Bedtime stories: Why you should read to Children

One of the most pleasurable moments of the day for me and the wife is bedtime reading.

As any parents out there will agree, reading with your child is fun, and a great way to spend time together. Sharing books with your child helps open their eyes and minds to different people and situations, and stretches their horizons. And virtually every study shows that reading together increases children’s literacy skills, but also research also proves that children who enjoy reading do better at school in all subjects. Best of all, it helps to build a strong and loving relationship with your child.

I don't ever remember being read to, it may be that I blanked it out, but reading was never something my parents ever did for pleasure. And I do feel like I missed out. I only started to read, something more than a newspaper, when I started working in a bookshop. I was the stockroom guys, so I didn't really need to have a passion for travel writing or an interest in Evelyn Waugh to shift boxes.

But from that job, as a uni drop-out in the stockroom I became a bookseller, then worked for a book trade magazine and then finally working my way up to being a marketing manager for a book publishers. I don't know if my journey to where I am today would of happened sooner or if I may have taken a completely different path if reading was introduced to me at a younger age - but that one-to-one attention you get for reading together is hard to replace.  

Edward, my boy absolutely loves being read to, which come's in handy as my wife comes from a publishing background as well. It's about the only time of the day that Edward is quite and still, he is mesmerized by the pages and is seen a real treat. Hopeful this exposure to reading will lead him to great things, like getting a proper job, like a gas-fitter and not eking out a living on publishing wages. 

Day 2

Day 2 in my blog a day campaign. 

Today has been a long one. 

What ever happened to the NME?

I'm committing myself to write a blog post every day for the next 100 days.

No matter how long, or how short, something will be posted. Whether anyone reads it, that's another matter.

Today I picked up a copy of NME, it was sitting next to a stack of Time Outs.

What an age we live in now.

Newspapers and magazines, which once payment was demanded for, now they can't give them away.

NME holds so many fond memories for me, from the age of 15 I purchased it weekly, pouring over the pages, deciding which crappy band I would travel up to Camden to watch while drinking, over-priced watered-down beer.

Every now and again there would be a CD stuck to the front - these were the bands you could brag to your friends that  you "only liked their early stuff".

I picked a copy. It was printed on cheap paper. It was the wrong size. It was the wrong everything.

They was a review for the Justin Bieber album, and a page devoted to what people are wearing in Cardiff. This isn't the NME I remember, this is in-style magazine with a few guitars stuck in it.

I generally don't know much about the bands I listen to, that's probably a good thing as I've just discovered The Maccabees have members named Orlando, Felix, Hugo and Rupert.

Jessica Jones: Netflix's New Superhero

And why you should be watching it.

the character may not be as well known, but her small screen debut on the online netflixs has been heavily trailed and highly anticipated.

The reviews have been really positive reviews not enough and after watching a first couple of episodes I totally agree - Yes, Jessica Jones is yet another hit for Marvel Studios.

It's an actual 13 episode big budget, mainstream, female-led show! Seeing as both Marvel and DC have only one female led superhero movie on their current slates, it’s undeniably significant that Jessica Jones has happened.

After all, that didn’t look set to be the case for a number of years, with another version – A.K.A. Jessica Jones – in development at ABC alongside a Hulk project which was also scrapped. Jessica Jones now joins Supergirl as one of only two female led superhero TV shows, but they really couldn’t be any different.

They’re both great, but Jessica Jones is more grown up, dealing with mature content which ends upmaking this less of a superhero TV show and more of a drama which just so happens to include powers.

Full review to follow, in the meantime watch the trailer here

Comedy (fools) Gold

Now I have nothing against the old boy of British comedy, apart from him being possibly the most un-funniest man to ever grace film, TV, the stage. But as the news broke rent-a-quote talking heads were falling over themselves to praise him, claiming him to be the second-coming. He wasn't the second coming, he was a very  unfunny man whose one joke was that he fell down... a lot. 

