Finding the time and energy to continue regularly blogging has been harder than ever. This is due to an all encompassing website project coupled with some major home improvements.

The former occupies every hour (and more) of work and the latter means I'm seldom at home without a paintbrush in hand.

This website project has been mammoth in that it has been a total rebuild. The only content we're reusing are archived press releases and blog posts. Making a 200+ page MVP website read (and look) as if it is all one publication requires a lot of coordination.

It's made me realise that I feel most energised when working on a number of digital projects simultaneously. Flitting between web, email and social media marketing helps me feel in touch with what is going on in the business and wider world.

Being so focused on one project for such a long period of time takes its toll. I'm so blinded by HTML code and the same page designs it's hard to say if what we're working on is still any good!

This is why a project of this scale needs prototyping. This is essential in giving senior management a view about how the website will look and read. Outside of the web team I've found it's impossible for colleagues to visualise an end product which exists in 'Gather Content' combined with templated designs and UX notes. These stakeholders struggle to imagine a finished product which could lead to misunderstandings or scope creep.

For them, there are lots of different ways to showcase a prototype as a proof of concept. They could be as simple as a design mockup (an old favourite of mine as a way to be clear in agency briefs). But, whilst these are good for validating visuals they are poor for testing usability.

Then there are wireframes. These are typically lower quality visually and so quicker to produce. They are good for testing visual hierarchy with users and whether they know what to do on the page. But they offer little in terms of testing aesthetics.

We've decided to go all in and hand code an HTML prototype. This has proved great for testing usability, visual hierarchy and navigation. It also allows testing across devices. The only downside of this approach for me has been the time it has taken to create. Especially as richer design or interactivity has been added.

In fact, we've had to be very clear where the HTML prototype ends and the CMS begins. Otherwise the former grows into a bigger beast than first intended and absorbs time from actually building the live site!

Being able to gather feedback on a version of the website that is 75% right means that we're now not working in isolation anymore. We can bring fresh eyes to the project to help identify any issues with styling or content. For our working prototype we've tried to involve as many stakeholders from around the organisation as possible. These include:

  • Senior Management
  • Editorial Council and Department Heads
  • Wider marketing and Communications colleagues 
By involving them people in the creation of the prototype they now feel a sense of ownership over it. This means they are less likely to criticise and more likely to defend it to others.

Ultimately the aim of this prototype is to gather constructive feedback from stakeholders and real users. To avoid the risk of non-constructive feedback we've circulated a survey with a list of predefined questions. This helps to improve the prototype by educating stakeholders about where they should focus.

Of course, we're regularly checking this feedback. We then discuss the more objective comments and see if anything needs and further follow up conversations. We're then putting the relevant changes into practice as we populate the CMS for final go live.

Once this new website is live and the home improvements are finished I intend to have a rest. It would be nice to sit down over Christmas and get fat on mince pies, turkey and fine wine.

I haven't the heart to tell myself yet that this is where the REAL work begins on both counts...!
Am I the only person who gets a Wix advert every time I try to watch a YouTube video? Or a Squarespace advert every time I listen to a podcast? I guess I've been identified as a potential buyer for these services! The ability to publish a website as quickly and easily as possible is big business.

These are the two main competitors to get you up and running fast and the results are actually pretty good. They look nice (if a bit generic) and are very easy to manage. And if you want anything a bit more powerful then there are plenty of Content Management Systems (CMS) to choose from too. But it wasn’t always this way.

The web started out as a mostly static affair. Plain old HTML was, and still is, the basis of a site. But back in the day, the ability to dynamically generate content wasn’t widely available to the average designer.

When my career got started in 1990s, every site I built was static. Granted, I didn’t know a whole lot at the time. Thus, so many of my projects became unwieldy nightmares when it came to maintenance. The task of, say, adding a new item to a navigation bar meant hacking my way through potentially hundreds of HTML files – depending on the size of the website. I even foolishly experimented with a Flash navigation for one website!

But recently I've returned to hand coding an HTML site for reasons took complicated to explain here. And this has got me thinking.

