Using paper forms for family genealogy

Last month, my company launched Genealogy Basics In 30 Minutes: The quick guide to creating a family tree, building connections with relatives, and discovering the stories of your ancestors. Professional genealogist Shannon Combs-Bennett wrote the book, which explains basic concepts of interest to anyone researching family origins. As you might expect, the book has sections about family trees, interviewing tips, genetic genealogy, and different type of source records. As an amateur genealogist myself, I expected Shannon to delve into these issues when I read the manuscript. However, I did not expect the topic of using genealogy forms to track research to come up, except perhaps in passing. Instead, it took up the better part of Chapter 4, “Tracking and sharing your research.” Here is how she introduced the topic:

“Tracking includes everything from creating good source citations to outputting data to a chart or tree. Along with preserving research (which we will cover in Chapter 5), it’s one of my least favorite tasks. After the initial excitement of making easy discoveries, it’s so frustrating to deal with tracking and filing and storing all of the information and papers you have found.

On the other hand, charts and other summary documents are a great way to share findings to family members. When you bring a complete pedigree chart to a family reunion, it will attract attention and prompt lots of questions. Be sure to bring copies to give away!”

Part of the reason I was not expecting to see such a deep examination of tracking research using genealogy forms relates to the fact that I use genealogy software to track my own research. The software lets me generate family group sheets, pedigree charts, and other pre-filled forms from my computer.

Not everyone uses family tree software for research, though. They prefer paper, and use blank genealogy forms to enter names, dates, and other information. In addition, as Shannon noted in the book, computers have drawbacks, including the risk of a crash or some other disaster that wipes out the data. Paper genealogy forms provide some reassurance on this front. They also do not require a power outlet!

Shannon and I discussed providing some free resources on the companion website to Genealogy Basics In 30 Minutes. Besides blog posts and tips, I have created a free genealogy forms starter kit that contains two forms:

  1. A free five-generation pedigree chart
  2. A free genealogy research log

The pedigree chart contains fields for recording birth, death, and marriage information, and goes back to great-great-grandparents (all 16 of them!). Names are numbered for easy cross-referencing. The research log can help genealogists track websites, books, and other sources used to research specific ancestors.

But it’s also good for something else, which Shannon mentions in the book: Redundant searches for information, which typically result from unorganized late-night searches on Ancestry.com. If you don’t track what you are doing, you very may well end up revisiting sites or searching for the same information over and over again. The genealogy research log helps avoid redundant searches.

Besides the free genealogy forms, I am also making available a bundle of blank forms that goes far beyond the pedigree chart and research log. The Genealogy Forms Library includes eight forms in all, ranging from a cemetery record to a photo inventory tracker. The digital edition includes 13 .pdf and .xlsx spreadsheets, but I am also preparing a printed bundle which will include multiple copies of the forms printed on archival quality paper.

Strategies for frequent posting to business & tech blogs

Readers of the Ipso Facto blog may not be aware that my writing appears in many other blog locations. In addition to two active personal blogs (one of which has been running since 2004), my old Harvard Extension blog (2005-2008), various employer and school-related blogs from 2005-2012 (Computerworld, The Industry Standard, MIT, and my first startup), and a 2007 guest-blogging gig on a site dedicated to virtual worlds, I have been very active on my current company’s blog. But there is a lot more blogging activity on the individual product sites for books like Twitter In 30 Minutes and the recently released book about the iPhone 6 and 6S. It’s hard, but I have developed a strategy for frequent posting on the blogs. It helps give the books a higher online profile, and in the case of several of the books, the posts prompt feedback from readers which I can use for follow-up editions of the books.

Here is a sample of recent posts:

How is it possible for me to write so many blog posts? There are several answers. First, I am an extremely prolific writer. In 10 years I have written well over 1,000 blog posts across all blogs. More than 450 posts appear on my old Harvard blog alone, and a few others are above 200 posts. I am just one of those people who likes to write, and when I get the urge I have to sit down in front of my keyboard and get it out there, as I did yesterday morning on Ipso Facto with my blog post about the Fessenden School and St. George’s.