We've got to remember that these were hard times for the British nation. Rationing was still in place following World War II, and an average family of four had to survive on as little as 7 jokes or 20 puns at week. This is the same quoter that Wisdom had to use in his films.

Perhaps its down to the fact that I never saw him in the prime. All I really knew of Norman Wisdom was him making an unfunny fool of himself on Pebble Mill or Aspel - looking confused and falling down a lot, which wasn't actually an act at all - that's what happens when old age sets-in. So to judge him on the previous work I checked youtube and yep, he's not funny on there either.   

It's true that comedy doesn't always stand the test of time. Steptoe and Son for instance, was a show my Dad loved and one that I was forced to watch growing up. Despite it not tickling my funny bone, I could still see the quality of the performances, the stoylines and, every now and again, the odd joke or two, but Dad even admitted it hadn't aged well.

A comedian who aged like a fine wine and not like an opened bottle of coke is the fanastic Phil Silvers AKA Sgt. Bilko. This guy wrote the book and laid the foundations of character-led sitcoms for years to come. He's like the Shakespeare and Sgt Bilko was his Hamlet. This is who I judge comedians of that era against and Wisdom isn't fit to suck the shit from the tread of Silvers' shoes. 

He was a man lucky to be born when he was. If he was making his way in the industry today, he wouldn't even get a BBC 3  sitcom. 

Master of None: Binge-watch time

The Oxford English Dictionary has published its list of new additions to our ever-changing language. This year's new additions included Vape, humblebrag and side boob - although I've personally been using 'side boob' for the last few years.

The stand-out word for me is binge-watch which has become more and more popular first down to DVD boxsets (asks your parents, kids) and then streaming services like Netflix.

Being able to consume a series, one episode after another, has now become the norm thanks to the likes of Netflix and Amazon Prime. Adverts are now a thing of the past and I find myself even unable to wait for the 10 second countdown between episodes. 

The latest show to get the binge treatment in my household is the Netflix original series Master of None. Written and starring Aziz Ansari as Dev, a 30-year-old actor who attempting to navigate his way through life in New York City. 

Ansari has great credentials - one of the highest paid comedians on the planet, with a string of sell-out tours under his belt, a role in Parks and Recreation and finally he's taken the leap to front his own show.

What becomes clear is Master of None could only be made by Netflix or Amazon, they don't conform to sitcom stereotypes, there's no zany fall guy - covering issues of sex and racism, not unashamedly, but just matter-of-factly.

Ansari on stage personae is that of a spoilt 21st century man-child. Someone you regards a "crisis" as not getting a decent-enough 4G signal, and he's taken elements of this into the character of Dev. Dealing the important issues of the modern age like finding the best taco "joint" in the city, only to discover there's no tacos left, because Dev spent 2 hours researching it. 

The opening scene involves a realistically awkward sex scene, a split condom and a trip to a chemists for a morning after pill. His best friends are a jew, a black lesbian and an american asian - but this doesn't feel forced to fill any diversity quota - these just happen to be Dev's friends.

Is Master of None perfect? no, but it's pretty close to it. The finds of the series are Dev's parents, played by his actual parents - yes there's a couple of nods to traditional Asian subjects, like the pressure of settling down and getting a "proper job", but Master of None highlights brilliantly the issue of our age - explaining how to sync to iTunes to the older generation. 

We're the on-demand generation, we're able to choose to binge-watch, burning through a series which has taken maybe years to create in a day, a then there's that void left. 

But then I suppose I can spend two hour search for the next best taco, show, on Netflix

Watch trailer now

Google Grants for Charities

An opportunity not to miss!

Featured imageIn the time I’ve been using Google Grants, I’ve seen traffic increased by over a third – This is a brilliant opportunity for everyone working in the third sector.
As part of its nonprofit programme, Google gives eligible charities $10,000 (£6,200) a month to spend on AdWords, Google‘s pay-per-click advertising system. Not only that, if you spend at least $9,500 (£5,920) in two months of the previous 12 and fulfil other criteria, you can also apply for Grantspro. If approved, that means that Google will give your charity $40,000 a month to spend. That’s a whopping $480,000 (£300,000) a year.
If questions such as ‘is my charity eligible?’, ‘how do you apply?’, ‘what is Adwords pay-per-click advertising?’ and ‘is this too good to be true?’ are popping into your head, please read on for the answers.

