Now the clocks have gone forward for another year and we've 'lost' an hour's sleep it's a reminder that time is of the essence! Work in particular seems to be always picking up pace and some days I can work flat out without even glancing at my task list.

To sustain this fast pace it's important that we are partnered with the right digital agencies. If you're not meticulous when selecting these agencies deadlines (and the quality of work) will slip. Taking the right amount of time to plan before you even start shortlisting is essential. This process, and spending the time it takes to do it right, is almost as important as staff recruitment.

Here are my 7 top tips for selecting the right digital agency to work alongside on your next big project:

1. Know your digital

If you are the main person tasked with bringing in an agency you need to be digitally literate. I've seen lots of examples of agencies who have been bought in based on the fact they know the latest buzz words alone. Then, when they're asked the difficult questions they crumble. If you are a skilled digital practitioner yourself it makes it a much more interesting conversation. You can discern whether the person you are talking to can add the value you need.

2. Plug the gaps

Many agencies boast that they can deliver your entire digital strategy from social media to website design. But in reality the majority of them have specialisms which you can tap into. You need to work out where an agency can compliment the skills you already have in your internal team. But what if you don’t know what you need? Then go back to the first point and learn more about the different Digital Marketing elements and how they can help you.

3. Practice what you preach

Do your research on the agency before you meet them. Are you impressed with their website? Do they blog and position themselves as thought leaders? I've been told by agencies in the past that their own website is poor because they are so busy with client work which is an easy get out. If you can't visibly see them adding value to social media groups online the chances are they don't know their stuff.

4. Full transparency

Your chosen agency are going to be working with you through good times and bad! This is why it's essential you feel that you can have honest conversations with them. The best agencies I've worked with function like an extension of the team. A good test is that they're willing to share the raw design assets with you. This shows a confidence in the quality of their work.

5. Do you history homework

As with recruiting a new team member you need to be gathering your proof. Take a look at their portfolio to determine if the type of work they've undertaken before is what you're after. Almost all agency pitches contain a slide of company logos of who they've worked with. The real test though is delving into what they actually delivered and the proof that it worked. You also need to tap into your own network for advice from fellow professionals on their agency experiences.

6. Hard questions

I like to leave an agency meeting feeling that I've been challenged. If they've asked me a lot of hard questions then this is proof they are as invested in the project as me. It may not be that enjoyable to begin with, and it may be quite tiring, but this is how you get results. Being surrounded by a team of sycophants doesn't bring out the best in anyone. Good agencies know how to say no.

7. Bring to account

Continuity of account management is essential. Without this you're left explaining your working methodologies and work ethic over and over. A good account manager should be the mediator who ensures both client and agency are getting what they want. As the client you don't want to feel that they are just paying lip service to your needs. They need to care about the project succeeding as much as you.

I still feel like I'm always learning and so are the agencies. It's about being able to take this journey together. At this time of year, when we're all a little bit more tired, we need all the help we can get!
Last week, my colleagues and I were discussing the merits of utilising our email marketing system for internal communications. What became evident was that when procuring new technological solutions, such as these, it is often marketing who take on the role as master.

This is because it is the marketing department who usually have the role of lead generation and ultimately sales. Streamlining this process ends up taking priority to maintaining a successful business and often other functions remain in marketing's shadow.

During our discussions it became clear that what we do externally needs to be mirrored internally. By interrogating these software solutions it's easy to see how they can be utilised for more than just marketing. Advanced features such as A/B testing, smart sending and personalisation can definitely add value to any organisation's internal communications. We all have the same strict targets so the more we can use our resources to prove the worth of our efforts, testing, learning and refining, the better. Gone are the days that a mere read receipt was seen as a win on an all staff email!

These types of digital communications are also the catalyst that has drawn public relations and marketing together. The main benefit of this integrated approach to PR and marketing is that both functions can learn from each other. For example, marketers are generally very good at measuring the success of a campaign in terms of ROI, whereas PRs might focus more on the amount of exposure and potential reach a campaign receives.