Second, for the book blogs, I have started to excerpt sections from the manuscripts. It’s a great way to showcase the quality of the books while getting some additional online attention. I am also using draft chapters from my forthcoming Lean Media book to get feedback which I can use to improve the manuscript.

Simpsons blog post example from Lean Media In 30 Minutes

I have also begun to leverage other types of content — chiefly videos — upon which to base blog posts. This is especially true of the books about browser-based software, which are easy to screencast. I have created scores of short YouTube videos on topics such as how to do something in Twitter or Excel or LinkedIn. It’s not hard to take the embed code from one of the videos, put it on the blog, write up a summary or additional instructions, and then post it.

Crowdsourcing book design vs. using experienced professional book designers

Earlier this year, I started a project to redesign the In 30 Minutes book series. There were several reasons for this, including:

  1. Dropbox GuideThe existing design, while eye-catching and effective, was beginning to look a little dated.
  2. There were some issues around placement of template elements, such as the large clock taking up too much space to fit in a long subtitle (see the inset sample).
  3. A desire to have a new, more modern look in preparation for expanding distribution of the series to retail and other outlets.

Every publisher knows that relaunching or redesigning a publication is a big deal. That’s true for books as well as websites, magazines, pamphlets, and other types of media that have a visual identity. Oftentimes there are restrictions or requirements associated with the redesign that require special attention, such as wanting to preserve a color scheme or design element. Think of the Apple logo, which has undergone several iterations over the past 40 years. For much of the time, the apple symbol has remained constant even while the colors and depth have changed.

For my books, the existing designer declined to take on the job — it would take a lot of effort, and as a full-time graphic designer with a well-known magazine publisher he did not have the bandwidth to devote to the project on nights and weekends.

So I tried using a design crowdsourcing service called 99designs. The idea is the customer pays a flat fee for a design template, and then designers all over the world compete by submitting bids. Here are some of my observations about choosing 99designs from last May:

The concept is not without controversy, and many experienced designers don’t participate — it goes against their beliefs about the client/designer relationship, the prize doesn’t come close to their standard rates, and there’s a real chance they may not win. But it opens some doors for younger designers, as well as designers from other countries who otherwise would have a tough time recruiting clients outside of their regions.

I liked it because it gives me the chance to see ideas from lots of different designers, and moves fast — the contest can wrap up in about a week. So I decided to give it a shot.

There were a lot of submissions and ideas from the designers participating in the contest. I eventually chose a winner … but decided not to use the design. It was good, but it was missing depth. It also did not seem so flexible for books with longer titles or subtitles.

Friends in the publishing industry were helpful in giving feedback and also recommending some professional designers. I eventually chose TLC Graphics and have been very happy with the results. You can see the new look in the design for one of the first books that will carry it, iPhone 6 & iPhone 6S In 30 Minutes:

iPhone 6 and iPhone 6S BookThere are other color combinations in the works as well:

Four new book cover designsThe old covers are gradually being switched out. For some books, the interiors are being completely revised, including LinkedIn In 30 Minutes. I hope to have the entire process done by spring 2016.

In summary, while I am glad I tried a crowdsourced service and the price was reasonable, for the series designs a dedicated professional book designer has worked for me each time I have updated the look and feel of the books (first in 2012, and now in 2015). Besides looking better, I feel that the designs also had the necessary flexibility required for this type of series.

I am happy to discuss my experience with 99designs and working with professional designers in the comments section below.

 

 

 

 

 

Creating a special Google Docs resource for educators

Google Docs resource for educatorsWhen Google Drive and Docs In 30 Minutes was first introduced more than two years ago, almost immediately I noticed an interesting trend in the traffic logs to the product website. Lots of visitors were coming from schools and school districts all over the country. Then, I started getting huge bulk orders for the books from my two print distributors, CreateSpace and LSI. Emails from some teachers confirmed that their schools had ordered the books as K-12 teacher training for Google Drive for Education. In this post, I am going to discuss the creation of several new products intended to serve teachers, curriculum managers, school administrators, and educational IT professionals who are interested in providing a Google Drive/Google Docs training resource for their schools.

