be?

How A Creative Business Will Help Make You Successful

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Today, everyone is in the content business. Web copywriters, email marketers, bloggers, YouTube vloggers, case study writers, web designers. That’s a lot of content.

There’s a lot of people who are giving it a go. It’s fair to say, they’re not all that great at it. Traditional marketing people didn’t grow up in an online world, and are struggling to adapt.

The demand for creative business

There is a massive, and increasing demand for people who know how to create great content. Remember that ten years ago, YouTube wasn’t even a thing.

So, while there were a lot of people producing content, it was very difficult to get any kind of an audience for it without getting the permission of lots of people (TV producers and newspaper editors, for instance).

Today, there are many more opportunities to create and publish. Hundreds of web startups have emerged over the past few years. You may have one of your own.

If you do (or want to work for one), you’ll need to produce content in bulk – from blogs to press releases, case studies to websites, and you’ll need a way of telling your story so that it stands out.

It’s a great time to be in the business of creating content – whether for business or the sheer love of it. You might be struggling to get your first job right now, you might be stuck in cubicle hell, or you may want to have a go running your own blog. The opportunities, and the rewards are there waiting for you. What comes next is up to you.

Why Yard Work Is The Real Work

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There’s a white picket fence in my front garden in Cambridge that gets frosted over every winter, and the paint starts to peel. And every winter, I’ll go back every few months, and paint over the areas where the paint has started to get a little scrappy, cut back any weeds, and cut the lawn back.

This is the kind of yard work that takes place in rural England every week, and indeed all over the world. In fact, many of us probably don’t think of it as work at all. But what would happen if, for some reason, we stopped doing it? The yard would get scrappy, and before too long it would bring down the value of the house.

In our working lives, this kind of work is common. It might be checking a business dashboard here or there, tweaking some copy or making a few phone calls. Not work that we tend to consider glamorous in any way. Yet once again, if we were to stop doing it, our sites and apps would begin to rot quite quickly. The last update on the blog would slip to one week, two weeks, maybe more.

We have this tendency to lionize transformational business results, and the effort and personal sacrifice required to achieve them. According to Quartz the ideal formula for a resume (according to Google) is “I achieved x results relative to y benchmark by doing z.” In true Internet style, it’s pitched as “the incredible simple formula for a killer resume.” It reduces results to a single strategy.

Yet while I’m sure this is an effective formula for a resume, I’m not sure it’s the formula for an effective employee. Of many, many corporate mission statements that I’ve read, Global Radio’s perhaps resonates with me the most (emphasis mine):

“Here’s to the obsessive ones who have the courage to say when something isn’t good enough, here’s to the obsessive ones who have the humility to receive those comments well, here’s to the obsessive ones who don’t walk by anything they can put right themselves…”

Whenever I’ve been hiring, these have always been the best people. Some people will deliver a complete transformation or business in a weekend, but then not follow it up with meticulous, dedicated action. You’ll never really know if they’re on form or not, but you’ll indulge the errant ‘genius’ because you know they’re capable of that moment of magic.

It’s a sign of true character when someone realizes that the real work is the stuff that doesn’t feel like work at all. That understands the need to check the analytics dashboard daily and act upon it, the one who is perceptive enough to understand when something can be tweaked and improved, the one who never, ever takes ‘good enough’ as the final outcome.

Think of the reams and reams of business books that have been written over the last thirty years about ‘organizational change’, the way we love to drop in phrases like ‘business leader.’ The cult of the C-suite and expense accounts. The way every damn resume for the past thirty years has been written.

Now look at the business books that have been influential over the past few years. Books like ‘The Lean Startup” which promote constant tinkering (or in business speak, ‘iteration’) and learning. Books like Ben Horowitz’s “The Hard Thing About Hard Things” about having the iron discipline to make smart decisions every day. How about the DevOps phenomenon, which is all about constant data-driven decision-making and course correction?