PR consultants are also good at telling a story and engaging customers and prospects without any hard sell, something some marketers can struggle with since traditionally their role is to promote a product and drive sales. Content marketing is a prime example of where this approach doesn’t work, instead content (blog posts, social media updates etc.) need to build trust, engage audiences, and raise brand awareness. Marketers can support PRs by helping them create content that also includes, subtly, some of the tools and tactics they use to get audiences to take the next step.

It's important to understand the difference between content and copy in that 'content' is material intended to educate, while 'copy' is material that you write to get people to take a specific action. Content can be more long-form - such as blog posts, white papers, or podcasts. Like this post for example! Copy has to be concise, hard-hitting and focused on what makes people want to take a specific action like: click, download, sign up, share something on social media or make a purchase. Every PR person should learn how to write more effective copy that doesn’t just educate - but also persuades and inspires action.

This action is important because it can drive media coverage and help clients with conversions, web traffic and increased sales leads. Ultimately it also helps to build a measurable public relations and growth marketing program which usually creates a major return on investment.

While there are specific activities that are easy to define as either a marketing job or a PR task, there’s a large pool of shared roles that can be even more efficient when marketing and PR collaborate. I'm very excited to be working in a department which has recognised the importance of shared goals to encourage collaboration.

Whether, it be marketing, PR or internal communications the customer doesn’t care who within a company is talking to them. They just want engaging content that speaks personally to them and adds value.
A recent trend I've noticed on LinkedIn is people posting about the importance of remote working. These posts all contain photos of cosy looking 'studios' at the bottom their gardens where they complete their work uninterrupted.

For anyone with a career in digital remote working is a breeze. A typical day can comprise a webinar, a Skype call, sharing a project plan on Dropbox/Google docs and some real-time messaging via Slack. Instead of a commute you stroll to the end of the garden, fire up the Mac and get straight to work.

This model makes perfect sense as many people's lives get more complicated. They can relieve the reliance on child care, and feel trusted by their employer to deliver their work at a time that suits them. It's also less costly for the business and the individual (no need for a work wardrobe!) Isn't working 9 to 5 a throwback to the 19th Century Industrial Revolution anyway?!

Whilst it is almost universally accepted as a good thing for most businesses, working from home takes real self motivation and discipline. They may not like to admit it but some people thrive better with a clear routine. Without specific hours it can be hard to switch off and distinguish between a home life and a work life.

Some people do need more socialising and the network support of their peers. This is why it's important to get some time in the office on a weekly basis. Regular 'out of the box' meet ups are a great idea for freelancers as well.

Working as a team is something to which we have been paying a lot of attention to of late. With a promise from management to support our company's health and well being agenda we looked at how we could combine the two. A healthy team who enjoy their time together is important for any workplace and it was with this in mind that eight of us signed up to take on the 'Bootneck Challenge'.

This new event comprised a 5K military style obstacle course through mud and rough terrain. To spur us on even further we setup a Mydonate page to earn money for Kier's chosen charity 'Alzheimer's Society'. Our intensive 6 week training regime began with regular regiment fitness sessions after work on a Thursday evening before the main event on Saturday 18th February.

We all had such a fun time completing the course and tackling the 22 obstacles together (including fairy liquid slides and a 9ft high vertical wall).

The team spirit came through as we all crossed the finishing line together, cheered on by family and friends, raising an incredible £1,230 for charity! I also proved to myself that I'm not old yet, despite being due to turn 40 later this year.

Building a good team requires a healthy balance between time spent alone knuckling down and that spent learning from and helping each other. I really like the Luxiflor flag, a little gadget you attach to your monitor signalling to your colleagues to back off when you’re busy. This helps you keep focus on the work you’re doing when you really need to lock in without interruptions. It's best used in an office environment though and not whilst you're trying to clamber over a tyre wall!
Receiving my award from host Robin Bailey
If someone had told me when I started out in my career, back in 1999, that I would be presented with a GOLD award at the BFI, Southbank I wouldn't have believed them.