First off, I would like to note that Google Drive and Docs In 30 Minutes is not only about Google Drive and Google Docs. It covers the other programs in the suite, including Google Sheets, Google Slides, Google Forms, and Google Drawings, as well as collaboration and other features. It is the top-selling In 30 Minutes guide, and I just released a revised and expanded 2nd edition.

That said, Google Docs for students is the top draw for K-12 educators. Primary school students are not likely to need spreadsheets or presentation software. In many school districts, starting in 3rd or 4th grade, students begin to practice typing and composition. Google Docs provides an excellent platform to practice, and its collaborative nature also allows teachers to check progress and make comments. For teachers who are new to Google Docs and are using the educators’ version of Google Drive, a book that’s like Google Docs for Dummies (but much shorter) provides an excellent starting point.

A request for a special Google Docs resource for educators

My first thought was to create bulk ordering options for educators at a steep discount. That was easy enough to do. But then I got an interesting request from a teacher:

I also want to know if your would be willing to offer a license for people to have access to it at our school. You see, there are about 150 people learning about Google drive. Maybe 30 of them are English speakers. The school might consider getting a license for people to view the .PDF, but individuals probably won’t want to shell out $4.99 since they see it as something that the school is making them do.

This was an interesting thought. How about offering an affordable license that any teacher or staff member could access on their computers, tablets, or Kindle? I put together a simple license, priced it attractively, and let it fly. The teacher recommended it to his school, and then I started getting other sales.

This month, to coincide with the release of the 2nd edition of Google Drive & Docs In 30 Minutes, I updated the license to include two versions: A single-edition license as well as an educational license subscription, which will provide regular updates to the text of the books as well as extra materials such as videos. You can see the descriptions and prices on the dedicated Google Drive & Docs In 30 Minutes page for education.

 

 

 

 

 

How the C. diff book is doing, 18 months after launch

C diff guideIn mid-2013, my publishing company released its first medical-related title, C. Diff In 30 Minutes: A Guide to Clostridium Difficile for Patients and Families. Publishing a C. diff book for patients and their caregivers was a risky proposition. At the time, there was only one other similar title available on Amazon, which didn’t appear to be selling very well, judging by the the publicly available sales data that Amazon displays.

But we had a few things going for us: A well-respected international C. diff expert, Dr. J. Thomas Lamont, was the author of the book. We used an easy-to-understand structure that featured practical information as well as case studies based on the author’s extensive experience with patients. I created a solid website with lots of resources for browsers, including a simple guide to what is C. diff, a list of C. diff symptoms and a resource describing basic C. diff disinfectants and procedures for healthcare workers and patients.

I also priced C. Diff In 30 Minutes competitively. It was hard to justify the same cover price as the competing title, which was much longer and had several reader reviews in mid-2013. On the other hand, C. Diff In 30 Minutes wasn’t some Kindle freebie. It contained expert information that can help patients understand and cope with a little-known but devastating gastrointestinal infection. I priced the ebook at less than $10, and the paperback under $15 (which was often discounted).

The result? The guide has been a steady seller almost since launch. With almost no promotion beyond a few hundred dollars in Adwords, the book has sold nearly 1,000 copies, generates a nice revenue stream for the author and my publishing company, and has gotten consistently high reviews from real customers (to date, almost all reviews have been 5-star reviews). Here are some samples:

KS:

“When I learned in 2013 that I had c.diff, I found this little book to be a lifesaver!!! Many doctors don’t know what to tell patients regarding the best ways to treat c.diff, but from guidance in this book, it was a slow process, but I was able to fully recover in roughly 6 months. The book is WELL WORTH its nominal cost!”

Linda:

“This has been the best information yet. I am a former c diff patient. My mother is currently hospitalized with it. We now know what to do for her and how to protect others over the next few months.”

