Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

14 great iPhone/iPad apps for event planners—2015 update

Monday, August 24th, 2015 by Adrian Segar

App_Store

Two years have passed since I last updated my list of favorite iPad/iPhone apps for event planners. While I’m still a big fan of five of the original apps I chose just two weeks after receiving my original iPad back in 2010 (Simplenote, DropBox, Square, Evernote, and GoodReader), apps continue to be born, evolve, and, sometimes, die—so it’s time for an event planners’ great apps update!

I’m still using the iPhone 5S, iPad 3, and the Tumi Alpha “everything bag” I gushed over in my 2013 app update, though I’m coveting an iPhone 6S, a newer iPad, and, maybe, an Apple Watch.

Rather than listing additions and removals from my two previous posts, I’m presenting a complete alphabetized current list, including updated descriptions that incorporate any notable new features I use. An [!] next to an app indicates it’s stood the test of time, while an [N] means it’s a new addition since my 2013 update.

BirdbrainBirdbrain, [!] $2.99
If you are active on Twitter (and I’d argue that most event planners should be) Birdbrain is a fantastic way to manage your Twitter network. The app provides an excellent overview and management of your followers and those you follow. Birdbrain handles multiple accounts, makes it easy to investigate anyone on Twitter, allows you to track unfollows as they occur, list people you’re following who don’t follow you, display mentions and retweets, and provides informative statistics showing changes in your Twitter stats over time. The only feature I’d like to see added is the ability to show inactive accounts you’re following. Recommended!

Dropbox_IconDropbox, [!] free for 2 GB, Dropbox Pro $9.99/month or $99/year
I’ve been using Dropbox for years on my office Macs, iPad and iPhone.

Dropbox keeps your files safe, synced, and easy to share between multiple computers and devices. All contents of the Dropbox folder on all linked devices (Macintosh, Linux, Windows, IOS, Android; even Blackberry and Kindle Fire!) running Dropbox are automatically synced when new files or changes are detected. You don’t have to be continually online; all changes sync once your computer has an Internet connection again. You can create shared folders, allowing several people to collaborate on a set of files.

The free service gives you 2GB of space on Dropbox’s servers, which was plenty for me for many years (and Dropbox offers ways to increase the free limit) but last year I took the plunge and upgraded to Dropbox Pro (see below). A nice feature is that the server stores the last 30 days of versions of your files, so you can revert to an older version if needed. If you want more storage, you can upgrade to Dropbox Pro for $9.99/month or $99/year. This paid upgrade includes 1TB of storage plus unlimited older versions of your files, remote wipe, read-only shared folders, and password protected shared links. It’s worth every penny to me.

The Dropbox app allows you to access your Dropbox files on your iPhone or iPad. Image, music, movie, Word, PowerPoint, Excel, PDF, Keynote, Pages, Numbers, HTML, and text file formats can be displayed by the app. Unlike the desktop versions of Dropbox, files are not stored automatically on a mobile device but are uploaded on request by marking them as Favorites.

Dropbox also includes a web interface to your files, so you can access them (and older versions) from any Internet connected computer.

While I was writing my books, I stored all my important files on Dropbox. It gave me great peace of mind to know that up-to-date versions of my book’s many files were being automatically saved remotely and on all my office computers.

evernote_logoEvernote, [!] free, Plus $24.99/year, Premium $49.99/year
Evernote is my go-to application for capturing information I want to be able to find in the future. I use it mainly for web pages, but it will file text notes, pdfs, spreadsheets, photos, voice memos, and screenshots too. Evernote clients are available for most mobile and desktop operating systems. Everything captured is made searchable—you can add your own tags if you like—and can be stored in specific categories (“notebooks”) if desired. The iPad version takes full advantage of the large screen. Your notes are stored on Evernote’s servers and locally and are synced to your mobile device and to Mac OS X and Windows computers running an Evernote client.

Evernote supplies web clipping functionality for all major desktop and mobile browsers, so, with a few clicks, it’s easy to safely capture that article you think could be really useful one day.

You can upload up to 60MB per month (with a maximum single note size of 25MB) using the free Evernote service, and this has always been adequate for me. The Plus version raises the upload maximum to 1GB/month with a maximum single note size of 50MB, the Premium service to 10GB/month with a maximum single note size of 200MB. Plus and Premium include some additional benefits, none of which have tempted me to pay for them. Yet.

GateGurugateguru, [!] free
GateGuru is an airport information app that was purchased by TripAdvisor in June 2013. While it attempts to replicate some of Tripit‘s functionality, I use it to scope out the places to eat (aka amenities) at airports. The traveler’s reviews, while sometimes spotty, usually allow you to pick out the best place to satisfy your current gustatory desires, and I’ve occasionally found a real gem tucked away on Concourse C that I’d otherwise have missed.

goodreader-logoGoodReader, [!] $4.99
GoodReader is an inexpensive app that allows you to transfer files to your mobile device, by Wifi or from an Internet cloud server, and reliably view them. Like the Dropbox viewer, it supports a huge range of file formats. Unlike other mobile file readers, GoodReader has no problem rapidly opening, displaying, and responsively scrolling through the 350-page ebook version of Conferences That Work and other large files I’ve thrown at it.