For years, I’ve dismissed static HTML as outdated and no longer useful in most situations. But maybe this dismissal may have been a bit unfair. Sure, those old school sites I worked on were a cause of major frustration when changes needed to be made. But does that mean static HTML no longer has a place on the web?

Part of the problem with using static HTML, for me at least, was the fact that it was forced into duties it should have never had in the first place. The intended use for HTML was as a markup language – not as a means to manage complex arrangements of files. But for websites built on a small budget, it was the best tool we had at the time.

Remember using nested tables to hack your way through a page layout? Through no fault of its own, HTML became a whipping boy for how not to do things.

I now realise that static HTML sites can still have a place on the web. This does depend on both the needs of your project and your skills as a developer. But, generally speaking, there might be some benefits:
  1. Full-On CMS Functionality Isn’t Needed - Sites needing regular updates (like this blog) probably won't work outside of a CMS. But “brochure” style sites, for example, could be a perfect fit
  2. Increased security - Static websites are almost completely safe compared with dynamic ones. This is because they don’t rely on CMS plugins or dynamic software
  3. No software updates - As above, 70% of WordPress sites are at risk of getting hacked by malicious hackers because of lack of maintenance and upgrading. Scary!
  4. Better reliability and speed - The absence of a middleman/database makes the static site much more speedy and easy to load 
  5. Hosting and Price - Static websites have basic HTML files which require less space making the hosting of these websites cheaper than that of dynamic websites 
Just because this is an old fashioned way to build sites it doesn't mean it should be discounted. By looking back into history we may actually find a more suitable way of doing things!
I am a genius. At least, in the past, that's how I've been introduced to new colleagues at work. "This is Paul, he's our digital guru".

But, of course, I'm not. In fact I'm in no way approaching genius status. But despite knowing this when I first heard it I still felt flattered as it played to my ego. After all, I have always been motivated by being as useful as possible to my team. I thrived on knowing little tricks to get the job done quicker or by having the ability to devise a technical solution faster than anyone else.

Of course, if I let being spoken about like this go to my head, whatever modicum of talent I do have will be squandered. I need to feel I have so much still to learn to motivate me on to do better. After all, my name (Paul) literally means 'small' or 'humble'. A sobering reminder to never let my ego get the better of me.

Nowadays I cringe when introduced as a 'Guru' or 'Ninja', because it undermines my process.

“Guru” implies that I can single-handedly solve every digital challenge. It implies that alone I have the power to make their problems go away. But this is too much expectation for anyone to handle.

Calling me a guru implies that I am superior to everyone else in the room, and have an especially privileged place on the team. It also works as a method to deflect any difficult questions to me as Mr. Fix it. "Go to Paul if you have any technical questions". "Paul knows the difference between all of the file types so I don't have to". "If the photocopier is broken go to Paul, he has 'digital' in his job title".

All this means it's harder for me to do my job. I get interrupted the most as the pressure is on me to fix people's problems when the CMS doesn't behave. I'm called on to decode technical jargon used by agencies. All I need is a few of these and suddenly the pressure of my own deadlines are doubled. So how should I address it?

Well firstly, it's good manners to accept compliments. Protesting too much would only serve to reinforce that I do indeed have this image of myself. If I do seem in any way seem like an expert in anything it will be due to a combination of gifts naturally given and hard work. It's worth reminding people what it takes to progress by describing earlier efforts and learning experiences.

Emphasising the activity is important to remind people that you are overseeing a process. By going through the sequence of activities to deliver a project it shows where you will be relying on them to provide input.

Realising and acknowledging when you should plead ignorance is important. Whilst your subject knowledge may be strong, perhaps your knowledge of the project or business is not. I frequently need to tell myself that staying quiet in meetings can be a lot more useful than striving to drive the conversation and find solutions.

If your work is anything like mine, you work on difficult problems. I frequently am called on to decipher jargon and act as a liaison with the technical details. Perhaps I get called a genius so that people can hide that they don’t understand what’s going on. You don’t have to call anyone out, and highlighting that this is difficult work can go a long way to set the right tone. “We’re learning as we go, so ask a lot of questions. I know I will!”