Publishing other types of health books?

The second reviewer also noted that she was glad we had published books “other than computer books.” This naturally made me wonder: What other health/medical titles could we publish? These require a certain degree of expertise and/or deep experience. Unfortunately, doctors are hard to recruit for these projects, mainly because they are so busy (as you may have guessed, C. Diff In 30 Minutes is written by a relative, and he’s too busy to do another one). I had another potential writer with expertise in Alzheimer’s, but he backed out later when he made a cross-country move.

As for C. Diff In 30 Minutes, I hope to expand distribution to hospitals, nursing homes, and healthcare workers. We may also have to release an update in the next few years to cover fecal transplants, which have really taken off since 2013.

Releasing the second edition of my Dropbox guide

A few months ago, the second edition of Dropbox In 30 Minutes was published. It’s one of our most popular guides in the In 30 Minutes series. In fact, some people mistakenly confuse it with Dropbox For Dummies. This post will get into the thinking behind the second edition of the guide, from content to production to marketing.

Dropbox on a mobile device

Dropbox In 30 Minutes was the first guide published in the In 30 Minutes series. Released in the summer of 2012, it quickly began to sell in channels such as Amazon and Apple’s iTunes store. The paperback edition, released in the fall of 2012, also was a hit. The first edition was downloaded or purchased as a paperback thousands of times over an 18 month period. It currently is listed as one of the top Software Utility guides on Amazon.com.

Not long after making the title available, I recognized a problem: Certain information tended to quickly become outdated. While the core concept of Dropbox — software that helps you sync files between computers and mobile devices — has remained the same, specific aspects of the software have shifted. For instance, the Dropbox logo has had several noticeable tweaks in the past few years. Of a more practical concern for readers, the interface for mobile devices — iPhones, iPads, Android phones, etc. — has been completely overhauled. The desktop program for Windows PCs and Macs has also changed, albeit in a more restrained manner (for instance, right-clicking on a file brings up different options for sharing or manipulating the file in question).

For a while, I made incremental tweaks to the text of the guide and simply updated the content files for the ebook and paperback editions. But then I became aware of two additional issues that needed to be addressed:

  • The “publish date” for the guide, which was listed on the product pages on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple and Bowker’s ISBN database began to look old. For fiction books, “2012” is considered “new”, but in the world of how-to manuals for popular software programs, a two-year-old title starts to look a little long in the tooth.
  • Older versions of the paperback guide were being resold on Amazon. I don’t blame readers for doing this, but the problem is a reader in early 2014 purchasing a used edition from July 2012 would be getting a fair amount of outdated information. This resulted in understandable frustration.

The second edition of the Dropbox book hits the market

Because of this, I decided to issue a Dropbox In 30 Minutes, Second Edition. I hired a review editor to go through the original guide and flag bits which needed to be rewritten and have new screenshots. I also redid the annotated screenshots of the Dropbox mobile application, and added new sections relating to Camera Uploads, security, Dropbox for Business, and more. I’ll continue to do small tweaks as conditions warrant, but I already have my eye on Dropbox In 30 Minutes, 3rd Edition!

If you are interested in downloading or purchasing a copy of the guide, please see the options on this page.

Publishing a jQuery programming guide

Over the past year, I have done several content experiments or expansions in the In 30 Minutes series, ranging from cooking to health and medicine. In this post, I’ll be talking about the jQuery Plugin book that my company released this month. While software has been a focus of the series since the beginning, this is the first title that gets into making software as opposed to using it. The story begins last summer. I am a long-term member of the Hacker News community, and on a thread about ebook publishing I left this comment about best practices for experimental publishing. It got 16 upvotes, which was a nice validation — I am not a hacker, but I like to be able to positively contribute to Hacker News when I can. But the thread moved out of sight, and after a few days I forgot about my comment. Six months later, I received an email out of the blue. It started:

I’ve been checking out your “30 Minutes” series and was originally inspired to write my own ebook after reading your post on HN a few months ago. I have since wrote a small 48 page guide on “jQuery Plugin Development”.  I haven’t launched it yet, just waiting for some feedback after sending it to a few friends first.