What is AdWords and how does it work?

– In Google’s words, AdWords is an ‘online advertising platform that can help you drive interested people to your website’. It is the programme you use to run a Google Grant
– The AdWords are adverts that appear above, below and to the right of the results when people search on Google
– As part of the Google Grants programme, you decide what keywords (words that describe what your charity does, the sector you work in, the fundraising activity you undertake) you want your ads to be shown for
– You decide the locations in which people will see your ads i.e. a city, country or worldwide
– You create the ads by writing compelling copy about your content
– You bid how much you are willing to pay Google (out of your grant money) when someone clicks through to your website (a maximum of $1).
There’s a useful video that gives you further info here.

Is my charity eligible for Google Grants?

To qualify for the programme, charities must be based in the UK and registered with the Charity Commission, the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator or Inland Revenue.
In addition, the following organisations are not eligible: governmental entities and organisations, hospitals and medical groups, schools, childcare centres, academic institutions and universities, political parties, political organisations, and lobbying groups.
You can read more on eligibility here.

How do you apply?

Just visit this link and click on ‘Apply Now’:.

What happens after you’ve applied?

Your application may take three to four months to process, although some grants have been approved much quicker than this. Once your application has been reviewed, the person who submitted the application will receive an email. If approved, you’ll receive further information, such as how to create an AdWords account and guidance to help you make the most of your grant.
What do you do once you are approved?
You’ll need to set up your AdWords account, choose your keywords, create your ads, identify what actions you want people to take (i.e. donate, sign up, download) and then submit your account for approval – this can take up to six weeks.
Don’t worry if this sounds like a complicated business, Google take you through all the steps in this article.
What does Google ask for in return?
Not very much. The company asks that you ‘actively engage’ with the programme, which effectively means replying to any emails that come in and logging in at least once a month to see how your campaigns are performing. If you do not reply to emails or do not log in for three months in a row, your account could be paused or suspended, so it is worth doing what they ask on this one.
It shouldn’t be hard to meet these requirements as ideally you’d be logging in a lot more than once a month to optimise your ads and implement new campaigns.

Are there any restrictions?

There are a few restrictions compared with just setting up a paid-for account on Google AdWords.
You’re allowed a daily budget of $330, your ads can only appear on Googlesearch results (you can target other sites using a paid account), you can only run text ads and you’ll have a maximum cost-per-click of $1 (some keywords will cost more than this but you should be able to find plenty of things to bid on with your grant).
In addition, your ads need to ‘reflect the mission of your organisation and your keywords must be relevant to your programmes and services’. There’s more info on this and the other restrictions here.

How do you make the most of your grant?

To make the most of your grant will require time. Dedicate time to learning about AdWords best practice. Link your AdWords account to Google Analytics so you can focus on what it is delivering.
If you really care for and nurture your grant, my hunch is that before too long you’ll be using up all your monthly budget. And remember, if you spend $9,500 in two months of the previous 12, you’ll be in a position to apply for Grantspro. There are a few more eligibility requirements but if you are approved your monthly spending limit goes up to $40,000 a month.
Is this too good to be true?
It might still sound too good to be true but the Google Grants programme is very real. If you haven’t got one and you meet the eligibility requirements my advice is to apply right away.

Chef Daddio: Fruit Loaf

This recipe is an absolute banker, easy to make in a rush and always turns out great. 

My little boy loves it and is perfect to bribe him to put his coat on or to get him in the buggy.

Serves: 8 
200g sultanas
250ml milk
200g sugar
125g Stork Margarine
250g Be-Ro Self Raising Flour
1 egg
1 teaspoon cinnamon (optional)

Preheat the oven to 160 degrees C.
Put sultanas, milk, margarine and sugar in pan, bring to boil stirring all the time. Once it has came to the boil, turn hob off. Leave to cool for 10 minutes.
Fold in the flour and mix well, add egg and mix again. Pour into a greased loaf tin and put in a pre-heated oven at 160 degrees for 1hrs.