Having been unable to attend the Hertfordshire Digital Awards last September (where I won for this blog) I was offered another chance following the announcement of the inaugural Digital Awards Champions. This was to be a public vote for all the gold winners from the various regional awards to determine the 'best of the best'.

With my sights set on bringing home this ultimate award I began the six week task of canvasing my readers/subscribers for nominations. All that then remained was to book the tickets and wait for 9th February 2017 to discover the results at the BFI.

So, last Thursday my wife, my youngest child (he's only 5 months old) and I headed down to London. I had arranged to network with a few agencies in advance and we then had time for a glass of fizz in the blue room before sitting down in the NFT3.

As the other winners were announced I was impressed with how eloquent they were when interviewed. This must have been a sign that they'd been forewarned of their success and thus had been asked to prepare? There's no way I'd won - was there?!
During my stage interview I was careful to acknowledge the work that goes into writing and maintaining a blog. Everyone in the room was also a digital expert so surely had a similar amount of insight to share. The only difference with me is that I manage to keep motivated to write a new post every fortnight.

This ability to keep motivated is essential for a career in digital marketing. It's easy to get ground down by the constant need to innovate or by the 24/7 nature of social media. Why carry on? What's the point? How easy would it be to sell everything and attempt to make a living as a children's book illustrator...

The truth is this happens to everyone at some point. The trick is to not lose hope but try to focus on what attracted you to this industry in the first place by mixing up your work ethic:

Get moving - To be successful in digital marketing you only need a laptop, WiFi and a cup of tea. By visiting another office or changing your environment you may find somewhere much more productive or pleasant.

Get planning - Breaking a mammoth campaign down into tasks, and then sub-tasks, to be worked at little and often makes it more achievable. Feeling like you’re making progress, even if it’s a little each day, can keep your motivation topped up until you hit your goal. Using Trello has helped me with this.

Get networking - People who don't know me that well refer to me as a 'technical guru'. I've lost count of how many times I've been asked to calibrate a projector for someone. This is why attending events and taking up speaking opportunities are great excuses to meet like-minded people. There is no better form of therapy than getting that knowing nod from someone when discussing the hardships of getting buy-in from senior management.

I'm very thankful that I've been favoured to win an award a year (since 2014) for this blog. Having my wife by my side (and a very well behaved baby) this time made it all the more special. These events (and the fact that she's my long suffering sub-editor) are great to educate her on what I actually do all day!

I'd also like to thank all the individuals who voted for me. After posting my win on LinkedIn I've been overwhelmed with the positive likes and comments. My greatest professional achievement in my 18 years of work has got to be this fantastic network of supportive colleagues. The fact that so many of you find these ramblings useful will definitely help keep me motivated!

It's clear that whatever I write here is not going to live up to that awful pun of a title...

We're now deep into the research stage of our latest campaign and it's been great to take a deep dive into some of the latest technologies. Whilst I ensure that I am always reading up on the latest developments in digital - nothing beats seeing them. Unless you are given the remit to innovate and experiment it's easy to get bogged down with business as usual. I've been meeting with various agencies and thought leaders to immerse myself in what is on the horizon and have a long list of possibilities which gives us the opportunity to now position ourselves as innovators.

Proximity beacons have existed in a variety of forms for a while (i.e. as iBeacons, or Esimote nearables) but the only practical use I've seen is to run promotions based on checking into an airport (i.e. receiving a text outline some duty free bargains as you enter the shopping area). Yet, beacons are now being touted as the basic building blocks of the internet of things with potential uses in restaurants, events, education, child safety and construction. Beacons are small Bluetooth transmitters monitoring your whereabouts through your mobile device.

Apple's Airpods - look! No wires!
In the past, users couldn't be relied on to have their Bluetooth enabled. But, with the advent of Bluetooth headphones and Bluetooth 5 (which is faster and uses less battery power) reaching the user is much more likely. Samsung and Apple have also decided to remove their headphone jacks on their phones meaning this is the preferred way to listen to your podcasts. Android users will also be able to enable contextual discovery which allows beacons to display messages in the 'nearby' section of Google settings.