GoodReader syncs beautifully with Dropbox, allowing me to work on files on any computing device and then upload them to a GoodReader folder for convenient viewing. When I’m facilitating or presenting at an event, I’ll typically use GoodReader to display all relevant files in a multi-tabbed app window, allowing me to quickly refer to them when needed.

googlevoiceGoogle Voice, [!] free app, most but not all services are free
Google Voice has been around for years and has a bazillion options, many of which I don’t really understand. But that’s OK, because I find it very useful for three things: a) transferring calls made to my cell to my office phone when I’m at home where my cell phone doesn’t work (ah, the joys of living in rural Vermont),  b) replacing my cell phone provider’s voice mail and sending me an email and a noble attempt at transcription when I don’t answer my mobile, and c) texting. Now let’s be clear: I hate texting and refuse to pay the inflated rates that carriers charge for it on my cell phone, but sometimes it’s the only way to communicate with some people. Google Voice to the rescue! I can text for free from my free Google Voice number, which works with strangers as long as I let them know in the message that it’s me, Adrian Segar, texting them.

Incidentally, though I haven’t yet used this feature, calls made using Google Voice from outside the U.S. to U.S. numbers cost just 1¢/minute; a pretty good rate!

imessageMessages, [N] free
This is a no-brainer, especially if you’re a cheapskate like me that won’t pay more for texting. If someone has an iDevice, I can message them without paying for texts. Unlike texting, you get to discover whether your message/photo/movie was actually delivered or not. (If Messages could tell me the recipient saw my message, that would be even better, but I guess we’ll have to wait until brain monitor functionality is built into IOS 42.) Works well for me. I’ve heard there can be glitches if you abandon your iDevice and go over to The Dark Android Side, but you’d never do that would you? Would you?

opentableOpenTable, [!] free
OpenTable allows you to make free reservations at ~32,000 restaurants in the United States, Canada, Germany, Japan, Mexico, and the UK. No more phone calls to a restaurant only to get an answering machine, having to leave a message, and wondering whether you’ll get the reservation you wanted or not. The app works quickly and many reservations give you OpenTable points which can eventually (you’d have to use it a lot) be redeemed for a discount off your meal.

Post-It PlusPost-it® Plus, [N] free
I’ve written in detail about this little gem here. Suffice it to say that if you do any kind of group work with sticky notes, this is a great tool for capturing, organizing, and sharing multitudes of these colorful little rectangles. Since I wrote the linked review, 3M has continued to add new features: you can now edit notes and add additional digital notes to existing boards.

square-logo

Register, [!, formerly Square] app free, card transaction fees extra
Square’s Register app provides a neat inexpensive way to easily accept card payments. You can create lists of the items or services you sell. It took me just a few minutes to set up Register for selling my first book three ways—paperback, ebook, or combo—at a presentation or trade show. When you sign up for the service, Square sends you a free swipe card reader that plugs into your iPad or iPhone. They have a free contactless (NFC) and chip card reader shipping soon, in time for the new EMV chip credit card merchant obligations that will be in force in the U.S. later this year. You can also process cash sales and send receipts to a buyer’s email address. Square provides a complete downloadable record of all your sales.

Square charges reasonable card fees: 2.75% for a swiped card and 3.5% + $0.15 for a keyed-in card. These are the only charges for the service; there’s no monthly fee or minimum and no contract or merchant account required. This is a great app for selling promotional items at events.

simplenoteSimplenote, [!] free
I rarely need elaborately formatted documents. What I do need is a simple text editor that imports ASCII, RTF or HTML files, backs up my writing safely, and synchronizes it across my mobile and office computers.

That’s exactly what Simplenote, combined with copies of Notational Velocity (free, open source) on my office computers do. Anything I write in Simplenote on my iPad (I rarely use it on my iPhone, though it works there) gets saved and backed up to the Internet cloud (on a free account at Simplenote). When I open Notational Velocity on an office computer, my notes there are synchronized. Similarly, any notes updated on my office machines are synchronized to the iPad when I open Simplenote. All communications are encrypted.

Both Simplenote and Notational Velocity offer blazing fast search and support thousands of notes.

While Simplenote now sports a Mac desktop version, I prefer to stick with Notational Velocity there because the former doesn’t support styled text (bold, italic, etc.)

For just pure writing, safely backed up and synchronized, you can’t beat the combination of these two free apps!