Film & TV: Show Me a Hero

I finally had a spare 6 hours and got round to watching HBO's new miniseries, Show Me a Hero.

Based on the nonfiction book of the same name by Lisa Belkin, It tells the story of how civil rights violations tear apart Yonkers, N.Y., paralyses the municipal government, and forever changes the lives of a rising politician and his constituents. 

Faced with a federal court order that remedies decades-long housing segregation in the city, newly elected Mayor Nick Wasicsko at 28, the youngest-ever mayor of Yonkers, goes against his campaign position that advocated legal appeals, paving the way for low-income housing to be built in white neighbourhood of Yonkers. 

Residents rage about protecting property values, while those chosen to cross the color line will soon have neighbours who fiercely oppose them. "Show Me a Hero" is co-created by David Simon ("The Wire") and directed by Paul Haggis ("Crash"). 

Show Me a Hero carries many of the hallmarks of Simon's previous work, a man who starts off with the best of intentions only to be buried by bureaucracy and outside influences. The location of Simon's work, in this case the district of Yonkers, plays an important role with the many sides of the relatively small district on display from the crime-ridden high-rise flats and the white-picket fences of suburbia.

While not in the same league as The Wire (very little is) Show Me a Hero is a great portrait of a good man, with good intentions.  

Watch the trailer here

10 tips to build a successful Enewsletter

Email marketing has become a crucial activity for many small businesses. An email newsletter often is often their main mode of engaging customers, building loyalty and driving sales. It’s not rocket science, but email marketing the right way does require basic know-how.

And while we could have come up with a top 100 list, if you follow these 10 small business marketing tips, you’ll be on your way to creating an effective email newsletter to help build your business.

1. Only Send Email to People You Know

Emailing complete strangers is spam. Emailing customers and others with whom you have only a slight acquaintance is, at best, a waste of time.

“The stronger the relationship you have with a person, the more likely he or she is to respond to your email,” said Eric Groves, senior vice president of global market development at Constant Contact, an email marketing services firm.

“If you send email to people you don’t know, the first thing they’re going to say is, ‘Do I know you?’ and the second is, ‘Do I care?’ If the answer to the first is no, you’ve lost them already.”

2. Build Your Email Newsletter Contact List Slowly

Quality in a contact list is always more important than quantity, Groves said. Start by approaching your biggest fans — customers with whom you’re in regular contact who express support and appreciation.

Next, establish mechanisms for capturing contact information and permissions at the places where you engage customers — in your store, in their place of business, online. Present the emails as something that will extend the dialog you’ve begun with them.

The mechanism could be as simple as a guest book on a retail store counter where customers can sign up to receive emails, or a subscription or RSS link at your Web page.

As slow as it might go at first, if you do it right, your list will start to snowball as satisfied customers forward your email newsletter to friends and colleagues who also sign up. That’s if you do it right.

3. Resist the Urge to Sell, Sell, Sell

“There are a lot of great companies out there who — when you join their mailing list — they just bombard you with ‘Buy from me, buy from me, buy from me,’” Groves said. Nothing turns customers off faster.

“The best case with those is that they automatically delete the messages. The worst case is they hit ‘Unsubscribe’ – and now you’ve lost that connection with them.”

Email marketing should be about building relationships, Grove said. He suggests that you offfer information of value to your customers and present yourself as a trusted expert. Rather than simply advertising sale items, a landscape firm, for example, might send a newsletter article about the various plants that deer won’t eat.

The emails don’t have to be long or involved. “They just have to flick you on the forehead and say, ‘Remember me. Here’s a little nugget of knowledge. Do you need what I have to offer?’” Groves said. “Be brief, be bright and be gone.”

