Lately I've been feeling a bit out of touch with the latest tools that digital marketing has to offer. A combination of massive home and work projects has left little time for reading and researching.

I've also been a bit shaken by the recent news regarding Blippar going into administration. This tool in particular was a great addition to our 'Shaping Your World' campaign in that it allowed cheap and fast self service augmented reality. I even enjoyed the live demos we gave to clients and seeing their amazed faces when our host avatars popped out of the plaques.

This latest casualty shows the transitory nature of some of the latest tools and why solid processes and strategies are more important than the latest shiny trend. Maybe it's time that I shed my prejudices and re-embraced the ugly world of QR codes given the native camera on the iPhone supports them.

To help me get back up to speed it's around this time of year that everyone publishes their 'top digital marketing tools of 2019' lists. So I spent the last week of the holidays going through as many of these as I could. I then have combined some of my favourites with other tools I've been recommended/seen on Twitter for a top ten list of tools to try. Some of these are particularly pertinent given the projects I'll be tackling in 2019, some I've used already, but all of them deserve further investigation:

1. Squoosh

This nice little free web app from Google easily lets Non-Photoshop drag and drop an image to 'squoosh' and choose the compression standards. A small slider lets you quickly adjust the level of compression and you'll see a running total of how large the resulting file is expected to be.

2. Remove.bg

Removing backgrounds from photos can be pretty time consuming - even if you know what you're doing! Simply select a photo from your computer (or enter its URL on the Web). Remove.bg then processes the photo and lets you download it as a PNG image with a transparent background in seconds. 

3. Uptime Robot

Another free tool for monitoring when your website goes offline. You also get handy response times so that you can see if those complaints that your website is slow is either a legitimate or local issue.

4. Brand24

A social media monitoring where you can set up your projects, get alerts, and monitor results. With social listening, you can both react to potential crisis situations and positive messages that are spread about your brand in real time.

5. Google Primer

Finding time to keep up with the latest developments in digital marketing is really tough. This app has hundreds of 5min lessons on every digital marketing topic you can think of. On completion you get personalized next steps after each lesson, so you can put your new skills to work right away.

6. Kontentino

This is marketed as 'The most intuitive social media planning and approval tool'. With a calendar and plenty of handy features like live post preview, topic tags, boost budget planning, post version history or easy content translation for international pages.

7. Crello

Many of us have used Canva which still remains the market leader but this looks like a powered up alternative. Crello is an amazing tool for creating graphics for social media. One of its features can help you go places: animated posts and super-duper templates that will help you stand out of the crowd.

8. Exactitudes

When undertaking work on marketing personas it can really help having images that aren't obvious stock photos. This project from a Dutch photographer profiles real people in a series of photos to make much more believable portraits.

9. Paste

WeTransfer is a tool many of us use on a weekly basis and this is their solution which allows you to make presentations, pitches, offers, or anything you simply want to call slides. If you are tired of Prezi or Google Slides templates, this tool is for you.

10. Lead Forensics

To my mind this is the most powerful B2B website monitoring tool there is. The potential to monitor who visits our websites and quantify leads in many different ways is massive (e.g. by sector and region). After getting up and running late last year 2019 will see us properly using it to it's full potential.
"This page doesn't work on my computer". Quite often this is type of email I get from users trying to view a newly published page on our website. But of course, what I need to understand is the operating system and browser. Otherwise, how can I effectively diagnose the issue? And of course, then there's the added complications of the user's own browser settings. It's like trying to diagnose a patient without them in front of you.

There are loads of tools out there to assist with this and one which I've found particularly useful as a Chrome user is the 'Browserling' plugin. This is particularly useful when testing website compatibility with the dreaded Microsoft Edge! In fact, we're currently approaching a situation where there are likely to be less browser choices than ever given Microsoft's announcement that Edge is to soon be discontinued.

After 3 years Edge was doomed to failure. Despite being championed by a company who still have the desktop market share it's used by only about 2% of the internet community. This is chiefly down to it not adequately replacing Internet Explorer. I've never liked IE myself - it's caused me more problems than solutions but it's impossible to deny that for many people the 'Blue E' IS the Internet. It's the icon you click to go online but Microsoft themselves never gave any guidance about how to transition.

Then for users who are more aware of what a web browser is there was no sales pitch on why it might be better than Firefox or Chrome. If your current browser works for your needs why would you bother going to the effort of switching? Some people may not even know that Edge was even a thing! And finally, and as referenced above, for us web professionals it was just another mouth to feed - another browser in which your website rendered differently and demanded fixing...

With mobile devices now being the main way that people consume the internet, a browser that only worked on desktop could never compete with the mighty Google Chrome. By default if you purchase an Android phone or a Chromebook you've already made your browser choice. Google own the world's most important web services (whereas Microsoft own none). Search, Home, Maps, YouTube are all so good they ensure you use their interfaces in as many ways as possible. I'm writing this on my trusty Chromebook now. They push you towards their products at every opportunity meaning Edge was always doomed to failure.