The author was Robert Duchnik, a Canadian developer who was living in Thailand. We began corresponding, and tossed around the idea of releasing a programming title as an In 30 Minutes guide. This was an interesting area to expand into. Most In 30 Minutes titles are written for mainstream audiences. They range from Melanie Pinola’s book about LinkedIn to the experimental easy Chinese recipes cookbook on the iPad authored by Shiao-jang Kung. The jQuery Plugin guide was focused on a much narrower, highly technical niche audience. Marketing to this group would be a challenge.

Moving Forward With jQuery Plugin Development In 30 Minutes

Rob’s book had some big things going for it:

  1. He’s a jQuery Plugin expert, with many years of experience in the field and the operator of Websanova, an online resource devoted to jQuery Plugins.
  2. Rob has an existing audience, via Websanova. From previous releases by Melanie and Tim Fisher (author of Windows 8 Basics In 30 Minutes), I have found that those authors who already have existing online audiences have a huge advantage right out of the gate. Not only can they turn to their fans to purchase copies and help spread the word, but by virtue of the fact that they have already interacted with the audience over time they have an innate knowledge of the problems that readers face, and what people want to know. This makes for better books and a better author/reader relationship going forward.
  3. There was already a draft manuscript. It needed some light editing and a proofreader, but otherwise it was in pretty good shape.
  4. The manuscript was short. This is an asset, as we want readers to be able to understand the topic at hand in less than 30 minutes.
  5. The market for books about jQuery plugin development had a hole. Through discussions with Rob and a quick analysis of competing titles, I determined that there is a need for this type of resource (high-quality, quick-start programming guide) on this topic, especially if it were priced right.
jQuery plugins
jQuery Plugin Book

This last point is important. I am not talking about low-balling the competition. There are already lots of free online resources about how to write jQuery plugins. There are also a small number of books about jQuery plugins, but most of them are long and somewhat expensive. There was not much in the middle, in terms of length or price. This is where jQuery Plugin Development In 30 Minutes would live. Rob and I came to an agreement in January, and we moved forward with preparing the manuscript for publication. There were some new writing tools to try out, and some difficulties related to producing code blocks in Scrivener (my primary book production tool) but we established a workflow based on markdown and Github and published the title at the beginning of April. You can read the table of contents for the jQuery plugin book here. The title is available for the Kindle, iPad, Nook, and Google Play, as well as a paperback and a PDF.

In addition, you may be interested in reading some of Rob’s blog posts about jQuery plugin development:

 

 

Startup publishing and managing early growth

At a certain point in the lives of most product-oriented ventures, founders confront a slew of growth-related issues. In this post, I am going to talk about growth in the context of startup publishing, and the challenges that my own publishing company i30 Media has faced over 18 months of growth.

Startup publishing example: In 30 Minutes guidesA bit of backstory: i30 Media publishes how-to guides under the In 30 Minutes® imprint, as well as several fiction titles. The most recent release is Windows 8 Basics In 30 Minutes. The venture started in mid–2012 as a Lean Media experiment with just a single title written by myself and distributed on Amazon’s KDP self-publishing platform. Since then I have incorporated the venture. I30 Media has released about ten In 30 Minutes guides in various ebook formats as well as in paperback, and distributes to every major ebook platform (Kindle, iBooks, Nook) as well as growing platforms (Google Play Books, Kobo).

In the first six months of the venture, I was occupied with figuring out the publishing landscape, expanding distribution channels, cranking out early releases on my own. While I was new to book publishing, I am not new to the media industry, and applied domain knowledge from magazine/news publishing, online media, and the mobile app space.