The future belongs to yard work. It belongs to the work that doesn’t feel glamorous. It belongs to the work that goes un-noticed and unheeded. It belongs to the people who don’t count and log and focus on ‘ending’ their 10,000 hours, they just do them and realize that the real magic happens along the way.

It belongs to the idea that the real value and the real work is the work that doesn’t feel like work at all.

When Listening Goes Wrong

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Can I ask you a question: how often do you really listen to people?

To be really brief, I’ve worked with many, many business leaders who class themselves as great listeners.

It’s always seems to be in the top five phrases a leader uses to define themselves (along with ‘strong and clear leadership’).

The interesting thing though is that often, when I speak to their employees, they often feel that they aren’t actually connecting that well with their leader. They feel like they haven’t got a voice in company decision-making.

I don’t believe that many leaders mean to come over as insensitive or uncaring when they listen. A lot of the time, I don’t even actually think they know they’re doing it.

There’s just a part of them that hits autopilot about a third of the way through the conversation, where they subconsciously move from listening to preparing the answer in their head.

What they don’t realise a lot of the time is that the person on the other end of the conversation isn’t seeking to be heard, but to be understood.

These are subtly, but critically, different. They’re seeking to feel that they have a level of control. They’re seeking to feel like the leader understands them and their story. They’re trying to find a partner on that journey.

Often, the last thing they’re looking for is advice – or a canned leadership mantra. And when you give that to people, you really are doing them an incredible disservice.

You’re stopping short of throwing yourself fully into the conversation. You think you’re talking to the other person, but you’re subconsciously talking about you.

And neither of you are really getting value out of the exchange.

It’s not difficult to resolve. It begins with a pause before speaking.

A second longer to reflect on what the other person has said and formulating a response.

A deeper understanding of what is required of you out of that exchange. And that’s really it.

Why You Don’t Need To Worry About Competitors

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Most times that I’m brought into consult at a business, the business has some sort of crisis underway. Fix things – that’s what consultants do, right?

I really like coming into a business when it’s at this stage. There’s a certain freedom to poke around, ask difficult questions, challenge conventional opinion.

After a little while, you start to see a few patterns emerging. In fact, I’m now pretty sure that most problems in business (whether it’s missed targets, lack of competitiveness, declining market share) actually start in more or less the same way.

A lot of businesses like to dress up in the same clothes as their competitors. Talking to customers is hard, and getting information that you can actually use on your business is harder. So they start to use the same words to describe themselves as their competitors.

When I was starting out, the web was full of ‘Full Flash’ websites, and splash intro screens. People saw their competitors doing it, so they decided that they had to learn ActionScript and hire “multimedia designers.” You see the same kind of thing now with CSS transitions.

People thought the web was going to be like television, with slickly produced content and ‘gatekeepers’, but it ended up being more like YouTube.

And that’s just it. You can tell people that you are “transforming the digital enterprise” or that your business provides “IT products that provide the ultimate competitive advantage,” or that your solutions are “intuitive and innovative” but your competitors will no doubt be saying and doing the same thing. If you copy what they’re doing, you’re not going to overtake them.

People will say “oh that’s the language the IT professional uses” but they’re just as tired of not being able to work out what companies do as anyone. I’ve spoken to enough of them.

If your competitors are all making the same claims as you, what do you think will happen? Do you think your customers are splitting hairs between “enterprise class” and “world class” and “market leading” – or do you think they’ll just tune out and decide they have more important problems to solve? If your customer has described themselves as “enterprise class” do you really see following a cliché like that as a route to profit?

Crowded, commoditised categories mean one thing – low margins. If you’ve decided that you’re going to out “enterprise class” them, you’re in for a long hard slog with very little reward at the end of it. Good luck with that.

So you can make the first question you ask when you’re mapping out your strategy “What are our competitors doing?” You can crawl your competitors website to death, even though their strategy might be just as haphazard as yours. And then you can hope that amongst the 16.2m companies describing themselves as “market-leading,” you’re the one the customer hits first.