So what does this leave us with? As well as Internet Explorer and Chrome there are a few other significant players such as Safari or Opera. But my old favourite was trusty Firefox. I always saw this as the most robust and reliable and it had the best logo and developer tools (like Firebug).

As I learnt more about them as a company I wanted to support them even more. They are a truly independent browser with superior, human values compared to the rest. But things are not looking good for them either largely because of similar reasons to the above. For example, as anyone reading this ever used Firefox on a mobile device? I haven't except to emulate it for browser testing. Mobile usage is essential for any browser to properly survive.

Even it's market share on desktop is now dropping off. Ever since I bought a Chromebook there's no longer a reason for me to use it. The amount of plugins in Chrome now dwarf those of Firefox. With our new website Firefox was at the bottom of the pile when we undertook our internal browser testing. This would never have happened 5 years ago, it would have been too risky, but now no-one cares.

If Firefox goes the same way as Edge it will be a real shame. They're trying to go down fighting (by making many technical improvements and championing privacy) but ultimately what people care about most is convenience. So, if your device comes with a decent browser pre-installed why would you go searching for another one.

So despite this grim outlook it does mean potentially an easier workflow of testing for people who build for the web. The web has always evolved so there's no reason why any of these browsers may not resurface at some point. It's tough at the top. I'd love to see my old friend Netscape Navigator from the late 1990's return rejuvenated to take Chrome's crown!
As part of our commitment to our ongoing 'Shaping Your World' campaign we have instigated the 1% pledge. What this means is than 1% of our workforce of 20,000 colleagues are committed to visiting one school each a year. We have provided the resources for this such as videos, presentations, promo goods and careers guides. We're proud to have smashed our target too with over 360 colleagues going into schools to educate them about the built environment.

As one of the main driving forces behind the whole campaign there was no way I was going to escape unscathed for long! So a few weeks ago we visited Ernulf Academy in St. Neots to talk to Year 8 students. Having worked in a school for 5 years I knew what to expect as we approached the school gates. This was organised by the Skills Service as part of their 'Meet the Professionals' school outreach.

The basic format was that we would answer questions from small groups of 5 students for 3 hours! I really enjoyed finding out about their career aspirations and was surprised how mature some of them were (only one wanted to be a YouTuber!) One question was 'would you rather be poor and doing a job you love or rich and doing a job you hate?' - food for thought! My personal highlight was the boy who wanted to be just like his Dad and be a handyman - a very heartwarming and sincere answer.

Some of the questions that were fired at us really got me thinking. Especially the one about advice I wish I'd had at school before embarking on a career. Here were some of my answers:

Try lots of different things

When you first start out in a career it's your chance to try lots of different career paths. You are all potentially going to be working for the majority of your life (I am old and still have potentially 25 years of work left) so make sure you've chosen the right path. As your career progresses it will get increasingly harder to switch jobs as you become reliant on a certain salary to pay the mortgage and feed the kids!

Say yes to anything

Look how enthusiastic I look!
The first thing I look for when interviewing people is enthusiasm. This is because it's impossible to teach someone how to care about what they do. If you're willing to learn at every opportunity this will really pay off in later life. I found that by being happy to undertake lots of seemingly 'menial' jobs it gave me a great grounding to be seen as a really useful asset to the team. As you progress at work you don't have the luxury of learning for yourself basic digital marketing techniques so pick these up as early as you can.

Pay attention in maths lessons

I hated maths at school. In fact I retook my GCSE after only getting a 'D' first time round as I thought it might hamper me in later life. All the pain was worth it when I got a 'B' and vowed never to try any complex calculations again! But working in digital marketing has taught me that no matter how hard you try you always end up using a calculator!

Whether it be working out the percentage difference in bounce rate or budget management on a complex website redevelopment all roads lead back to it. Even in my home life it's essential to ensure bills get paid and mortgage payments met!

Be present

It's important that you present your own brand to show you're passionate about what you do and that you can increase your company's visibility. I'm doing it right now by writing this blog! I also enjoy the opportunity to get out and network or speak at industry events. If you're not keeping up to date with the latest innovations you'll soon find you're not adding value to the business where you need to.

I really enjoyed going back out and engaging with schools. It made me look at my own career in a new light. I'm thankful that so far I've been able to enjoy what I do - even if my career path wasn't quite as well planned out as perhaps I portrayed it!
Well that didn't take long! After being locked away in a room feverishly building our new website it was important that I got back out into the business. Of course, rather than just acting as an online brochure our website now intelligently contributes to both lead generation and supports existing contracts and bids. It's now up to me to prove that all the time spent has been worth it!

So by reaching our to key business units I'm now making sense of data outlining current, key and prospective clients which the website will monitor. This is a bigger task than I first thought - not just because it's always changing! Each business unit and region have very specific goals to meet. All of the manual work I'm now doing to should make it easy to automate specific reports which hit these goals. I'm not expecting to get it right first time but soon we will get a really good idea of who is engaging with which content and when and mapping this against our current pipeline. This is where the website can really add value!

