Platform Design 101: Pre-Production (Part 5)

C is for Content – Pre-Production

<- Click here to read Part 4: Content Format

In the previous part of this series I shared options related to where your platform lives (i.e. your website).  And now that we have a website figured out, we’re going to look at the first part of how you create content.

Content Creation

When you create content for your online platform there are three parts to the process, and within each of these parts are several things you will need to be aware of to bring your vision to life.

  1. Pre-Production
  2. Production
  3. Distribution

Before we get in to those I wanted to mention something I touched on earlier. The type of platform you create, whether it is a blog, a podcast or a webcast, will depend on your specific audience and your specific method for communication. And because they are audience-specific they aren’t something I can decide for you (nor should I).

So, I’m moving forward as if you are going to be using all three of these types of platforms. Just be aware that the choice of platform is ultimately up to you and you need to make that determination yourself. Remember, I said this is a Choose Your Own Adventure sort of thing, not a recipe. You will need to select the paths that make sense for you and your audience.

1. Pre-Production

Here we’ll talk about a few of the things you need to have in place before you start production on your blog, podcast or webcast. I’ll just stick to the essentials (don’t I always?) so as to keep things manageable. But keep in mind that there are a lot of things that could end up sucking your time away so it’s best not to get too mired in on the details.

Writing (Blogging) Pre-Production

Before you start writing the main things you’ll need to do is make sure your blogging platform is set up and ready to go. We have installed WordPress on your web server but you’ll want to enhance things a bit to make it more than just the out-of-the-box version of the software. Here’s a quick run-down:

  1. Settings
  2. Plugins
  3. Themes
  4. Branding
  5. Pages

1. Settings

Before you do anything you’ll have to set up your WordPress Installation with the right settings. Here are the settings I recommend (and I’ll have a lot more detailed information and how-to’s in future blogs, but for now I’ll just list them out).

  • Change Permalinks to post names
  • Set landing pages to Home and blogging page to Blog
  • Set the tagline for the site
  • Remove Hello Dolly Plugin
  • Activate JetPack and Akismet

2. Plugins

There are more plugins for WordPress than stars in the galaxy, but for now I recommend 5 types of plugins for your site, which will help with security, backups and the like (again, future blog posts will give more details and recommendations):

  • SEO Plugin
  • Backup Plugin
  • SPAM Blocking Plugin
  • Analytics Plugin
  • Security Plugin

3. Themes

It’s also easy to get stuck in the endless sea of themes out there. Truth be told you don’t need a lot more than the default themes that come with WordPress. But most people wouldn’t be satisfied with that look for their theme so you should know the general lay of the land with your theme options.

There are basically three types of themes:

Stand-Alone
The first is a one-off theme that is essentially like the default WordPress themes. These are pretty cut-and-dry and don’t offer too many options in terms of customization.

Customizable
The second is a customizable theme which allows you to modify many elements of the theme, such as page layout and visual elements. Examples of this are Divi2 by Elegant Themes, Avada Theme or the X Theme. There are many others, but these are three that I have some experience with.

Framework
And finally, the third type of theme is a theme framework. These are theme systems built from the ground-up that may include a subscription to several child themes (more on that in a future post) that fall within the framework. These are things like Genesis, Themify or Thesis, each of which comes with a variety of pros and cons.

Since you’re on a budget, I recommend sticking with one of the free, simple themes (the first type) and focusing on building out really good content. Since your site is brand new you shouldn’t worry too much about making it super fancy right now. We’ll worry about that once you actually have some readership.

If you are dead set on plopping down some money, then I think a subscription to Elegant Themes (elegantthemes.com), which runs $69, will give you the best bang for your buck. You get a ton of great looking themes, including the Divi2 theme. All for the same cost as a single premium theme on Theme Forrest (a huge directory of premium themes).

A quick word on having a custom theme built for you: Don’t do it.

It isn’t something you need to worry about and, to be honest, would be a total waste of time and money for you right now. So, just take the idea of having a custom designed theme out of your head for now. It isn’t relevant to what you’re doing.

Trust me on this one.

4. Branding

Before we selected a color palette and fonts for your brand. This is where we need to implement them.

Based on the theme you selected you will be able to do some customization with the colors on your site. Since it depends on the theme you selected I can’t say much more than this, but try to customize them as much as you can given your theme’s limitations.

For typography, I recommend using a font plugin such as WP Google Fonts, which will allow you to use the fonts you selected from the Google Fonts repository on your website.

Aside from that the final thing I would do is stick a “logo” on the header of your site. This doesn’t need to be a professionally designed full-on logo, but can be as simple as a nice text treatment of your site’s name in your pre-selected font and color. Check out Canva.com for a great place to easily set up graphics with a lot of great Google Fonts to choose from (probably one of the ones you selected — or one that looks just like it). Canva.com is also great for making social media images like Facebook Banners, but we’ll get in to that another time.

5. Pages

The last bit of pre-production you’ll want to do is set up some default pages for your site. These can just be placeholders for now, but it’s good to create them so you at least have them in mind.

A quick note about the difference between posts and pages. In WordPress a post is a news item or blog post (basically something that is a part of your “feed” of information) and a page is a static page with information that won’t be changing over time. So, I recommend setting up the following pages (even if they’re just placeholders for now):

  • Home (you may have done this already)
  • Blog (to hold your blog feed)
  • About (surprisingly, not for information about you, but more on that later)
  • Contact (so folks can get ahold of you)
  • Terms of Use (eventually you will need one of these)
  • Privacy Policy (eventually you will need one of these too)

Again, don’t go hiring a lawyer to set up your terms of use, or spend a ton of time crafting the perfect “About” page. For now, just stick up some filler text or placeholder stuff. These are basically bookmarks to remind us what we’ll have on the site in the future.

Software

To write, I use a software program called Evernote (which many of you are probably familiar with). It is a free software that allows you to write and keep notes which are synced across all of your computers and devices. The reason I use this instead of writing directly into WordPress is because occasionally you might lose what you type if you only write into an online web-based platform. Just like when you accidentally lose an important email, it is really annoying when you lose a post that you’ve spent a lot of time and energy on.

You could also use something like MS Word (for Windows) or Pages (for Mac) to write. Or even Notepad or TextEdit, which come built in to your operating system. It doesn’t have to be fancy, but it should be something that you can access offline and saves automatically in the background so you don’t lose your work. if it syncs with the cloud, then thats even better.

I have also used Google Docs, which is great if you have more than one author, or an editor who needs to proof documents.

Recording (Podcasting) Pre-Production

Before we get in to the thick of things, there are a couple things you’ll need to prepare so that you can have your podcast set up the right way. Two things, actually:

  1. Podcast artwork
  2. Intro / Outro (optional)

1. Podcast artwork

the one thing you’ll need to do is set up some Podcast artwork. This is a requirement for many of the podcast directories like iTunes. To keep things super simple (you can always change your artwork later, if needed) use Canva.com to create a 1400 pixel x 1400 pixel image with your Podcast name in nice big letters.

Keep in mind that, even though your image is 1400 pixels square, the actual version that people will see on the iTunes directory is rather small. So, don’t spend too much time on the fine details. If you need some inspiration, check out some of the top Podcasts in iTunes and see what other folks are doing.

One thing for your podcast artwork is that I don’t recommend using the word “Podcast” on it. For example, if the name of your Podcast is “The Coffee Lover Podcast”, then just put “Coffee Lover” in big letters. People already know it’s a podcast so using that valuable real estate with an unnecessary word isn’t a good idea.

2. Intro / Outro (optional)

The intro and outro are the small audio bits that you hear in the beginning and end of podcasts. These can take many different forms, from elaborate musical and vocal introductions and calls to action, to super simple mentions of the podcast name and episode number.

The reason I say this is optional is because this isn’t a make-or-break for your podcast to happen. Is it nice to have? Sure. But we’re talking about the pure essentials, right? And the essential of podcasting is having an audio recording of you (and maybe another person or two) talking about something. That’s really all you need, so in the grand scope of things you don’t actually need one.

There are as many ways to make and produce these as there are podcasts (so .. a LOT) but my preference is to just clip together some nice stock audio loops in Garage Band (for Mac) or Audacity (for Mac/PC) and record myself (or maybe someone with a nice voice) to give my intro and outro speech.

You can also find people on Fivrr.com who will make these for you at a reasonable cost. If you want to go full-on pro then check out MusicRadioCreative.com, who is a group out of the U.K. that does many of the intros and outros for the top podcasters. I’ve worked with them before and they do great work.

But again, not totally necessary, so only focus on this if you have the resources and time.

Now let’s talk about the hardware you’ll need to get this show on the road.

Equipment

The first thing you need to consider is the recording equipment. Now, I’m going to say something that more seasoned podcasters might scoff at:

You don’t need to buy a microphone to start a podcast.

Before you close this browser tab and start muttering words like “doesn’t know what he’s talking about” and “what an idiot” under your breath, hear me out.

The truth is, a podcast is a recording of your voice, but it doesn’t require anything more than what already comes with your computer or smart phone. We’re not talking about the quality of your recording, because that is a separate issue. But for the act of recording your voice, what you already have on your computer is more than adequate.

Who should buy a microphone then? I would say that anyone who has more than 3 months of podcasting under their belt would do well to upgrade their equipment. But again, we’re talking MINIMUM VIABILITY, so that means we don’t worry about fancy bells and whistles and focus our energy on designing your platform without unnecessary fluff.

Just because your favorite podcaster recommends and uses the Heil PR-40 Microphone, doesn’t mean you should be shelling out several hundred dollars on the microphone, pop filter, desk arm, mixing board and whatever else they tell you to buy.

Do those make your podcast sound better? Absolutely! Are they required to have a podcast in the first place? Not in the least.

If you are really committed to having a microphone, and you don’t want to use the one that comes with your computer or smart phone, then I recommend the Blue Snowflake Microphone which you can pick up for around $50 online (great for portability). Or if you want the next step up get the Blue Yeti Microphone which costs around $110 – $125 and is a good desk-top microphone. For both just get the USB versions. No need to get the “pro” ones.

Software

Podcasting software is of two types: the software you use to edit your audio and prepare it for distribution, and the software services you use to distribute the audio files to the public. And there are three steps to the podcast process that involve these pieces of software:

  1. Editing the episode
  2. Editing the audio file (ID3 tags)
  3. Setting up your podcast feed

For editing there are two choices I recommend, depending on the type of computer you have. If you are on a Mac, then use Garage Band. It is free with your computer (or iOS device) and is a great audio editor. If you are on a Windows machine then I recommend Audacity. It is also free and open source to boot. You don’t need some fancy software like Adobe Audition because, let’s be honest, what you’re doing isn’t that sophisticated. We’re not preparing for a career as audio engineers, so just go with the simplest and cheapest (or free) option for now.

The second part of the editing process is taking your finished MP3 file and adding ID3 tags to the file. The ID3 tags are basically markers in the digital file that tell audio players what the file is all about. They include things like the author name, podcast name, description, artwork, etc. Again, we’ll keep things free and simple. Just use iTunes (for Mac or Windows), which is free and has a built-in ID3 tag editor.

The third and final part of the podcast process is setting up your podcast feed. A feed is essentially a specific type of web page (XML) that can be read by services like iTunes, from which you “announce” any new updates or episodes that you want them to publish on their network to their subscribers.

There are two options for setting up your feed, both of which have pros and cons.

Option #1 is the all-in-one method of using a service called Libsyn (libsyn.com). They will host your files and set up a feed that you can submit to the iTunes directory. They also provide you with a direct link to the file which you can use to set up the default HTML5 audio player in WordPress.

That probably sounds confusing, but just know that Libsyn will provide the hosting of your audio file and set up the feed for iTunes. But of course this sort of convenience comes with a price and you’ll end up paying around $15 / month for a weekly 30 – 45 minute show. Any more than that and you’ll have to pay a bit more for the next upgraded hosting package.

Option #2 is the super cheap method where you have to set up media hosting and your podcast feed separately. The benefit of this method is that it is practically free (or super cheap) to get your podcast up and running.

I recommend (for those with the courage to try this method) to use Amazon’s S3 file storage service (super cheap for the first year and really cheap after that too) to upload my mp3 files, and then set up a feed using the free Blubrry Podcast plugin for WordPress. Again, this method is not for the easily nauseated, but I plan to put up a tutorial on this method soon so you can follow along and get things moving quickly.

But if you don’t want to deal with the headache, then Libsyn is probably your best bet and it won’t break the bank.

Video (Webcasting) Pre-Production

Some of you might be thinking of starting a webcast or video channel to showcase your content or provide another useful resource for your audience. That’s great! This is an area that is super easy to get bogged down with upgrading equipment and spending a lot of money on cameras, lights, microphones and more.

If we carry over the minimum viable production idea from podcasting, then you probably already know what I’m going to say. That’s right. You don’t need a lot of fancy equipment to start a video channel. In fact, the only thing you really need is a smart phone or digital camera with video capabilities. Heck, actually the only thing you need is the webcam on your laptop, but before we talk about equipment let’s discuss your brand.

Branding your videos

The videos you produce are one of the best ways you can cement your brand identity and message with your audience. Again, it is about consistency — consistency of voice (copywriting), color and typography.

Part of the production process we will talk about later deals with copywriting so I won’t touch on that right now. But for the other two, color and typography, you should have some graphics prepared that will help your videos maintain consistency with your brand.

The easiest way is to have graphical bumpers on your video, as well as a bottom third graphic. What are those? Well, a bumper is basically just an image that you place in the first 3 seconds and last 5 seconds of your video. It has the name of your platform, your tagline, and a pleasing graphic or picture.

Canva is once again your friend, so you can use that to create the image you need, with the right colors and typeface for your brand. I recommend creating an image at a 1080p resolution, which is 1920 pixels wide x 1080 pixels high. That is full HD resolution and can work for any videos you produce.

A bottom third is a wide and short graphic that is overlayed on top of someone who is speaking and gives you some information about that person. You see these all the time on the news, or CSPAN when someone is talking. This doesn’t have to be too fancy either, but just make sure you are consistent again with the colors and fonts.