Or, you can really get to grips with your industry. You can understand the factors outside your organisation and how your market is changing. You can understand what your customers’ priorities are, and how you can help shape them.

When you start from the outside, not the inside, you gain an unfair advantage. When you find patterns, you get to move faster than the competition. So stop wearing your competitors clothes.

The Biggest Challenge I’ve Yet to Accomplish

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I reached a point in my career about six months ago when it was time to take a step back.

There’s no right time for a career epiphany – sometimes you can have them too early, sometimes you can have them way too late.

My mother spent 25 years in a job she wasn’t fully committed too, because she didn’t realise that it was too late.

I’d had a successful few years freelancing. I’d grown a business from scratch, brought in major new logo clients from my own hustle.

I’d travelled the world and worked in a number of different cities.

A couple of times a year I like to go away for a week to another country and think about how I want to move my career forward in the next six months.

And this time, I had had a few good ideas about what I wanted to do with the next five years of my life.

And I remember my overriding emotion being just “How”? Just how am I going to manage to get to where I am now, to where I want to be?

With the kind of ambitions that I had at that time – hitting mid twenties – they don’t just happen overnight. You have to nurture them. To grow them.

And I just felt that I couldn’t do it in the way I was going about things. I wouldn’t have been true to myself if I had these ambitions but knew in my heart of hearts that I couldn’t support them.

I’d gotten good at managing my workload, but knew that I just couldn’t do what I was doing and try to hit the next level.

So I took a good look at my entire career to date and re-evaluated. I had to step back and focus on one thing if I was going to achieve more.

And it turns out that you can do some pretty cool stuff if you focus on becoming world-class at one thing. You regain your focus, your purpose and your vision.

You feel much less drained at the end of every working day, because your mental energy is not going into fighting minor battles.

You regain an understanding of why it is that you are doing what you’re doing – and what the end goal is.

And people will gravitate towards you. People want to back success in other people, and there is nothing more successful than a person associated with doing one thing really well.

Graduating students often ask me for advice on how to take their first step on the ladder. I was privileged to have some people smarter than me to work alongside.

But not all of them have reached their potential. They haven’t exactly ended up in dead end roles, but they don’t have fantastic achievements next to their name either. And often after a few years, they come to me and say they’re burned out.

Because working at a job where you’re working on lots of different things will tire you out. And it’ll come right the way back to your resume – with a common thread of successful stories to tell.

Everyone has the capability to be world-class at exactly one thing.

Pick what that one thing is.

Be true to yourself. And good luck.

Should You Still Use Hashtags?

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This, just no okay?

Is it too late to stop the relentless march of the hashtag? I think it might be.

Hashtags used to be a useful tool for finding relevant and useful information on Twitter. But we now have better ways of doing this – through social search such as Topsy, Facebook Graph Search, Twitter’s Search engine andTwitter’s ‘Discover’ tab.

Even Facebook has Trending Topics now.

Instead, hashtags have now been a way for brands to clog up my Facebook and Twitter newsfeeds with branded garbage and witty asides.

Take a look at the #BlueMonday hashtag for instance, currently Trending on Twitter. Not one person seems to be addressing the fact that today is the most depressing day of the year (something that, incidentally, gets thoroughly debunked every year.)

No, it is just a way for marketers to prove how ‘plugged in’ they are to the conversation by linking a promotional tweet to a Trending Topic. Way to go guys! #socialstrategy!

Hashtags are proliferating for anything and everything – and, some exceptions aside (I love things like #LeedsHour, and of course #CVoclock), it’s maybe time we gave it a rest.

Anyway, a bad hashtag – or (ugh) a ‘bashtag’ – can be a massive liability. JustAsk British Gas.