4. Become a Student of Email Marketing

It’s not hard to write engaging content that recipients will value, Groves said, but you may have to become a student of email marketing to get up to speed initially.

There are plenty of resources available, including his book The Constant Contact Guide To Email Marketing, as well as emails, webinars and live seminars his company offers, and e-newsletters from other experts such as Michael Katz of Blue Penguin Development.

Go out and find your own examples of people in your industry who are having success with email marketing, and emulate them. Monitor your own consumption. Before you delete an email newsletter or hit unsubscribe, ask yourself why you’re doing it. Now you know what to avoid.

5. Let Customers Tell You the Content They Want

If you’re running short of ideas, and you’re not sure what you should be communicating to customers, let them tell you.

When a customer asks a question in the course of doing business with you, write it down, along with your answer, and stick it in a folder. When the time comes to write your next email, you have ready topics at hand.

Even better, said Groves, is having your customers provide content ideas. For example, if you answer an interesting question for a customer, name the person in your newsletter.

“Then say something along the lines of, ‘We gave him a free t-shirt for asking such a good question,’ and then include a link — ‘Click here if you think you can stump us for next month,’”

6. Use the Subject Line to Engage and Reel in Readers

Your email newsletters have to grab readers the minute they land in their inboxes. “It goes back to, ‘Do I know you? Do I care?’” Groves said. “If you look at the From address and it says, ‘Eric Groves, Constant Contact,’ you might say, ‘Oh yeah, I know him. But do I care?’”

Most recipients look at the subject line next. If it’s something bland and unappetizing like “Monthly newsletter,” they pass on. They might think they’ll come back to it later, but the chances of it happening are slim to none.

“Once the subject line goes from bold to plain text, it’s gone,” Groves said. “But if the subject line is, say, ‘Plants deer won’t eat,’ hmm, that sounds interesting– that draws them into the content.”

7. Make it Look Professional, Not Slick

If your emails look like flashy Web pages, you lose the personal one-to-one element in an email relationship. And many email programs won’t display HTML graphics anyway. Aim for inviting, consistent and professional, but avoid jiggling graphics.

Constant Contact — along with other email newsletter service providers like Campaigner and iContact, to name just a few — offer a variety of simple marketing email templates. A Google search will also turn up tons of e-newsletters you can emulate.

8. Make Sure Your Email Newsletter Lands in Customer Inboxes

This is where it can get tricky. How do you prevent Internet service providers (ISPs) from tagging your messages as junk mail, or prevent recipients’ email programs from filtering them out? This is the core expertise that email newsletter service providers service providers offer.

Groves claimed his company succeeds in getting clients’ emails into recipients’ inboxes 98 percent of the time. “We have a whole team working all the time with major ISPs,” he said.

Constant Contact’s automated systems track what its clients send and to whom. If messages are red-flagged as possible junk mail, Constant Contact talks to the client. In extreme cases, it will drop them. “We’re trying to protect email delivery for 350,000 other customers,” he pointed out.

9. Be Ready for a Response

Your email marketing campaign could fall on deaf ears, but if you do it right, you can pretty much count on getting a response. You have to be ready when it comes.

Groves recalled one client, a yoga instructor who sent out an email and then went off to teach classes. When she came back hours later, there were 15 responses waiting, some of them missed opportunities because she took too long to respond.

“When you write free content and send it to interested customers, your phone is going to ring,” he said. It might seem like a no-brainer, but it’s a common mistake under-resourced small businesses make.

10. Measure Campaign Success

Do you know how often customers open your newsletter? Do you know which subject lines work? Do you know which articles they read?

It’s information you can capture if you run your own email marketing campaigns, but it’s something email newsletter service providers automatically feed clients and one of the significant value-adds they offer.

The information is invaluable for figuring out what works, what doesn’t and what topics and types of content resonate with customers. The likelihood that you’ll get it right the first time and every time is small. Talking to customers will give you some of the intelligence you need, but email marketing metrics also help.

Bottom Line

Marketing is not the same as selling. And email marketing is not, or should not, be exclusively about presenting offers.  “At the end of day,” Groves said. “It’s all about building relationships, about establishing a two-way dialog where both sides see value.”