Swarmfoursquare [formerly Foursquare], [! & N] free
Foursquare, started as a game (be the mayor of places, win badges, and have more points than your friends) and a way to see where your friends are and what they’re doing. I live mostly in a rural area and, while I have occasionally discovered and met up with friends I didn’t know were near me, my main use of this service is to store a searchable history of where I’ve been. When did I drop off that luggage to be repaired? What was the name of that great place I ate dinner with Susie in Atlanta? When exactly was I in Anguilla in 2009? Foursquare’s history of my check-ins is often useful in unexpected ways.

In 2014, Foursquare tried to reposition their app by splitting it into two: Foursquare, a Yelp look-alike competitor, and Swarm, which would remain the “check-in” app. The move did not go well, especially after Foursquare removed the mayor feature in Swarm which took out some of the fun of checking-in. The company’s missteps cost it popularity—a lot less people seem to be checking in recently. Recently, they added back mayorships. Yes, I admit it, it’s fun to triumphantly win back the mayorship of my favorite local restaurant once in a while, but the history feature is the main reason I use Swarm these days.

WazeWaze, [!] free
Waze is my favorite traffic and navigation app of the many that I’ve tried (though some Uber drivers have told me that Google Maps now has more helpful junction navigation in big cities). Unlike traditional GPS units with traffic updates that are often found to be woefully out of date, Waze uses information from its own users to detect traffic snarls and reroutes you on the fly when necessary to avoid that accident that happened up ahead five minutes ago or the rush hour traffic jam building up on the interstate you normally drive on to get home. Its estimates of arrival time, even on long trips, are astonishingly accurate. Owned by Google, my only concern is that the company will start using my location in nefarious ways. If I start seeing too many annoying ads promoting the tattoo parlor I’m passing by I’ll reconsider. Until then, this is an amazing app that has saved me hours of driving and frustration, and shown me countless new neighborhoods as I bypass traffic where other drivers sit fuming.

wundergroundWunderground, [N] free
Goodbye Weatherbug Elite, Yahoo Weather (still think of you fondly, loved your simplicity), and all the other weather apps I’ve dated the last few years. I’m going steady with Wunderground now. Darling W (yes, we’re on first initial terms), your gorgeous graph interface makes it easy to get a quick big picture of the next ten days, your hour by hour forecasts are so handy for deciding whether to move the social indoors, and your weather map predictions load so fast. I’d be a fool to look at anyone else. Sure, W, I admit to a fickle past with weather apps, but now I’m seriously thinking about settling down for good. With you, always by my side…So, what’s it going to be like in Maine next week?

So event professionals, what have I missed? Do you have a favorite app I haven’t mentioned here? Let the world know in the comments!

Facilitation tool: Capture sticky notes with Post-It Plus

Monday, October 20th, 2014 by Adrian Segar

Port-it® Plus
When facilitating, I often use sticky notes as a flexible tool that allows movement from individual work => small group work => a visual summary for an entire group. 3M has just released a useful free tool for iDevices running IOS 8, Post-It Plus, that organizes and documents the results of such activities, which otherwise tend to end up as untidy rolled-up sheets of flip-chart paper or hard-to-categorize digital photographs.

I ran a quick test of the app on a year-old flip-chart sheet with stick notes scattered hither and yon. Post-It Plus quickly identified all the notes (it superimposes a checkmark on each one it recognizes.) If a note is missed you can tap on it to expand it, adjust the edges, tap Done and the note will  be added to the collection. Once you’ve captured all the notes, you can create a Board that holds them.

But that’s just the start. Each Board can contain multiple Groups. Tap and hold a note to move it to a new Group. When you’ve categorized notes as desired, you can name your Boards and Groups appropriately and share them via iMessage, email, Twitter, and Facebook, or save them to your photo library, or export them to pdf, PowerPoint, Excel, or as an image. If you link the app to your paid Evernote account, you can use Evernote’s OCR capability to make all your notes searchable. Integration with other apps, like Dropbox, are also possible, though I didn’t explore this.

Before digital photography, sticky note process was essentially an in-the-moment facilitation tool. Today, even though it’s simple to capture images of a group’s wall work, manipulating the ideas shown afterwards is tedious and rarely done (well, to be honest, I never have taken the time to do so.)

Post-It Plus makes further categorizing and analysis of notes post-session just about as simple as possible. The sharing and export functions make it easy to communicate uncovered themes to others. I look forward to using this app to extract more value from the rich information exposed by group sticky note process. Post-It Plus is a tool with great potential—and you can’t beat the price!

Want to try out Post-It Plus? Download the free app here.

Don’t bet on Getty: the downside of “free” stock photos

Thursday, March 6th, 2014 by Adrian Segar

Getty Image embedYesterday, Getty Images announced that it would be making 35 million of its more than 90 million images available as free website embeds.

Don’t do it.

The program looks attractive. Getty is the world’s largest commercial image archive, and the lure of free access to such a rich treasure trove of eye candy for your web site is hard to resist. Here are four reasons why I’m not going to take the bait.

So I’m just saying no to “free” Getty embeds. Instead I’ll continue to use Creative Commons licensed images from Flickr and Wikimedia Commons for my blog. Finding the “right” image is sometimes challenging, but always oddly enjoyable. Join me—don’t take the Getty sucker bet.

How to delete ALL mail messages from iPhone/iPad in one step

Thursday, January 9th, 2014 by Adrian Segar

Yes, there is a way to delete all your unwanted iPhone/iPad emails from the Mail app in one operation! No more left-swipe:tap Trash for every individual message. No more Edit: tap the single open circle next to every individual message and finally tapping Trash. And you don’t need to jail break your device.

If you leave your iDevice on for a few days and come back to find a few hundred messages on it that you’ve already downloaded elsewhere this trick will save you time and irritation. I didn’t discover the method—it’s far from obvious—but found it on one of many Apple discussion threads bemoaning this irritating hole in Mail functionality.

GOOD NEWS UPDATE [added October 3, 2015] IOS 9.0.2 finally displays a “Trash All” button after Edit is pressed, thus obviating the procedures described below. If your phone won’t handle 9.0.2, the following procedure is often successful; read the comments for a detailed description of hundreds of people’s successes and failures.

BAD NEWS UPDATE [added September 25, 2016] IOS 10 has removed the “Trash All” button. Who knows why? The procedure listed below (the original 2014 post) still works for many people.


It works! I present to you this great tip from shashbasharat found on MacRumors (slightly edited for clarity).

How to delete or move ALL emails at once in non-jail broken ipad or iphone
It took me weeks of research to figure out finally how to decode this yet another secretive secret of apple. There is a perfect way of deleting ALL emails at once without jailbreaking your iphone or ipad…and here it is:

  1. If any of your messages are marked as unread: Open Inbox >> Edit >> Mark All >> Mark As Read [added May 21, 2014 by Adrian; this extra step makes the difference between success & failure for some.]
  2. Open Inbox >> Edit  >> Check/select the top message; it will highlight the move button.
  3. Press and hold the move button and uncheck the message that you had checked earlier.
  4. Lift all your fingers off from the iDevice screen and leave it alone. Wait until all your messages pile up on the right hand portion of the screen (in ipad); iphone will give you the actual number of emails it has selected for the action. Now they are just waiting for your command to be moved ALL at once.
  5. Choose trash to delete all of them or any other folder where you want to move them. Remember this will replicate your action on the server so you will ACTUALLY move them or delete them on the server and not just the iDevice.
  6. Once you have moved all messages to the trash you can either leave them there for the scheduled cleaning or empty it right away by doing this: go to trash folder and touch Edit. The Delete All button shows up at the bottom of the screen. Hit it! You’re done!
  7. If you do not see the effects of your actions on the server make sure you have enabled your email accounts for such actions.

Tips

  1. Please give enough time (could take up to several minutes depending the number of emails to be moved) for the emails to be selected for the move. Your screen will become unresponsive while all emails are being packaged. Once emails are ready, in ipad, you will see them zoomed out on the right hand side of the screen, and in iphone you will see the message showing you the actual number of messages that have been selected.
  2. Avoid purging very large number of emails, the mail app might freeze or crash. If your inbox has thousands of emails change your sync settings in mail settings to fill lesser number of emails in your inbox.
  3. [Added Jul 20, 2014 by Adrian] Many people have reported needing to repeat the above procedure several times before it succeeds. (I too have found this to be necessary a few times on my iPhone but not on my iPad—go figure.) So my final tip is to repeat the procedure 3-4 times if the mail doesn’t disappear the first time. In my experience, if your messages disappear momentarily and then reappear, repeating the procedure will eventually make them stay deleted for good.

7 more great iPhone/iPad apps for event planners

Monday, November 18th, 2013 by Adrian Segar

App_StoreThree years have flown by since, excited by my immediate purchase of the original iPad, I shared 13 great iPad, iPhone, and iPod touch apps for event planners. I am still a big fan of five of these apps (Simplenote, DropBox, Square, Evernote, and GoodReader) while the remainder have been discontinued (WifiTrak and, sadly, TweetDeck), or superseded in my affections (Adobe Ideas, Beat the Traffic, Box.net, Instapaper, iTalk, and WeatherBug) by other apps.

My original iPad is now in my wife’s hands, and my Tumi Alpha man purse (je t’adore, read the reviews!) contains these days an AT&T iPad 3 (fits in the Tumi perfectly), a Verizon iPhone 5s, and a second generation iPod touch holding music and podcasts which, with the addition of an $8 SODIAL FM radio transmitter, I use solely to pump audio into my car radio as I drive.

It’s time for an app update. Here are seven more apps that I actively use and enthusiastically recommend to event planners:

BirdbrainBirdbrain ($2.99)
If you are active on Twitter (and I’d argue that most event planners should be) Birdbrain is a fantastic way to manage your Twitter network. The app provides an excellent overview and management of your followers and those you follow. Birdbrain handles multiple accounts, makes it easy to investigate anyone on Twitter, allows you to track unfollows as they occur, list people you’re following who don’t follow you, display mentions and retweets, and provides informative statistics showing changes in your Twitter stats over time. The only feature I’d like to see added is the ability to show inactive accounts you’re following. Recommended!

WazeWaze (free)
Waze is my favorite traffic and navigation app of the many that I’ve tried. Unlike traditional GPS units with traffic updates that I’ve often found to be woefully out of date, Waze uses information from its own users to detect traffic snarls and reroutes you on the fly when necessary to avoid that accident that happened up ahead five minutes ago or the rush hour traffic jam building up on the interstate you normally drive on to get home. Purchased recently by Google, my only concern is that the company will start using my location in nefarious ways. If I start seeing annoying ads promoting the tattoo parlor I’m passing by I’ll reconsider. Until then, this is an amazing app that has saved me hours of driving and frustration, and shown me countless new neighborhoods as I bypass traffic where other drivers sit fuming.

flywheelFlywheel (free app, $1 per trip surcharge)
Flywheel is my latest app love, recommended to me by my fashionable younger daughter when I was visiting her in San Francisco last month. Unlike Lyft, SideCar and Uber, Flywheel uses legal licensed taxi services to get you where you want to go. Currently, the app allows you to effortlessly hail cabs in San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, Daytona Beach, Miami, Naples, Atlanta, Louisville, Lexington, Lansing, Cleveland, Oklahoma City, Dallas, San Antonio, and Seattle (and they say more cities are on the way). Once you’ve set up an account tied to a credit card (this takes just a few minutes), hailing a cab requires just two taps on your phone. You can then view a constantly updating display of the time before the cab arrives (never more than a few minutes in my experience), watch the cab approach on a map, and talk directly to the driver if necessary. You have a couple of minutes to change your mind; if you cancel after that you’re charged a $6 fee. The service costs $1 per trip, and your desired tipping percentage is built into the app. You never need to give cash or a credit card to the driver.

All this beats stepping out into the street in the rain and waving frantically at a cab that blithely drives past you!

foursquareFoursquare (free)
Foursquare started as a game (be the mayor of places, win badges, and have more points than your friends) and a way to see where your friends are and what they’re doing. I live mostly in a rural area and, while I have occasionally discovered and met up with friends I didn’t know were near me, my main use of this service is to store a searchable history of where I’ve been. When did I drop off that luggage to be repaired? What was the name of that great place I ate dinner with Susie in Atlanta? When exactly was I in Anguilla in 2009? Foursquare’s history of my check-ins is often useful in unexpected ways. And, yes, I admit it, it’s fun to triumphantly win back the mayorship of my favorite local restaurant once in a while…

gateguruGateGuru (free)
GateGuru is an airport information app that was purchased by TripAdvisor in June 2013. While it attempts to replicate some of Tripit‘s functionality, I use it to scope out the places to eat (aka amenities) at airports. The traveler’s reviews, while sometimes spotty, usually allow you to pick out the best place to satisfy your current gustatory desires, and I’ve occasionally found a real gem tucked away on Concourse C that I’d otherwise have missed.

googlevoiceGoogle Voice (free app, most but not all services are free)
Google Voice has been around for years and has a bazillion options, many of which I don’t really understand. But that’s OK, because I find it very useful for two things: a) transferring calls made to my cell to my office phone when I’m at home where my cell phone doesn’t work (ah, the joys of living in rural Vermont) and b) texting. Now let’s be clear: I hate texting and refuse to pay the inflated rates that carriers charge for it on my cell phone, but sometimes it’s the only way to communicate with some people (especially my two younger kids). Google Voice to the rescue! I can text for free from my free Google Voice number, which works with strangers as long as I let them know in the message that it’s me, Adrian Segar, texting them.

Incidentally, though I haven’t yet used this feature, calls made using Google Voice from outside the U.S. to U.S. numbers cost just 1¢/minute; a pretty good rate!

opentableOpenTable (free)
OpenTable allows you to make free reservations at ~30,000 restaurants in the United States, Canada, Germany, Japan, Mexico, and the UK. No more phone calls to a restaurant only to get an answering machine, having to leave a message, and wondering whether you’ll get the reservation you wanted or not. The app works quickly and many reservations give you OpenTable points which can eventually be redeemed for a discount off your meal.

Well, these are some of my favorite apps that make it a little easier to travel, communicate, and eat while I’m on the road. What apps have I missed that are especially useful to event planners that you think should be added to this list? Let us know in the comments below!

Event Technology: Don’t Reinvent The Wheel

Monday, November 11th, 2013 by Adrian Segar

Nov 2013 Meeting Professional Column 2 pagesMy November 2013 column for The Meeting Professional: Meeting Professionals International’s member magazine.

Re-envisage event technology to significantly improve your events

Monday, August 12th, 2013 by Adrian Segar

new technology 5465070837_1448a9bfa9_o

Revolution doesn’t happen when society adopts new technologies—it happens when society adopts new behaviors.
—Clay Shirky, Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations

I feel irritated when I see so many event professionals focusing on “new” event technology while ignoring existing technology that, in many cases, could greatly improve their events at a fraction of the cost.

There, I said it.

Every year there are plenty of conferences where you can go and see the latest and greatest mobile and gamification apps, attendee tracking systems, registrant analytics, mobile networking, video streaming platforms, etc. Vendors are happy to sponsor these events. They use them to showcase their wares and, hopefully, convince attendees that their new technology is worth buying.

Let me be clear—I have nothing against new technology per se. (If I was I’d be a hypocrite, given that I spent twenty-three profitable years as an information technology consultant.) What’s sad is that too much of event professionals’ limited continuing-education time is spent investigating shiny new toys and apps while overlooking inexpensive and proven ways to provide effective learning, connection, engagement, and community building at their events.

Why does this happen? Here are two reasons:

We fixate on the new

“Technology is anything that was invented after you were born.”
Alan Kay, from a Hong Kong press conference in the late 1980s

We are enveloped by so much rapidly changing technology that we fixate on what is new. What was new quickly becomes taken for granted and largely invisible. As David Weinberger remarks“Technology sinks below our consciousness like the eye blinks our brain filters out.” Although technology in the form of human tools has existed for over three million years and we’ve had books for over half a millennium, the first history of technology wasn’t written until 1954. Flip charts, 5×8 cards, comfortable seating, room sets, healthy food and beverage, and hand voting have been around for a long time. They are old-fashioned technology to event professionals, so we don’t pay them much attention (unless they can be reframed in a sexy way, e.g. “brain food”). But that doesn’t mean they’re not important. Far from it.

Technology isn’t just manufactured goods and software
Our definition of what is and isn’t “technology” is far too narrow. We tend to think of technology in terms of products and embedded implementations (e.g. software). But this is an incredibly restrictive viewpoint. Kevin Kelly, in his thought-provoking book What Technology Wants, lists three of the most important human technologies:

  • Language: A technology that “shifted the burden of evolution in humans away from genetic inheritance…[allowing] our language and culture to carry our species’ aggregate learning as well.”
  • Writing: A technology that “changed the speed of learning in humans by easing the transmission of ideas across territories and across time.”
  • Science: “The invention that enables greater invention.”

Once we start thinking about technology with a wider lens like this, all kinds of possibilities arise.

Re-examining process—the key to re-envisaging event technology
Language, writing, and science are outside our conventional, narrow-scope technology. The conventional technology we use to instantiate the sounds, symbols, etc. that they use is secondary. Language, writing, and science are primarily about human process.

When we expand our perspective on event technology to include process, many unexamined aspects of our events come into view. A few examples:

  • Why do we open conferences with a keynote?
  • Why do so few people speak during conference sessions?
  • How do we know if the sessions we’re providing are what attendees actually want?
  • Why do we provide entertainment during socials?
  • Are socials the best way to meet other attendees?
  • Why do we close conferences with a keynote or dinner?

When you start honestly investigating issues like these, instead of simply repeating things the same “safe” way you’ve previously experienced at conferences you’ll discover all kinds of human process technology that can fundamentally improve your event in ways that a new gizmo or app cannot.

So I urge every event professional to re-envisage event technology to include the process used during your events. Concentrate less on improving logistical processes: registration, decor, A/V, F&B, and so on. These are secondary processes, and we know how to do them well. Instead, focus on improving the human process you use throughout the event venue and duration—how you structure and script its flow, how you maximize useful connection between attendees, how the content and form of sessions are determined—this is the event technology that counts.

Photo attribution: Flickr user pierre-francois

My 14 favorite WordPress plugins for a small business website

Sunday, July 22nd, 2012 by Adrian Segar

These days when considering a web presence for your small business, it’s hard to not be impressed with the flexibility and power available from a self-hosted WordPress site. Although WordPress’ roots are in the blog creation world, it’s pretty easy to build a WordPress site where the blog is just another tab in the menu hierarchy. (Example? This site!) And with over 17,000 plugins available that can extend the functionality of your website, you’ll almost certainly be able to add just the special features you want. Perhaps the biggest problem is that there are so many plugins that you could use, and, for performance reasons, you don’t want to have more of them activated than you need.

I’m not the first, and I won’t be the last person to write a post like this, but I hope you’ll find some gems in the following list. Here, in alphabetical order, are my favorite 14 WordPress plugins.

Akismet (free for personal use, $5/month for small business sites)
“Spam, spam, spam, spam, spam” sang the merry men of Monty Python’s Flying Circus (As a schoolboy, I watched the original episode with this song.) I knew that my blog posts were finally gaining traction when the volume of spam comments started to soar. Akismet uses the combined submissions of its users to automatically flag comment and trackback spam. On my site to date it has successfully rejected over 12,000 spam messages and only missed 40.

You can see the comments that Akismet flags as spam on an informative screen and quickly delete them, or—rarely needed—reclassify them.

If your blog is getting any kind of decent amount of traffic (this site has had a million page views in the last seven months) you need Akismet. It will save you significant time dealing with the spam comments and backlinks that will otherwise plague your posts.

BackupBuddy ($75 for two licenses + 1 year of updates. Discounts often available.)
You backup your computer files regularly, right? (If you haven’t yet learned that computers die and data disappears, you will, and it won’t be pleasant.) Imagine your pain if your painstakingly created website became corrupted or vanished one day, a victim of a glitch, a crashed host server, or an evil hacker.

I used to use my hosting company’s free backup service to make complete backups of my website, but they only let me do this once every 30 days! Not frequent enough, and I needed to run through multiple steps to get everything. Although I am still using the same hosting company if I ever decided to move I would have no idea how to transfer my backed up files onto a new service.

Enter BackupBuddy. This is an expensive plugin but for my peace of mind it’s worth it. Backups are one-click operations from your WordPress Dashboard, or you can schedule them to occur automatically. You can backup just your WordPress database or the entire site (including that massive media library you’ve uploaded). The plugin has the capability to painlessly recreate your site on another host, aka site migration, and comes with two licenses to let you do this.

Bad things happen to good websites and backup is essential. Whether you use BackupBuddy or another solution, backup your website regularly!

Broken Link Checker (free)
As I write this I have 1,501 outbound links scattered around the posts and pages of this website, and 2 of them are broken. How do I know this? Why, thanks to the invaluable Broken Link Checker, of course! Links are always going dark on the web, and some of them could be on your website. This fantastic plugin periodically checks that every link on your website still points to a valid page. Those that break can be easily reviewed and updated, or if they have disappeared for good, unlinked. I don’t know why anyone wouldn’t want to install this plugin to keep a site reliable and broken-link free.

BulletProof Security (free)
Let me start by emphasizing that you need to keep your WordPress installation up to date. I learned this the hard way last year, when I started seeing ads for cheap drugs that appeared to be linked to pages on my website appearing in Google searches. I was still running an older vulnerable version of WordPress, and the subsequent cleaning of my site took a large amount of time. Trust me, you do not want this to happen to you. Despite being an IT consultant for 25 years, I am so glad these days I do not have to understand and protect against all the nefarious ways that hackers can subvert WordPress websites. That’s BulletProof Security’s job. The plugin guards your crucial WordPress configuration files against attack.

A warning is in order though; I don’t find this plugin particularly easy to set up. It conflicted with my webhost’s statistics reports and figuring out how to make them available again required some configuration changes that I had to get from the author of the program (who responded quickly and accurately I might add). There are many other security conflicts like this that you might run into, and they are documented at exhaustive length in the associated support forums. In addition, plugin updates can lose these custom changes unless you install them just so.

Nevertheless, this plugin supplies peace of mind, albeit in a complex package. This is one plugin you may want someone with technical expertise to install and maintain for you.

Conditional CAPTCHA for WordPress (free)
This neat little plugin piggybacks onto Akismet to further reduce comment spam. If Akismet identifies a comment as spam, Conditional CAPTCHA will ask the commenter to complete a simple CAPTCHA. If they fail, then the comment will be automatically discarded or trashed, while if they pass, it will be allowed into the spam queue (or approved, if you so choose).
Comments not flagged as spam by Akismet will appear on your site as usual.

I have seen a dramatic decrease in spam displayed in Akismet since adding this plugin. Recommended!

Contact Form 7 (uses Really Simple CAPTCHA, free)
Everyone needs a few user fillable forms on their website for one thing or another. There are several plugins that supply this functionality; Contact Form 7 is the one I use. Although it’s optional I strongly recommend you turn on the CAPTCHA option supplied by the free Really Simple CAPTCHA plugin to prevent bots from submitting spammy forms. This plugin has been 100% reliable and is easy to set up.