Hashtag’s now appear to be hitting the mainstream, but my prediction is that we will one day look back on them as a bygone relic of a time when finding information on social media was hard.

Will 2014 be the year when the hashtag starts to decline? It looks like BuzzFeed agrees with me.

How To Write For Social Media

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I’ve been doing a lot of thinking recently about what it means to write for many devices, many audiences, and an audience that is time pressed.

When we’re planning our campaigns, we tend to gravitate towards a picture of our audience in our minds eye that is sat on the sofa, with iPad or daily newspaper, slowly digesting our messaging and its implications.

We wish. In reality, we probably have around thirty seconds of someone’s attention while they’re standing at a bus stop, with a latte in the other hand. And that’s a difficult shift for us to adjust to.

Social media will change how you write – and that’s ok

Writing for social media does mean changing the way we write – nothing less than designing short attention spans into our content. We now spend as much time planning outputs (interactive charts, punchy intros, subheadings, social media links) as we do messaging.

But it also means putting the processes in place that allow great content to happen. O2 is a superb example of this – they have created a ‘triage’ so that senior management understand how customer queries are going to be responded to, but don’t have control over what precisely is said. That is (rightly) the job of the community manager.

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Do you invest appropriate time providing an accompanying image to a post? It’s tempting to think that once you’ve written a post the job is done, but a well-chosen image could increase engagement by over 300%. That could be the difference between a campaign succeeding or not – is it worth your time? With sites like Stocksy around, there really is no excuse.

Beware the Hummingbird

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Within five years, Google Hummingbird will kill off ‘brochureware’ sites with only static pages, however well keyword optimised they are. That’s how big it is.

The rise of mobile search and mobile and voice search platforms such as Google Now and Siri are ushering in a future where very specific search terms are the norm.

It won’t matter where you rank for ‘PR agency London’ as no-one will be searching for it. They’ll be searching for help with brandjacking, social media crisis simulation, media relations for charities, or one of the many other myriad terms. If you don’t have a page for it, you won’t be in the race.

As such, you’ll need to invest now in thorough market research (emphatically not simply keyword research) to find out what it is your audience wants from you, and how you can help meet it. The strategy that is now being pioneered by the likes of gov.uk will become commonplace within the next two years.

Tap into human emotion if you want people to share

People make content go viral. Specifically, it’s people’s emotional reactions to content that make it go viral. You can roll your eyes at BuzzFeed all you want, but they understand this.

It’s very difficult to get anyone to share anything without first asking “what is it about this post that would make people want to share it?”

In the real world, people share information to survive, to express themselves, to form social bonds, to help people and to manage how they are perceived. And that’s more or less it.

If you want to create content that is shared, you need to tap into one of those emotional states. We share feelings, not facts, and we share content that triggers emotions.

A strategy for social sharing

So then, what should your social media content strategy revolve around? It should have a healthy dollop of ‘Library’ content first up – that’s specific content that answers real questions for real people.

It should also have ‘Cafe’ content – short, visual, shareable content for social media that is delivered in packages for different audiences and platforms. Always, of course, created with an awareness of the culture of that particular platform.

But it’s also about what we don’t share. Facebook is incredibly unforgiving of poor content – its EdgeRank algorithm decides whether to display your content on someone’s News Feed based on their engagement with your previous content.

If that previous content happened to have been a duff Facebook update that a stakeholder had pressured you to put on the Facebook wall because ‘it would be popular with the kids,’ then there is a very real cost to that update.

Indeed, with Facebook now increasing emphasis on Promoted Posts, it may be that you have to pay to get that user back. Food for thought next time you’re asked to post a bad update!

How Google Hummingbird Impacts Creative Businesses

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I’ve been doing a lot of thinking recently about the recent “Hummingbird” changes to Google’s algorithm. What does Hummingbird mean for you?On the face of it, it seems like a huge update. It’s the first time that Google’s algorithm (the thing that powers results) has been completely overhauled since 2001. 2001 was the year that Google overtook Altavista for number of internet searches. In digital years, it’s a huge amount of time. The change is said to have impacted 90% of search queries.