Website Design Tips

It can be a good idea to make a list of the things a user will want to use your site for and then checking that these are easy to achieve and if necessary are readily available from the homepage – e.g. Start shopping, Current offers, Book an appointment etc. 

Then test early and throughout the process test and test again. The only way to really check that your site is as user friendly as it can be is to test it out on people who know nothing about your business.

Planning a new website or re-designing a existing website is no easy thing. It’s full of issues, many of witch only become visible at the projects nears completion. Here are a few tips / rules that I work by.

1. Have a strong, clear brand message

Your web site should project the image you want the world to see – and the great news is that through web design you can control that image entirely. In terms of physical design this means positioning your logo or key message in the top left hand corner – the part of the screen our eyes are most naturally drawn to.

2. Provide a clear, concise navigation method

A good web designer will ensure that they use design techniques to lead the user around the screen and site. Clearly differentiated sub-sections and even a site map can ensure a concise, easy to follow navigation route, while good use of position, colour, contrast and size can all help focus the eye. Stick to one main navigation menu, remain consistent throughout the site, use sub-navigation and keep it uncluttered by avoiding drop down menus.

3. Make it intuitively easy to use

Visitors can be fickle and if a site is hard or slow to navigate they’ll be off. Ensure navigation buttons are obvious and easily identifiable – towards the top of the page is good – and have appropriate links directly from page to page so the user can quickly switch when something catches their interest. Finally, adhere to the functionalities people have come to expect. For example, if text is underlined your user will naturally expect it to be a link.

4. Keep it consistent

Users like to know where they are within a website and if the style of a page changes dramatically or somehow feels different visitors will become disengaged and can start to feel lost. Maintain consistency – and a professional image – by ensuring everything matches, from heading sizes and typefaces to design, colour and style of image.

5. Keep it simple

The whole draw of using a website is that it should be quick and easy to use. To this end simplicity is key.

Succinct, useful information should be available at the touch of a button. Today’s surfers won’t hang around so make sure the page is scannable. That means not being afraid to use (read: leave in) plenty of white space. There is a theory behind this – our eyes do not naturally work in a linear fashion. Given the chance they’ll take in more and then zoom in to an area of interest from the bigger picture.

6. Ensure it’s easy to understand

Visitors coming to your website typically won’t want to spend much time so ensure that every aspect is easy to understand; from the navigation to the copy. There are design techniques that can help make the information on a page easier to understand – think shorter sentences, larger font, sections differentiated by contrast and colour and, as previously mentioned, good use of white space. To this end, there are some common rules of thumb: never use more than three typefaces, or more than three different point sizes for a font and keep lines of text to 18 words – 50-80 characters – max!

7. Degrade gracefully

Not everyone has the latest pc and the fastest broadband so make sure your code is as simple as it can be without compromising on the elements you need. HTML code needs to degrade gracefully and not slow down or cause problems to lower spec computers. Cause an IT issue on your visitors pc and you can be sure that customer won’t be back again… or be recommending your site to anyone else!

8. Write it with your target audience in mind

When writing – or commissioning – the copy for your website, do bear in mind your target audience. Tempting as it is to use the medium to bombard the user with all the information you can, do keep it succinct in style and use laymen’s terms if appropriate – or include a glossary if technical terms are unavoidable. If you are hoping to attract visitors through search engine optimisation (SEO) you’ll need to consider the key words people will be using in their searches. Weave these into the copy as often as is appropriate to help propel your site up a search engines listings.

9. Consider usability

At the end of the day if your website isn’t usable visitors will be off – as quick as a mouse. So, when working on the web design, consider the end user’s experience of the site.

10. Make sure it’s compliant

A good website should adhere to certain guidelines. For example, all web sites designed by Alchemy Interactive – a London based web design agency – comply with the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI). This ensures their sites are suitable and accessible for people with disabilities and cover aspects of web design such as screen flickering – line with the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA).