My Favorite Productivity Apps – Desktop

When I look back at my own output over the last four years – four books, 190 articles, nearly 1,000 blog entries, 300 podcasts, more than 50 webcasts and a busy speaking/training schedule – I marvel at the role that cheap and free technology has played in making me more productive.

A lot of our productivity used to be robbed by little things: finding stuff, organizing it and getting it into a useful form. Thanks to new tools, much of that is now automated.

I constantly experiment with new software, and over the years I’ve come to rely upon a handful of stalwarts that I use every day. Over the next couple of issues, I’ll run down the list and tell you why I value these tools. I also hope you’ll share your favorites as comments so we can all become more productive. All of these run on Windows (I had a Mac for a couple of years but just couldn’t make the mental shift) and most are free. None cost more than $50.

The Desktop Basics

Dragon NaturallySpeaking – I’ve praised this speech recognition program so frequently that it deserves a place in the Gillin Hall of Fame by now. Simply stated, I write at least twice as much with Dragon as without it. I also believe Dragon has made me a better writer by enabling my work to have a more conversational tone. The retail price is $200, but you can find perfectly good older versions for as little as $30 online. Even at the higher price, it’s a good value.

Google Office – Despite Gmail’s erratic performance, the flexibility of web-based mail can’t be beat. I can access and search my entire mail archive from any computer or from my Android phone. Google continually innovates on this platform. One of my favorite new features is the ability to create a Google document directly from an e-mail. The keyboard shortcuts save a load of time. I just wish they’d create one that’s analogous to Word’s <Ctrl-K>.

For collaboration, Google Docs is a godsend. My last two books have been written with co-authors, and Docs enabled us to share and edit each other’s work without the nightmare of version control. Feature-wise, the apps don’t hold a candle to Microsoft Office, but the collaborative convenience is often worth the trade-off. Microsoft’s Office Web Apps are supposed to integrate better with Office, but I haven’t put them through their paces yet.

Tungle screen shotTungle – This scheduling application, which debuted at South by Southwest early this year, makes it easy for people to suggest meeting times and book appointments without an endless game of e-mail volleyball. You can click a link in my signature line and book a meeting at your convenience. Integrates well with popular calendars.

Notepad++ – I wrote about this little open source beauty back in August. Notepad++ is a text editor for programmers, and it is blisteringly fast at crunching through large volumes of text. Our WYSIWYG world plays havoc with Web content management systems, which choke on each other’s formatting commands. I can dump HTML code into Notepad ++ and clean it up with a few quick search-and-replace operations. When I was slammed by a WordPress virus earlier this year, I used Notepad++ to purge hundreds of files of rogue code in a few seconds.

AVG Free – I’ve tried a lot of antimalware utilities, but I keep coming back to this unobtrusive yet effective security suite. I haven’t had a problem with computer security in three years (other than on my websites, which are a completely different story), and that’s what counts.

7-Zip – When PKWare began charging for WinZip a few years ago, I switched to this open source file compression utility. It supports most of the popular formats as well as its own high-density algorithm. The 256-bit encryption is a plus when you want to keep your work from prying eyes.

Roboform login screenRoboform – I paid the $30 for this password manager several years ago, so I haven’t experimented with the crop of new entrants. These tools store your passwords, personal contact information and bank/credit card data in one place, making it easy to log into websites and to fill out online registration forms. Here’s a link to some alternatives, including open source tools.

PDF-XChange Lite – I’m forgetful, so I like to highlight and annotate documents when they’re in front of me. Adobe’s $200 Acrobat X is overkill for my needs. PDF-XChange Lite makes it easy to mark up PDFs so I can remember later why I kept them.

FileZilla – When you run several websites (I tend five actively) you need to move around a lot of big files. This is an open source FTP program that is fast and easy to use. I transfer a lot of large audio and video files, and FileZilla handles the task smoothly in the background.

Next issue, I’ll look at some essential multimedia tools as well as Web-based utilities. Let me also put in a plug for my podcast partner David Strom, who is a much savvier technologist than I, and whose reviews and recommendations are a goldmine of wisdom.

CNN Gets Down and Dirty

I don’t often turn down opportunities to appear on CNN, but when the news network called at 8:15 a.m. early this week while I was walking my dog and asked if I could be in a studio 20 miles away in an hour, I had to decline. Much to my surprise, the producer asked if I could conduct the interview over Skype video. So at 9:13, I spoke live with anchor Kyra Phillips from my own humble office.

I don’t know if this incident represents a lowering of CNN’s standards or an example of Web video coming into its own, but I admire the network for finding a way to adopt the new technology and bring its viewers information they wouldn’t otherwise have. It’s also yet another example of how cheap desktop technology enables us to spread our personal brand in a way that was inconceivable just a few years ago.

Just For Fun: Photoshop Disasters

Photoshop disasterLast issue I shared with you some amazing examples of pictures that looked like they had been Photoshopped but actually weren’t. So this week, let’s turn things around. The beauty shown in the photograph below does not actually have a hyperextended leg. Rather, I think this is a case of a graphic artist failing to complete Photoshop training. There is a whole blog devoted to Photoshop Disasters ranging from subtle to outrageous. Everything shown there has made it past the editors and into public view. Visitors are invited to submit their own examples.