I've also been out and about reminding people that I exist by seeing practical examples of the amazing work we do. There's only so much you can see when resizing project images for the website!

So last Monday we tackled the 4 hour drive down to Somerset. Currently we're expanding our 'Shaping Your World' campaign to partners so by meeting them in person we're showing them the range of resources available to them. With our original aim being to change the perception of the built environment the more businesses we can get to champion the cause the better. This has meant we've expanded the website to include two extra pages on partners and how to get involved which also launched this week.

After a successful meeting we headed to nearby Hinkley Point C for an awe inspiring site tour. Kier are currently working towards completion of the ground works and the scale was immense. As we were taken around the 2km site I couldn't help feeling that I don't have a proper job! These people are building things which will leave a legacy for hundreds of years.

Being a digital marketing generalist means that I frequently flit between tasks. This was evident during meetings in London the following day. I began talking social media strategy, followed by CRM/lead generation topped off with training colleagues on targeted advertising.

The one thing these activities have in common is that they all have clearly measurable outcomes. For me, this is why I find digital marketing both a terrifying and rewarding role. Tangible results are essential in being able to constantly prove the reason a job role exists. For example, when discussing our social media strategy we were able to actually commit to key measures of success along the way.

With all of this goal setting it's important we get the buy-in from everyone. This communication of our strategy means that we can be prepared to provide the guidance needed on where we do or don't see engagement.

Having done this job for 15 years I have to regularly tell myself not to make assumptions. Of course I have an opinion on how a website should be structured or how often we should post on social media but I need to be open minded enough to let the audience help define this from the data we collect.

All of this works towards proving that we are a valuable asset to the company. Getting recognised as the expert in your area increases your contribution as you help others meet their targets. Currently there are lots of opportunities for us to do so as our new digital strategy kicks into gear.

It's a shame the same can't be said for my home life as there's no doubt my wife adds the most value there! I am the chief contributor when it comes to loft trips or using power tools though...
This is a tough time of year. There are Viruses aplenty and the recent clock change means we don't see our houses in the daylight. Coupled with this, our social calendars are filling up with Christmas meals and carol concerts.

Until now I've spent the best part of the last 9 months working on our new company website which is now live. We're tremendously proud of it and the feedback has been generally excellent. Rewriting an entire FTSE250 website from scratch with a large amount of business input is no mean feat! We've also had the various technical aspects to oversee alongside a relentless new content strategy.

This new site boasts over 100 case studies (all filterable by sector or geography). This means for the first time current and potential clients can easily find what we do in their area. This helps us cross sell too as it now shows off our capabilities in obvious groupings. Our many offices much easier to find, our employee value proposition is showcased in the careers section and our suppliers are given the recognition they deserve.

These large projects definitely take their toll!
But all this intense work means I'm pretty burnt out. Evidenced by a pretty lacklustre attempt at blogging of late. Coming to the end of a massive project like this has meant I now need to readjust to my old way of working. The smaller tasks and projects I've been neglecting need resurrecting.

The whole reason I chose digital marketing as a career was the pace and variety of work. It's been a while since I took the lead in concentrating on one giant task and it's taken its toll. And of course, the website is still nowhere near finished. I have a roadmap of developments that stretches well into 2019. And of course this roadmap is getting even longer now we're getting meaningful data from the site.

The best way I've found to get that impetus to keep going into the winter months is to reflect on the small things I've learned during the project:

Aim for continuous improvement, instead of perfection

When we started out we wanted the best website in our sector. I think we're nearly there too. But along the way various challenges (mainly related to time and budget) have got in the way. We've had to compromise some elements and, to hit our MVP launch, we still had some small parts incomplete. 

The lesson here was to let this go. Users wouldn't notice a few parts missing that were never there before. It's like when you first invite someone to your new house. They are immediately impressed with the overall look. But you know the shower doesn't work and the door frames still need painting.

Like, trust and admire

Finding the perfect agency partner is essential. To make this relationship work you need to be open about the reasons for your methods. We haven't been the easiest client, but we have been honest about our ongoing challenges and expect our agency to be so too. This ongoing dialogue is important in making sure we are always challenging each other to make something of which we're both proud.

Get involved and learn

Being hands on with a project is essential to feeling invested and learning. Whether this be the more technical aspects of the server setup or hand coding an HTML prototype. By continuing like this is makes the project more fulfilling and you can see everything for what it is and how it works. Not only does this help plan future developments but it gives you added ownership.

Criticism means it's working

Every decision on the structure, content and design of the website has been based on evidence. Laying this groundwork early has meant we have had little or no kick-back on the final version. Every stakeholder has been consulted so if challenged we can back up our decisions from previous workshops/discussions.

Knowing that I'm still constantly learning both about the business and the latest tools for a web build are definitely going to help drive me on into 2019. Now bring on the Christmas stollen!
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!
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