A luxury I never seem to have is time. But it's vital when working on complicated stuff not to rush things. Take time to explain everything. Externalise your thought process and show your work. Rather than scheduling one long review meeting each week, have shorter conversations more frequently.

I try to frequently remind myself that I'm very favoured to have a job that really interests me. Whilst the ability to keep going is down to our natural gifts it's important to keep a boundless appetite for learning. We all make some good decisions and learn from the not-so-good ones.
Seeing how my children are taught now at primary school definitely makes me question the quality of my own education! This week they bought home their school reports which my wife and I were very impressed with. Not just behaviorally but also with regards to how their academic progress is being monitored. For every subject they have a complex set of targets and objectives that they are already expected to be hitting. It was particularly interesting to read these in the context of my own performance review this week!

Recently, whilst chatting to my eldest, she took a liking to a word which I used in our conversation and asked "Can I 'magpie' that?" This wasn't a phrase I'd heard used before? Essentially it means stealing a word from somewhere else to enhance her writing. When the class hear or read a word that appeals to them they tell the teacher who adds it to the 'magpie words' board. With the whole class doing the same it means there's always a fresh display of words to 'magpie' into their own writing.

This is an interesting way to encourage taking the best ideas from a variety of sources to pull together and create something new. It also enhances the poor reputation of the magpie who, despite their dashing looks and mischievous demeanour, are often seen as the dandy highwayman of British birds. There's a reason they're currently a winner in the bird race. Numbers are up, and from having been persecuted in Victorian times, they are now a common sight in our gardens, cities and on busy roads.

So what's the lesson here for digital? Well, for me it's about being always inquisitive and able to pull together to collect and share the best ideas. This is particularly demonstrated when working client-side with agencies. I've seen lots of examples of in-house marketing teams sticking with a good agency and continuing to innovate and progress together. When done well this suits both parties.

However, I've also seen examples of where agencies on retainers impress in the initial pitch but then get increasingly lazy once they're not challenged. New ideas dry up or are only shared with the more reckless clients who are willing to take risks. This client and agency dynamic is like the common sight of a magpie on the M25. Having spotted a bit of roadkill, they hop and fuss about it, pecking away, whilst certain death is only a couple of feet away. A high risk strategy indeed but with excellent potential ROI!

This ability to 'magpie' has been a particularly useful technique for me is when working on larger projects. I am yet to find an agency that offers the total package. Some 'full-service agencies' excel at strategy and stakeholder management, some at design, and some at just getting the final product over the line. It's definitely time consuming but for me the ability to identify the best attributes of each, and fuse them together, is very important. The knowledge transfer it requires helps bring fresh thinking to the internal team and the end product. I certainly learn more working with a number of individuals with different skill sets and project management techniques than being stuck with just one way of doing things.

This is why for our website project we split it into three distinct work streams - Discovery, design and development. So that we could pull on the best agency skill set for each. Our team project room (or 'war room') has walls covered in design ideas, examples of copy and imagery we like and anything else we've gained from our agency discussions (and beyond) to help enhance what we eventually deliver.

Essentially it's about always learning from external sources and sharing ideas with a close-knit team who look out for each other in the way magpies do. As an extreme example of their high risk lifestyle they sometimes even hold 'funerals' for a dead companion. If a bird is killed on the road, one will start to squawk, attracting more magpies, and some of them will actually lay blades of grass next to the body, stand quietly as if 'paying their respects', then fly off.

If we don't hit the pre-agreed deadline I have no doubt that this would be something we would do for each other given what we have been through to get this far!
By now I'm a bit of a veteran at awards events. I started getting shortlisted for them ten years ago and have bought home sixteen individual trophies. That's a lot of wear for the trusty old dinner suit (although this only equates to 16+ x 3 hour stints!)

With a few exceptions, these have been industry specific awards for websites, social media and digital strategy. In fact, only when I have won for this blog has it been against those in different sectors to myself.