Why has Google changed its algorithm?

It’s hard to look beyond mobile as a factor for this. People are making more searches on mobile devices, and Google clearly anticipates that as technologies like Siri, Google Glass and Google Now become more popular, we’re going to be searching using our voices a lot more.

The search landscape has also changed a lot since 2001. In 2001, using a search engine was about finding relevant content. In 2013, there’s no shortage of stuff out there, it’s about finding the right content above the noise. To understand this shift, Google has to get to the heart of what we really mean (who, what, why, how and when), rather than simply matching words against a database.

How is search behaviour changing?

Words like “short tail” and “long tail” sound like jargon, but people who use Google understand that they’re unlikely to find what they’re looking for using generic keywords. So they’ve stopped doing it.

What does Google Hummingbird mean for businesses?

Google will be providing better answers to searches written in the form of a question. Over time, that’s going to change people’s behaviour, and people will start doing these kinds of search more.

This means that keyword searches which are not phrased as a question – ‘PR agency London’ for instance – are on the way out. Optimising a site for search therefore, isn’t about how many keywords you can cram on the same page – but providing the right, meaningful content to answer questions.

What is Google Hummingbird not going to be changing?

Branded searches aren’t going to be changing. People will still search for Apprenticeships, National Careers Service, Claremont and more. If the name of your brand is also your product though (i.e. “How do I apply for an Apprenticeship?”) you’ll want to optimise for that.

What should you take away from Google’s changes?

  • Content – it’s more important than ever before to deliver excellent, regularly updated content, optimise for a breadth of related keywords and make it available across devices.
  • Measurement - The success of an SEO campaign can no longer be defined by ranking on short tail keywords – number of unique entry pages to the site is now a more relevant measure.
  • SEO no longer optional - People will use Google even more than they already do. SEO is no longer optional for you but essential 
  • Authoritative content - Any campaign should consider how we can influence the answers Google gives by providing authoritative and useful content. Consider writing the title of your post in the form of a question.

What I Learned Mentoring At Campaign Bootcamp

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I had the immense privilege of mentoring WordPress at Campaign Bootcamp – a five day residential training session for Britain’s most talented young campaigners, and I wanted to share a few thoughts about my experience.At first, I have to admit, the idea seemed completely bonkers. Thirty young campaigners – the UK’s most promising – holed up in a conference centre for a week, without much sleep, gathering knowledge it took most of us years to accumulate.

Even as a big admirer of the “crash course” approach, I was sceptical. The sheer depth and breadth of the course was astonishing. Campaign strategy, social, SEO, crisis management – there was even a session on relational databases! How much information can one person take in without sleep?

I pitched up on the day I was mentoring not knowing what I would find. Lots of clapping and cheering. An abundance of coffee cups (and indeed, flasks). The sense of organised chaos. A lot of tired-looking young people. It was only day two – how would the band of campaigners bear up?

As the sessions continued, I saw people grow. First lines of HTML were coded – “I made it bold!”. Putative WordPress websites were created by people with no knowledge of the platform mere hours earlier. I began to field questions about optimising the landing pages. I saw quiet people becoming confident.

And then we moved into a campaign scenario. The town of Fakefordshire and the battle to stop the privatisation of the police force came alive. I could see eyes light up and people coming into their element. Suddenly everything became very task focused. Labour was divided quickly and efficiently. My mentoring became minimal prodding toward a conclusion.

And the warmth in the room! The energy! The passion! The glue of any campaign – the camaraderie – had somehow been recreated. No-one gave a second thought to the fact that it was nearing midnight. Still less that the next day would begin at 7. There was a campaign on.

The only question now – how can it be topped next year? I don’t know, but I’m sure Kat, Johnny, Casper, Tom and the crew have a plan…