When we talk about software you’ll see that some of these sorts of things are pre-built in to a lot of video editing programs so that makes things much easier.

Software

When you work on your videos there are (just like with podcasts) two types of software you will need. First you need the video editing software, and then you will need an online service to host the videos for public consumption.

Video Editing Software

Also like podcasts there are some pricey options (Final Cut Pro X for Mac, or Adobe Premiere for Mac or PC), both of which are WAY too robust for someone just starting out.

In the free-ish range I recommend iMovie for Mac or Movie Maker for Windows.

No matter what video editing software you use just know that there will be a learning curve. I would say that the easiest one is probably iMovie for Mac, but even so you will need to spend some time adapting.

Another piece of software that might be useful is something that will help you with screen casts. Screen casts are basically a video of you doing something on your computer screen. The software captures video from your computer and audio from your microphone. This is great for people providing tutorials from their computer (which is something I plan to do a lot of on this website).

If you want a free option, then try Jing, which has a time limit of 5 minutes per video (as well as online storage limits) but might work for you. With 5 minutes per video, if you have something that will take longer than that, you’ll have to do it in parts and then stitch them together in your video editing program.

For something a bit better I recommend ScreenFlow for Mac ($99) or Camtasia for PC ($299). ScreenFlow is actually not a bad video editor in it’s own right, so if you are on a Mac and going to do a lot of screen capturing and editing, then you might want to use it as your main editor too.

Video Hosting Services

For video hosting there are really only two names you need to know. One of which I’m sure you’re more than familar with: YouTube and Vimeo.

What is the difference between them and when should you use one over the other? As a general rule Youtube is free video hosting with social networking built in, and Vimeo is (basically) paid hosting.

If you are starting up a channel and you want lots of people to follow your videos and share them, then you definitely want to go with Youtube. But if you are starting up a private community and want to provide videos just for those in your group, then Vimeo is the better option.

Keep in mind that Vimeo is a paid service. Well, technically they have a free option, but there are so many restrictions with upload limits and video streaming that it’s not really worth considering.

Overall Youtube is probably your best option, since you can have your videos be private as well.

There are some other options out there like Wistia, but I don’t recommend them for your purposes. And the one thing I will tell you absolutely not to do is host your videos (or podcast, for that matter) on your own website server. That is a big no-no and will end up getting your site either closed or slowed down to a crawl. Trust me. Just don’t do it.

Equipment

Now we’re going to talk about video equipment. Which is basically what you’re using to take your videos.

As I said before, you really only need the video camera on your smart phone or digital camera. There is a LOT you can do with those and, just learning some essentials of film making (rule of thirds, framing your shots, lighting, angles, etc.) you can get some amazing footage from a simple device.

If you’re doing a talking head type of webcast, then the webcam on your computer will also work well. It really depends on the type of videos you’re going to produce.

If you’re looking to upgrade, first make sure that you’re seriously committed to producing videos of a higher calliber. Because the next step up from an iPhone or Powershot camera is pretty expensive.

Again, since this article is geared towards those starting from scratch, you don’t really NEED super nice camera equipment, so just go with what works and then upgrade down the line when it is truly warranted.

Now, having said that, I should mention that there are a few low-cost items that could hellp you greatly improve the quality of your videos. Two I can recommend are:

  1. A small lavaliere microphone (About $20)
  2. A monopod or tripod

The microphone will improve your video greatly, because audio is one of the biggest indiccators of quality videography. And the monopod or tripod is for stability of your shot (there is nothing worse than shaky video!).

Catch your breath

At this point I think it’s a good idea to pause and catch our collective breaths. I’ve thrown a LOT of information at you and you may be starting to feel a bit overwhelmed.

I would like to reiterate what I mentioned earlier. This is a Choose Your Own Adventure story. Or maybe a better analogy is a buffet. Pick and select the parts of the platform design process that you need, and disregard the rest. If you aren’t ready to get a podcast up and running, then just skip this whole next section and come back to it when it’s relevant to you.

The purpose of these articles is to STOP the overwhelm, not cause more of it. But giving you an entire roadmap for every thing I would do to design an online platform means that you’re going to get a lot of information. (Can you imagine how long this would be if I threw all the unnecessary parts of the process at you?) So, stick with me and feel free to skim the parts that don’t relate to your situation.

Okay, our pre-production preparations are finished, and now it is time to start producing some awesome content.

Read Part 6: Production and Distribution ->

 

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Mark is the founder of Akamai Websites and has been designing websites, user interfaces and graphics for over 25 years. Originally building websites for clients such as Disney Channel and Warner Brothers, he was also a member of the team that developed Rotten Tomatoes, and was Jet Li's webmaster and assistant for ten years. After 8 years working in China, building websites for movies and celebrities, building online businesses, and designing interfaces for mobile applications, he moved to Hawaii where he helps businesses craft their online platforms.

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