Startup publishing: scaling production

One of the first growth lessons was being forced to give up the “one-man band” idea. That guy attracting a small crowd on the local town common with a drum pedal strapped to his foot, a tuba around his waist, a harmonica in his mouth, a xylophone in one hand and maracas in the other is technically able to mimic a real band. But he will be limited in what he can do with his instruments (e.g., the xylophone sounds better using two hands than one) and quality ultimately suffers. Actually, let’s not beat around the bush — one-man bands sound terrible. Can you imagine listening to their stomping, honking tunes on the radio, or downloading the music to play at home? People enjoy one-man bands for the spectacle, not for the music.

I was a one-man band in the first month. I did everything, from writing to setting up the websites to designing the cover image. And I wasn’t doing it for the spectacle. I did it because it was cheap and I could do everything. But I could see there was a quality gap with the competing titles available on Amazon and elsewhere. The covers looked amateurish, and I was worried about the quality of the copy. I began to look for things to outsource, and one of the first was cover design. I contacted Steve Sauer, a graphic designer I used to work with, who was happy to take on the freelance work for his consulting firm Single Fin Design. His first cover, for Dropbox In 30 Minutes, was a big success. I decided to have him do new covers for other In 30 Minutes guides going forward, starting with the Google Drive and Google Docs guide and our Excel Basics book.

I also found people to handle other tasks, including copy editing and market research. But the big growth impediment was writing. It was quickly apparent to me that I could not grow In 30 Minutes guides into a successful brand unless I found other authors. While the guides don’t take long to write (I tell prospective authors that the first draft of a 10,000–15,000 word guide typically takes 5 or 6 weeks, writing on nights and weekends) there is so much other stuff to do when it comes to growing a business — marketing, expanding sales and distribution, accounting, dealing with production issues, etc. As i30 Media grew, I knew that I would have less time to spend on writing. The only way to keep growing and strengthen the brand was to find other authors to write new titles, including topic areas in which I had no expertise.

The impact of my recruitment efforts is apparent when looking at the In 30 Minutes catalogue. Of the first 5 titles, four were written by me, including the Dropbox book and the Google Docs for Dummies substitute. Of titles #6 through #10, only one was written by me.

Startup publishing: scaling sales

Besides production, the other side of growth relates to sales. As mentioned earlier, I follow Lean Media principles when it comes to marketing and sales. That entails lots of experimentation with everything from advertising to sales calls to potential enterprise customers. But it’s not just about identifying opportunities, and then measuring the impact of pilot experiments. In order to expand growth, it’s also necessary to identify which opportunities not to pursue.

One area which I have stayed away from so far is bookstore distribution, based on early discussions with (mostly disinterested) bookstore managers, an evaluation of visibility and competition within B&N and Staples, and the industry standard requirement that demands 55% discounts and the right to return or destroy unsold copies. I haven’t completely written off the opportunity (in fact, I have made many titles available through the back-end ordering systems that bookstores use) but I don’t want to spend loads of time fighting to get In 30 Minutes guides in a channel that may ultimately be unprofitable.

I have also avoided ebook platforms that have too much overhead, are weak on terms, or look like they could undermine or cannibalize other sales channels. I stayed far away from Sony’s ebook platform, owing to the way it basically demanded that independent publishers beg to join. I have also been a skeptic of Scribd’s ebook subscription service.

What does the future hold for i30 Media? Certainly, more guides and more sales. In addition to the Windows 8 user guide, I have a new title about jQuery plugins in the works as well as a non-technology title (still in stealth mode). I am also planning growth of the company itself. Already I have begun thinking about hiring my first employee. The numbers aren’t aligned yet, but we could see action on this front in 2015.

Why it took so long to release Twitter In 30 Minutes

At the beginning of this month, I released a new In 30 Minutes guide that explains what is Twitter and how to use it. Some people who have been following my story over the past year may wonder why it took so long to release Twitter In 30 Minutes — after all, the series has covered popular Web and mobile services since the beginning, and Twitter is one of the most popular services of all. Why not write it sooner? But I have my reasons, and this post explains some of the thinking behind the timing for this particular title.

Twitter In 30 MinutesI have considered the idea of doing Twitter In 30 Minutes since the early success of the In 30 Minutes guide for Dropbox in the summer of 2012. It was clear there was a marketplace need for titles that quickly and clearly explained consumer-oriented online software. In addition, a guide to Twitter would not be hard for me to write — I have been using the social network since the early days (2007, to be precise) and have a solid level of domain knowledge.

Learning from an earlier In 30 Minutes book

But a few other factors held me back. The first was the lackluster release of Excel Basics In 30 Minutes in late 2012. It was a hard title to write, and it flopped upon release.

I did a lot of experimentation with pricing and positioning of the guide, but it took a long time before I was able to get much sales traction. Why? It seemed like a perfect candidate — the software is complicated, and there are millions of people who need to learn how to use it. But on Amazon there are about 100 other titles that explain how to use Excel, and many of them target specific versions. It was therefore very hard to stand out in the crowd with Excel Basics In 30 Minutes. I foresaw a similar problem with a guide to Twitter. In the Kindle store in particular, there are dozens of “how to use Twitter” guides, which makes it much harder to stand out.

Another issue that crossed my mind: Was Twitter so easy to figure out, that few people would actually need a guide? Compared to Dropbox and Google Drive, Twitter is a cinch to start using. But I also knew that many people who started using Twitter stopped shortly after for a variety of reasons. One Harvard Business School case I read claimed Twitter’s retention rate in the late 2000s was just about 25% after the first month. The rest gave up, many never to return. That meant lots of people could be coached on techniques that would keep them interested and engaged.

A couple of other factors pushed me to consider bringing Twitter In 30 Minutes to market.

  • Readers of other In 30 Minutes titles began asking me for a guide to Twitter.
  • LinkedIn In 30 Minutes, released in May 2013, was a breakout success

LinkedIn In 30 Minutes was an interesting case. Even though it was entering a crowded market (there are dozens of LinkedIn guides on Amazon), it did manage to have strong sales right out of the gate. This was in large part because of creative and sustained marketing efforts on the part of author Melanie Pinola and myself. In addition, it was written by someone who I knew was a strong writer and more of expert on LinkedIn than I.

Based on the success of the LinkedIn title, I began asking contacts, bloggers, and other writers to see if any were interested in taking on Twitter In 30 Minutes. When that did not work, I considered just hiring someone out. But I was worried about quality issues and costs. Eventually, I decided to do it my own. Now I am asking myself if it’s time to create Facebook In 30 Minutes.

If you’re interested in learning more about Twitter In 30 Minutes, check out the table of contents and the options to buy the guide for paperback, Kindle, iPad, PDF, and other formats.

Positioning: A powerful marketing concept (with some limitations)

A few years ago, I picked up Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind, by Al Ries (with Jack Trout). It’s a quick read, and an old book (it was written in the 1980s, and based on a series of articles for Advertising Age that date from the early ’70s) but it was recommended by Lean Startup practitioner Ash Maurya, author of Running Lean. When I began writing books, I used some of the ideas in Positioning to position Dropbox In 30 Minutes as well as a second guide that is like a Google Docs for Dummies alternative. But it wasn’t just the technical topics that appealed to people — I actually created a series of guidebooks that can be read in 30 minutes. I learned from customers that this “positioning” is very compelling. It’s worth digging into the concept to learn how it can be applied elsewhere, while keeping in mind that there are some limitations.

Positioning, by Jack Ries with Al Trout

Summary of Positioning by Ries and Trout

Positioning starts with several compelling premises. First, we are constantly bombarded with marketing messages. “We have become the world’s first overcommunicated society,” Ries writes. “Each year, we send more and receive less.” As a result of the huge volume of marketing messages, advertising is like a “very light fog that envelops your prospects.” Note this was written long before the advent of the World Wide Web and mobile phones!Beyond the challenge of getting noticed, is the issue of convincing people to believe in the messaging. According to Ries, this is where many companies make a big mistake — trying to change audiences’ minds that their products are better than the market leaders.

“Were the average consumer rational instead of emotional, there would be no need for advertising,” Ries says. The reasoning here: Customers would gravitate toward better-quality products, regardless of who produced them or how they were marketed.