Disqus Comment System (free)
I used the default WordPress comment system for a long time but switched to Disqus about a year ago. (In case you were wondering, it has the capability to import all your existing WordPress comments.) Disqus has more features than the WordPress comment system and I have found it to be reliable. It’s also prettier. One great feature of Disqus is that it is available on many blogging platforms, allowing you to see your own comments across multiple sites.

Events (free)
I maintain an event list on my website that contains information about upcoming peer conferences I’ve been told about and conferences I’m facilitating or at which I’m presenting. The Events plugin allows you to display this list in a sidebar and/or on a page, and includes the capability to display separate lists of historic or future events. The plugin has fields for the all the usual information you’d want to share about an event and is highly customizable. This plugin does exactly what I want.

Quotes Collection (free)
You’d probably like to display a collection of testimonials from happy customers about your wonderful products and services wouldn’t you? The Quotes Collection plugin does just that via a simple interface. You can choose whether the quotes include an author and/or a source, how and when they get refreshed, etc. I display a random testimonial in my sidebar; I now have quite a collection! Don’t miss this easy way to add a little interest and customer-supplied positive sales message to an appropriate place on your website.

Tweet Old Post (free)
Currently I have 180+ blog posts on my website. Some of them, cough cough, are quite good and still relevant, even if they were written a couple of years ago. How can I expose these old-but-good posts to an internet world that thrives on the new?

Using Tweet Old Post, that’s how.

Although I’m not a fan of excessive automated tweeting, I use Tweet Old Post to tweet two to three randomly chosen old posts every day. As the author explains: “This plugin helps you to keeps your old posts alive by tweeting about them and driving more traffic to them from twitter. It also helps you to promote your content. You can set time and no of tweets to post to drive more traffic.” I’ll add that you can exclude posts individually (e.g. if they refer to out of date information or one time events) and/or by WordPress Category, and you can supply the hashtags to be added to each tweet. The plugin only supports a single twitter account, so if you have more than one you’ll need to decide which account to use.

Since I started using Tweet Old Post, I’ve seen a measurable increase in visitors to my blog. Use it once you’ve built up a respectable volume of posts—but don’t overdo it!

WordPress File Monitor (free)
After my frustrating experience with my website being hacked (see the BulletProof plugin above) I decided to implement a belt-and-suspenders strategy to site security. So, besides BulletProof I also run this plugin, which simply supplies a warning message when any files in my WordPress directories are added, deleted, or changed. This means that I get warnings when I upload media for posts or install new versions of plugins, which is a little distracting, but I like the knowledge that if something slips past Bulletproof this plugin should catch the attempt to install new stuff on my server. File Monitor can be set to skip user-chosen directories so that backups, captchas, caching, site maps, and other routine processes won’t constantly trigger it.

I sleep a little better each night with this plugin installed.

WordPress Popular Posts (free)
As you might expect from the name, Popular Posts is a sidebar widget that displays your most popular blog posts. A wide range of options allows you to customize how the posts appear, and the plugin adds a Dashboard panel that shows blog post statistics. Nice! This is a great way to showcase what visitors like on your blog and lure them in to exploring your content further.

WP-Optimize (free)
Every blog post you write and every revision you save while writing it is stored in WordPress’s SQL database. Over time this database gets bloated with old post revisions, deleted drafts, spam comments—all kinds of what technical folks call cruft. WP-Optimize allows you to easily slim down your WordPress database back to the core content. This can improve the responsiveness of your website and make it a little quicker to backup. A few clicks to a svelter site, and a satisfying display of the space freed up. What’s not to like?

WP Super Cache (free)
OK, I admit it, I’m a bit of a cheapskate. The Conferences That Work website uses inexpensive shared hosting, where multiple websites are crammed onto a single server. As a result, my site used to often take over a second to return a webpage from a click (use a free service like monitor.us to monitor the responsiveness of your site—the results may surprise you). Earlier this year, hosting provider issues that I won’t go into here led me to investigate caching my website using the WP Super Cache plugin. The results were drastic—my average response time is now 1/5 of a second, a very significant and welcome improvement.

Setting up WP Super Cache appears a first sight to be a bit overwhelming, though the process is easier than the installation instructions imply as the plugin includes a number of checks that everything is configured correctly and will tell you what to do if it isn’t. Enough people (over three million downloads!) use this plugin to reassure me that it’s solid, and I can’t argue with the 5x speedup in site performance. Recommended!

Final thoughts
Most of these plugins are donationware. Send the author some money if they make your life easier.

Check that any plugin you install is compatible with the version of WordPress you’re running. Check compatibility before you upgrade WordPress too!

I don’t claim that this list is definitive—in fact I won’t be surprised to learn of better choices for the functions these plugins supply. That’s one of the best reasons for writing posts like these; I’ll learn new stuff! But I hope this list of my 14 favorite WordPress plugins is useful to you too. Let me know in the comments!

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