Where they become particularly powerful is when the data collected by the beacon (i.e. accurate monitoring of your exact location both in and outside) is combined with other data sources. Again, using the example of an airport, they can use the ticket details already in your mobile device to offer a full concierge service. This can guide you through to boarding your flight telling you the time to your gate, where best to find a seat and suggestions of possible purchases based on your interests.

Eon beacons using mesh protocol to talk to each other
Beacons can also mesh and talk to each other within a range of 50 metres. This means they can pass information to a central control hub and tailor the messaging the user gets based on where they have already been. There are even examples of people being used as beacons through wearing a connected wristband. This allows for event organisers to track their delegates and contact/account for them if they are late or guide them to a venue.

So how are we looking to use beacons? There are lots of possible uses beyond marketing, they are inexpensive and audiences can be engaged with different experiences on each visit. Therefore, we plan to pilot their use for our forthcoming campaign by pushing a variety of information to people when in proximity to one of our sites. This will require us to produce localised and targeted content specific to the requirements of each venue - the hard bit!

Of course, we need to start small to measure the initial usage and any potential technology barrier. They could be rather Google centric as only Android 4.1+ devices automatically trigger instant apps as we integrate with Google nearby.

With beacons being just one new technology with which we're experimenting it's exciting times in the Kier marketing team. Being such a powerful engagement tool I'm sure many other companies will be looking to add this functionality to their offering. The uses are many with Uber creating their own version in order to prevent car mixups. It's a good job I 'saved my beacon' by bagging the only decent bacon pun first for this blog title...!
As digital marketers there is a constant need to stay up to date with the latest trends in technology. This is the primary reason why I think this blog has managed to find a following (it can't be for my poor use of analogies and dad jokes). Of course, the temptation for people working in in-house digital teams is to collect a theoretical knowledge of some key techniques which comprises their 'box of tricks'. With these they then are able to deliver some key projects and impress the less digitally savvy colleagues. Yet, eventually they use up all their tricks or their knowledge goes out of date. They're then left with no other choice but to apply for a new job and start the process all over again.

This is why it is essential that you are given the opportunities to practically try new things. If you don't roll up your sleeves yourself you're limiting your shelf life at a company. It also keeps work interesting and exciting as you trial new platforms, streamline your messaging and learn new ways of achieving your end goals.

This may be easier for digital experts working at agencies but for the in-house team there's a danger that you stray into becoming the maintainer and not the strategist. After all, by building intranets, websites and apps we are constructing managed services which need to be maintained. If we're then the people doing all the maintenance we're bound to get rusty!

A new plan for the new year
I've written before about the importance of selling digital capabilities internally. Without any buy-in from senior management you won't be given the resources to try new things. We're now deep into the planning stage of reviewing our priorities for the year ahead and I'm relishing the chance to be more strategic in our thinking. A key part of our three main priorities for 2017 are visiting senior staff to get them brought in to what we hope to achieve.

By communicating our strategy and then setting clear objectives we can acquire the freedom we need  to try something truly different. This communication is two-way as we'll need to fully understand the business to succeed so eventually everybody wins!

It's not just about adding new weapons to your arsenal but also ditching those that no longer work for you. For example, QR codes were jettisoned long ago from our marketing mix and we use apps as sparingly as possible - i.e. only when the native features of the device they're running on are utilised.

So what new things are we looking at? Well, time will tell but in the last few weeks we've sat in on some impressive demos showing augmented/virtual reality, proximity beacons, new social platforms, messaging apps and video. I'm currently plugging these in to our upcoming campaign plan from which we have high hopes in introducing something different to the industry.

Something else completely new for me this year is that I have increased my exercise regime! This all stemmed from the team looking for something we could do to raise money for our new charity partner The Alzheimers Society. I went away for Christmas, ate may own body weight in mince pies and stollen and thought no more of it. I returned to find I'm signed up as part of the team! I suppose I owe it to myself to take part in one last hurrah before my fortieth birthday later this year...