The success we saw for our 'Shaping Your World' campaign late last year spurred us on to look at mixing it up with the big boys! We felt it was time to put together some impressive entries to evidence our credentials at the CIPR Excellence Awards 2018. Now in their 34th consecutive year, these are the PR industry's most prestigious celebration of creativity and professionalism.

We spent a lot of time deliberating over which categories to enter. 'Best Construction, Property or Infrastructure Campaign' seemed an easy fit but we also liked the look of the new category for 2018 'Best Use of Content'.

Given that we're a small in house team it took a while to compile these submissions. We needed all our skills from writing, to data analysis, to design. After entering we watched the shortlist announcement closely and were extremely excited to have been listed for both. What followed was two panel interviews to complete a rigorous selection process. It's a good job we didn't have to feign any enthusiasm - and being involved in every aspect of the campaign meant we could also answer every question...

The second of our trips to the stage
So, last Wednesday, we headed into London (with no help from the recently 'revised' train timetable) to attend the ceremony. This was held at the The Artillery Garden at the HAC. A very impressive venue indeed with a funfair, drinks reception, photo booth, candy floss machine and unlimited pick and mix. The night had started well!

We took our seats and started biting our nails in anticipation. The upbeat atmosphere was enough to keep us entertained until our categories were announced. And then we won. In BOTH categories for which we were shortlisted! The only drawback was that we were immediately thrust into the limelight (literally) to be video interviewed. After two hours in a darkened room it's quite disconcerting to suddenly have a camera light shined into your face!
Of course, this was an absolutely brilliant night of celebration and the culmination of nine months of intense work in getting 'Shaping Your World' launched.

Proud winners
This campaign, as I've mentioned before, was so complex to devise and put in place. We continue to hold regular meetings to assess where we can grow it further and to assess performance. The key element to it's success is the collaboration we've had across the business and beyond. There have been so many positive client conversations that I've lost count! Also, seeing the amount of times it pops up on social media at a school careers fair means we owe a debt to colleagues in continuing to spread the word.

Being awarded best in class against our peers gives us fresh impetus to bring them on board to share the campaign far and wide. Only by working together can we make this a bigger success outside of the world of awards nights. There's a reason it wasn't heavily branded as Kier at the beginning!

With every day at work being an unrelenting amount of work on our new website it's nice to take some time to focus on what we have delivered. Receiving our two shiny trophies definitely helps give me the fresh energy to see our latest project over the line.
Having a massive project to deliver in record time certainly tests my blogging discipline! Managing multiple web agencies to deliver a new corporate website, combined with an ambitious home extension project, means I have little room in my life (and brain) for much else.

So it's a good job that we're only delivering an Minimum Viable Product (MVP) on website launch. That should make the pre-launch much less intense right? Well, only if we're clear about what this actually means...

When done properly a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) is a great way of building user-centric digital services in a fraction of the time. The idea is to get something basic to market (i.e the shell of a website) as soon as possible and to start testing. You can then use all of the feedback gathered to continue to develop it long into the future.

The classic analogy here is that of a skateboard as a precursor to a Ferrari. It's basic but perfectly usable and It lowers the cost of development because you only build what people will use. The ultimate goal being that this leads to a more desirable product because it gives people exactly what they need. As developers we don’t end up paying for features that just clutter the experience.

But the danger when commissioning an MVP is that despite saying this is what we want what we actually expect is a fully blown, fully featured, PHAT website. Essentially we're only calling it an MVP because we're trying to get it developed in the shortest possible time at a low-cost.

Our users will NOT be happy with a skateboard while expecting Customer Experience provided by a red Italian convertible.

"Perhaps a better term is Minimum Lovable Product. A bicycle is a lovable and useful product for somebody with no better means of transport, but is still very far from the motorcycle that it will evolve into" - Henrik Kniberg in “How Spotify builds products

Users have to love it but time-to-market or time-to-value have to also be short. And of course our MVP has to be cheap. Can it be done? Can we develop a great quality product in a very short time at a low budget?

This is not an easy ask and those familiar with the project management triangle will know that something has to give. This pits time, cost and scope against each other and states that you have to pick two of the three. So what do we sacrifice? Buy ourselves more time? Increase the cost? Or reduce the scope?

So this brings this post up to date as to where we're at with our MVP website project. Negotiating our project scope to optimize product budget, timeline and quality. Of course, this requires a lot of heated discussion and healthy debate. But so has every successful project I've ever worked on! MVP is just the first milestone of the long journey.

Whilst on the subject of successful projects, we spent this Wednesday evening at the Drum Marketing Awards in London. This was the to be the first appearance of our 'Shaping Your World' campaign on such a grand stage. Whilst I had attended the CIM awards a few years ago just being shortlisted in the same category as Spotify and Dropbox was a massive achievement for us.

This meant I was even more nervous than usual and even though we didn't bring home the trophy I found it a great networking opportunity. We were sat next to the fellow marketers from LADbible and the BBC and made sure we gave each other lots of support.

This won't be the last high-profile event where we'll be representing either with lots on the horizon. Before we can draw breath we'll be off to the CIPR Excellence awards this Wednesday. Time for me to up my sleep game and start getting to bed at a reasonable hour in preparation...
Since publishing my last post on content strategy I saw this great opinion piece in The Drum. It argues that 'content' as a term is actually absurdly vague. It's use in a digital context is originated by website programmers as a term to describe the stuff that wasn't code.

As a quick shorthand term it has now snowballed and is used for pretty much everything we produce. Recording a video is content, taking a photo is content and even writing an email is content. I wholly agree with this argument that content as a term is far too generic and doesn't suggest that it is much fun to create let alone consume. Who wants to read some 'content' to their child at bedtime?!

When I used to work in a library I remember it being re-branded the Learning Resource Centre (LRC). This was to denote that it held more than books but it didn't stop everyone still calling it the library, as that's what it was...

It always works better when we call things what the actually are. It's time to start being specific again and talking about 'website copy', 'social media infographics' or 'short videos'. Content as a term does not do justice to the effort that goes in to creating the copy and imagery required for a new website. I wonder if I'll be brave enough to address this point at the 'Content Strategy Masterclass' which I'll be attending this week at the Design Museum?!

This argument opens up some other big issues for me with the jargon used in digital marketing. Most industries have people who look to impress by using the latest pretentious jargon - and if it doesn't exist already then they invent it! I've seen lots of examples at work of people using jargon or acronyms to try to look intellectually superior to others. There is no shame at all in asking what an acronym means.

The worst, and most prevalent, buzz phrase for me is 'thought leadership'. It's also become too broad a brushstroke for people who share their thoughts about trends and breakthroughs in their field, with a view to position themselves as authorities on a subject. It seems that many people are striving to be 'thought leaders' when only a handful of people on the planet can truly claim to have completely original ideas. After all there's a very good argument that original ideas and thought are a thing of the past and everything is a remix anyway.

In writing this blog the most I would say about myself is that I am a committed custodian of ideas, innovation, thinking and sharing. Even that sounds a bit like overstating it when I'm just trying to honestly share some anecdotes and real-life experiences from working in digital.

In my job I frequently switch between either an unhealthy overwhelming self belief or the feeling that I'm an impostor who is going to get found out! There's a chance the latter is true but the self-respecting part of me wants to challenge that notion.

As with most of us, when I get stuck on a task or am looking for recommendations for tools/resources/strategies/solutions, I often ask my network for help. This usually works and I get lots of really useful help but some come with the disappointing prefix of one word 'Just...'

Just use this software/platform/toolkit/methodology…”

“Just” makes me feel like an imposter. “Just” presumes I come from a specific background, studied certain courses in university, am fluent in certain technologies, and have read all the right books, articles, and resources. “Just” is a dangerous word.

My wife regularly uses it when explaining her profession - 'I'm just a stay at home Mum'. I tell her off for this all the time as it massively underplays the work she does. She works longer hours and a lot harder than me!

The amount of available knowledge in our field (or any field really) is growing larger and more complex all the time. That everyone has accessed the same fundamental knowledge on any topic is becoming less and less probable. We have to be careful not to make too many assumptions and undermine people who have a real willingness to learn. There are some great resources out there to help.
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