Of course, that’s not what happens — people tend to gravitate toward the familiar brands and products at the “top of the ladder” for each product category. And knocking the market leader off that ladder with claims about quality is nearly impossible.

Therefore, according to Ries, it makes sense to work with what customers already know. Strategy should be built from the perspective of the “prospect”, rather than the perspective of the company (and the ego of company executives). Often, this involves finding the hole that the market leaders have neglected or don’t serve well.

These are the concepts that lie at the heart of Ries’ and Trout’s thesis, and they use many case studies and examples to illustrate the companies, brands, and products that have successfully positioned themselves in the mind of the consumer. Consider these examples from decades past, and the holes that they filled:

  • 7-Up: “Uncola”
  • VW Bug: “Think Small”

In the first example, 7-Up was introduced to a market which associated “soda” with “cola”. It filled a hole for people who wanted something other than cola, which was at the top of the sweetened carbonated beverage ladder. The original VW Bug couldn’t compete with what drivers saw in the size and power of cars from Detroit, so its marketers sidestepped those issues and concentrated on the hole that Detroit had neglected — small vehicles, which have their own advantages in the minds of the prospect: price, parking, fuel use, etc.

Other marketing strategies in Positioning

There are other strategies Ries mentions in Positioning. One involves invoking other successful products. One clever example involved positioning Jamaica as “The Hawaii of the Caribbean.” It’s a great line, but it apparently fell victim to micromanagement at the highest levels of Jamaica’s government.

However, I had to question other parts of Positioning. For instance, Ries spent a lot of time discussing the importance of of having the right name. Some of this makes sense, such as the example he used of “Hog Island” being a poor choice for a tropical resort until it was renamed “Paradise Island.”

But should companies completely avoid “coined names” like Coca-Cola? I think the jury is still out on this one. Ries states that it’s “dangerous” to have “mean-nothing” names, and it only seems to work when the product is first-to-market, like Xerox. But in the digital age, we have seen a slew of successful companies and products that have obscure or semi-relevant names (Google and Google Docs, Apple and the iPod, Nintendo and the Wii, etc.) None were first-to-market in their respective categories, yet all have been runaway successes.

On the other hand, some people in the digital realm are still firm believers in using easy-to-remember and easy-to-spell names. At a conference a few years ago, I heard Mint cofounder Aaron Patzer talk about spending a lot of time on finding (and paying for) the right name. The personal finance tracking site had to be easy to understand, spell, and enter into a browser address bar. He also thought his competitors were crazy for choosing names that were hard to spell or pronounce — he specifically mentioned Geezeo.com and Wesabe.com.

Ries also struggles with disentangling positioning problems from other business problems. For instance, he suggests that Eastern Airlines was failing at the time of the book’s writing because of its name (“when prospects are given the choice, they are going to prefer the national airline”). No mention was made of deregulation, new competition, Eastern’s fleet, or the titanic management/labor struggles Eastern was dealing with at the time.

Positioning a big company vs. positioning a startup

It must be noted that the ideas in Positioning are often best suited to major national brands and multinational corporations. Startups may find some lessons here — I certainly derived value in the hole and ladder concepts described above. But other theory and examples will resonate best with people who work for Google, G&E, and other giants of the corporate world, in which big-budget advertising campaigns and months-long market research studies are possible. Ries is clear that it takes time and money to follow his advice (e.g., “If you don’t spend enough to get above the noise level, you allow the Procters & Gambles of this world to take your concept away from you”). Of course, time and money are two things that most startups don’t have.

Lastly, Positioning is a book from another era — the golden age of one-way mass media. It was written long before the Web, social networks, and mobility had a chance to impact the way people communicated and formed opinions. Technology-driven trends such as the Web or mobile phones as well as game-changers such as Google search results must be considered in any discussion about marketing, but these developments came too late for Positioning. On the other hand, it leaves a few holes that I am hoping other authors, bloggers, or experts will try to fill.