Social CRM: Curb Your Enthusiasm

If you’re a marketer in a medium-to large-sized B2B company, you’re almost certainly using customer relationship management (CRM) software to track your customers and prospects. And if you’re a CRM user, you’re almost certainly hearing about Social CRM, the hottest new craze in that 20-year-old field. I encourage you to restrain your enthusiasm.

CRM is a well-established discipline that presumes that the more information we can capture about a customer’s interactions with our company, the better we can deliver products and services that the person wants to buy. It seems only natural that online social interactions should be part of this profile. Vendors of CRM services, who are always looking for differentiation points in that crowded market, have lately been talking up this social dimension as a kind of CRM 2.0.

The problem is that most of their customers are still struggling to get CRM 1.0 right. CRM is hard to do well because A) everyone who interacts with the customer must be committed to documenting every touch point; and B) the company must have the analytical chops to know what to do with the data it collects. Strategy changes, turnover, layoffs and the like make the first step difficult enough, and we all know how analytically challenged sales managers can be.

Social CRM introduces potentially enormous new complexity to the process. Social maps – or diagrams of relationships across social platforms – sound good in theory, but are nearly impossible to create on a broad scale. What’s more, I question how much social interactions have to do with decision-making in many cases.

For example, I have 725 friends on Facebook, nearly 1,000 connections on LinkedIn, and almost 7,500 Twitter followers. I know most of these people little or not at all, a result of my admittedly promiscuous approach to accepting friend requests. Trying to map these relationships in any meaningful way would be nearly impossible. What’s more, it would be pointless. The fact that I’m connected to people has little to do with their influence over my decisions. Like most people, I keep my network of truly trusted advisers small and communicate with them largely outside of the public eye. There is no way that social profiling would reveal which relationships really matter.

I also often seek advice from people who aren’t part of my social network. For example, when I consult TripAdvisor to make a hotel reservation or Google Maps to find a restaurant, I put faith in the advice of total strangers. No social map is going to unearth these relationships. When my iPod went on the fritz this week, I became briefly involved in communities that provide diagnosis and repair advice, but it’s unlikely I’ll ever visit those places again. In fact, I routinely seek the advice of experts outside of my social circle when I have important decisions to make.

Even if you were able to identify the relationships that matter, I’m not sure customers are entirely comfortable with that idea. A few years ago, the marketing industry became enamored with the concept of “one-to-one marketing,” which was about building customer profiles that were so detailed that marketers could literally respond to individual needs.

I don’t know about you, but I find that whole idea a little unsettling. If someone were to cold-call me to follow up on a stray comment I made on Twitter, I would be as likely to hang up as to ask for a proposal. Many of us now live in public to a degree that was unimaginable a few years ago, but that doesn’t mean that we want our activities to be used as a basis for commerce. Google CEO Eric Schmidt has said that this “creepiness factor” is an important reason why Google doesn’t do more with the behavioral data it collects.

I do believe that some of the core concepts of social CRM are useful. For example, an automotive dealer should be able to generate sales by tracking public comments from nearby consumers who are looking to buy a car. A contact within a person’s social circle may be valuable in reaching that person (that’s just good prospecting). A customer’s Twitter handle and tweet stream should also be monitored to look for opportunities or signs of dissatisfaction.

It’s incumbent on all companies these days to track comments from customers that might indicate an opportunity or a problem. Conversation monitoring is good business practice. But it’s not 2.0 anything.

Upcoming Presentations

I’ll be present – whether virtually or in-person – at these upcoming events. Click for more and I hope to see you there!

The Bride on the Bench

I was recently on a shuttle bus to the airport. We passed by a park where a woman dressed in a full bridal gown was sitting alone on a bench with a suitcase beside her. That sparked some thoughts about the way we share remarkable experiences today.

A week earlier, I attended a ballgame in Cleveland and celebrated the power of the individual to make a difference. Do you empower your ticket-takers to delight customers?

Tip of the Week: TagScanner

Computers don’t know the contents of music files, so they rely upon a labeling scheme called ID3 tags for guidance. ID3 tags state things like track name, artist, and album name, and they are what music players read to create playlists.

It’s not unusual for people to have thousands of music files on their computers and several hundred files that don’t fit cleanly with the others. That’s because the ID3 tags have been mistyped, erased or otherwise corrupted. So you end up with a file called “Track1.mp3″ and you know, nothing more about it.

Enter TagScanner, a free utility that brings order from music chaos. Using TagScanner, you can select large groups of files and convert their tags to a common syntax. For example, the artist tag “The Beatles” can be easily changed to “Beatles” with a simple select and click. There’s a lot more you can do, too. You can rename music files from the title tags associated with them. You can also identify the contents of those mysterious files that have no clear identity using a filter that matches their digital signatures against a database of published works. In most cases, the utility can find and enter all the information to identify the files.

TagScanner’s user interface could use some work, but once you get the hang of it, it’s pretty easy to figure out. And at the price, how can you complain? Free download here.

Just For Fun: I Can’t Believe It’s Not Photoshopped!

Adobe Photoshop has made us all into skeptics. We no longer quite believe what we see in a photograph because reality can so easily be twisted when pixels are involved. That’s what makes this collection of Images You Won’t Believe Aren’t Photoshopped so incredible. To the best of their ability, the people at Cracked magazine have verified that none of these remarkable pictures was retouched. The series is so popular that the original collection of 15 images has been expanded to more than 100. See the sixth installment in the series to get links to the other five.