Of course, I've not been able to ignore the lure of technology and am working my way through the excellent 5K runner mobile app. This, combined with my regular kickboxing class and a grueling weekly regiment fitness team session, should have me ready to compete in the Bootneck Challenge on 18th February. I just hope I don't pick up an injury in the meantime running against the sleet on a Monday night.

We'd appreciate it if you could sponsor us - it's for a great cause!
As this blog enters it's fifth year it's important to assess any progress made in 2016. I'm pleased to say that I'm still always learning and, after a great Christmas break, now feel fully recharged to build upon the foundations which we have laid.

In particular the work we have been doing to sure up our brand is vital in continuing to emphasise a consistent look and feel with our messaging. Our brand is much more than a logo or colour scheme. The brand is our organisation's personality and should shine through in everything we do.

Now that this is clearly defined for the business to follow the most important job is ensuring it meshes with who we really are and what we really do. This is a mammoth undertaking as some of the channels in which we represent our brand are in need of a refresh (i.e our website). this is mainly due to a natural evolution which occurs in all companies in both our offering and the way we are structured internally.  It is essential that this is communicated in a customer-centric way.

By definition, brand strategy is a long-term plan for the development of a successful brand in order to achieve specific goals. There are many contributing elements to this, so engaging the entire business and mapping out how they overlap is essential. One large consideration is that of the Employee Value proposition (EVP). By working with our colleagues in HR we can then align the messaging around the unique set of benefits which an employee receives in return for the skills, capabilities and experience they bring to our company.

With this is mind, we have been streamlining a process to undertake a full review on our offering. By doing this any new channels/publications we launch are clear from the outset on how they are structured, the tone of voice and the prominence of each business unit. Of course this is the most important part and hopefully reduces the internal wrangling over the importance of one department over another!

As we begin to deep dive into this work there are some key components for us to consider:
  1. Purpose - For most organisations this is to win work/acquire customers and to make money. However, whilst this is important for a brand, marketing must not solely focus on productivity. It should be about giving people what they want and need. We need to show how we can affect and challenge real world issues by adding value to the community or leading on industry-wide issues.
  2. Consistency - Everything we communicate, online and otherwise, should enhance and relate to our brand. People's first touchpoint with you could be one of many mediums (including face to face) and our messaging needs to align across the board. Our existing style guide is there to define this but needs to be more than a guide to the colours and language used as your brand values are played out simultaneously.
  3. Emotion - People have an innate desire to build relationships. This could be by opting to work for a company who they believe can progress then and morally fits with their outlook. By making their life easier or giving them piece of mind you can stand out from the crowd as people remember how you make them feel - not what you want them to hear.
  4. Flexibility - Our old tactics are definitely in need of a refresh. This is where we can use a variety of channels to engage differently with different audiences. For example, we may be targeting younger school leavers for our apprenticeship programmes. By highlighting services and attributes which have never been highlighted we can connect with new customers and remind our old ones why they love us.  
  5. Employee involvement - This is essential and should be mapped in at the beginning of the process. Whilst the marketing team may have clearly defined goals and views the only way to get a realistic view is to interview a wide variety of colleagues. This coupled with feedback from our customers, supply chain and joint venture partners. Of course, there's also the trusty old digital analytics to flesh this out yet further. We then have a much better understanding of how we are/should be perceived with evidence to educate colleagues on how to represent us.
  6. Competitor analysis - I am a firm believer in looking outside the industry for best practice - otherwise you are destined to only ever be a follower and not a leader. However, a great benchmark for any progress we make is by constantly monitoring our competition. By reviewing our social media monitoring platform and keeping up with their brand strategies we can further the work to make our offering unique.
I have no doubt that 2017 is going to be the year that sees me take on some of my biggest projects yet. If done right though then we can make a big splash in the markets in which we operate (and hopefully beyond). I'm up for the challenge and have just heard the bell ring for round one...
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