This year has been rather different for me professionally. It's notable that 2019 has become the first time in 8 years that my team and I haven't won any external awards. I've been the least prolific ever with writing blog posts. I haven't presented at an industry event for the first time in 6 years. I haven't had any kind of big promotion or pay rise and haven't overseen any big flagship projects. I was a guest on my first ever podcast though...

All of this could mean that 2019 could be seen as a bit of a professional failure. So, why do I feel happier and more content than I have for years? Well, I think this comes down to changing my outlook. For instance, this year I've spent more time with my wife and children. I've been enjoying the benefits of a much more comfortable house after completing a large extension project at the end of 2019 and I've moved jobs from a potentially precarious role to one at a thriving educational institution that has so many positive stories to tell.

The latter is possibly also the reason I've been blogging less. As I've been bought in to head up the digital team it means that instead of jumping straight into the flashy, innovative work I've been quietly, deliberately, consistently trying to move the business forward. This sort of thing isn't the exciting work of blog posts and talks but involves integrating legacy systems, developing websites, embedding strategy and planning. But, it's rewarding and ultimately I see it as the best use of my time. It's a quiet sort of revolution but powerful nonetheless.

I've also noticed a decline in the content posted by external 'thought leaders' (argh!) who I regularly follow. This may be partly down to a large decline in the readership of long form posts like this one. At work I see our current social media posts getting much better engagement now we're a lot more concise with our tone of voice. The same can be said for video posts - or those with any type of movement/animation. My current favourite tool I've been trialing to bring photos to life is Pixaloop. This adds a bit of subtle movement to photos but generally sees engagement triple. I must be careful to use it sparingly though!

The reason I think we're seeing less posts on the latest flashy innovation is that digital marketing skills have evolved to be highly valued, and in many cases expected. This means that even those at the forefront are spending more time on refining existing established tools rather than bragging about discovering new ones. Those employees who fail to engage, or proclaim themselves 'not technical', are no longer given the opportunities afforded to those driving change and proving value to the business.

Initially this was a struggle for me in my new job (i.e. not being seen as the oracle) but now I welcome it. It allows me much more time to focus on 'deep work' that adds value to the business and leaves me feeling more fulfilled. I can focus on going back to basics and be clear about who we are marketing to, what they need and how we can actually help them. Turning down the volume and increasing the quality of content like this then proves very helpful in improving our audience's ever-increasing time spent online.

So, as I say goodbye to this decade I'm going to try to continue to replace expectation with gratitude. Ten years ago I had only just entered digital marketing as an industry and I wasn't even on LinkedIn or Twitter! So I am thankful that I've made the progress, and had the experiences, which I have.

Not every year can be a landmark one but as long as you're feeling fulfilled and experience one bit of joy a day it can be time well spent.
Earlier this summer was a first for me as I was approached to appear as a guest on podcast. Danny Seals was someone I met when presenting at the Digital Engagement Conference back in September 2017.  At the time, I was presenting on our new campaign and he was talking about how to use WhatsApp as a Learning Tool.

Since then we've been sharing a few tips with each other via LinkedIn and he has been a great supporter of this blog. What surprised me, after listening to him, was that Danny's background was in Learning & Development rather than Marketing. However, he has realised that Marketing is a sector which has many transferable lessons to help enhance the L&D offer. My feeling here is that Marketing gets the bigger budgets and is generally ahead in terms of measurement and technology from other related disciplines. This is generally down to access to bigger budgets due to being able to prove that Marketing is key to winning businesses in the form of new contracts and sales.

So, Danny has devised the Mindchimp podcast to chat to some of the best people in the industry to discuss what shapes them and their thoughts. In particular, learning and development, experience design, product/service design right through to marketing, communications and corporate culture.

The first series of around 25 episodes had an obvious focus on L&D professionals giving some great insight on their careers and what makes them tick. Then, as a natural evolution, the second series has more of a focus on what L&D can learn from other disciplines surrounding it (i.e. the aforementioned Marketing).

And that's where I got the call! Being on a podcast was to be a new experience to me as I'm usually the listener, on my drive to work, not the guest. There wasn't really any preparation required on my part and it was just a case of booking in a suitable time for a Skype call. Obviously I did listen to a few past episodes, just to get an idea of what I was in for, and found all of the guests to be pretty eloquent! Ouch!

Overall my experience was really good. Danny got straight in there with the challenging questions and quickly put me at ease. I did feel the pressure to answer the questions as quickly as possible so there wasn't any 'dead air'. I think I may have got a bit tired by the end too!

A few weeks ago Danny released the trailer for the new series (it was cringe-worthy enough hearing myself on there) and last Monday he got in touch to say the full episode was being released.

Overall, I am pretty happy that I gave a good account of myself, although the conversation fillers get a bit wearing ('um', and 'obviously' seem to be mine!) The one question I let myself down on was what are the five things that L&D professionals can learn from marketing. A pretty tough question when you're put on the spot (my poor excuse was that I was tired!) So, now I have the gift of time, here's how I should have answered!

1. Find champions - within any business there are people who have the positive influence and mindset to push forward new ideas and help craft new products. Identifying and engaging with them at the early stage of a project is vital
2. Use existing tools for buy-in - there's not always the need to procure a new system to fulfill a need. Sometimes the tools already exist (i.e. Instagram or MS Teams) and will take off faster if users are comfortable and familiar with them
3. Remember you're dealing with people - This is vitally important as in whatever you do digitally it is people who are the ultimate audience. So be as human as possible in the way you talk and write
4. Analyse - It's always easy to spend lots of time on what looks like doing the work. But without spending at least an equal amount of time analysing the results you'll never be able to keep learning
5. Personal projects - to properly stay relevant you need to be experimenting with your own projects. That could be blogging, design, video, photography or podcasting (like Danny!)

There's lots of places you can download the final show, and I'd definitely recommend subscribing and checking out the other episodes too:
And yes, I should have used the stockings as a fishing net!
The other week I was called a digital marketing purist. This was as a result of my recommending that we run a survey in a phased manner on our organic channels to test engagement first. The idea being that we could then see which of our followers are the most engaged, and our greatest advocates, before running any targeted posts. We could also better judge how much we'd need to spend to hit our desired amount and possibly target specific groups that were under represented in the final result.

This isn't the first time I've been referred to as a purist though, and hopefully it wasn't meant as a criticism or that I'm out of touch! What I think the person meant was that what I'm actually doing is ensuring that our all marketing is 'clean'. This is especially important to me as digital marketing can be quite a muddy environment on which to advertise. I'm sure we've all struggled in the past to get full transparency from suppliers and agencies on how something is actually performing. Clarity of impact is very important if we are to learn from, and refine, our strategies going forward.

Sometimes, getting a true measure of success can be difficult, and this is even true of campaigns we're running purely in house (i.e. without any agency support). How accurate are the statistics we're being fed by Google Analytics - and similar - anyway? In revamping our social media reporting I began thinking that some numbers are so huge (tens of thousands) that they are almost meaningless. What really matters is hard conversions which can be directly tracked back to marketing activity.

This 'clean' way of doing things means improving the user experience and having more accountability, so consumers aren’t irritated and our brand doesn’t fear fraud or misplacement. Now that I work for a brand with a very good reputation the last thing we want is for any advertising to appear on sites which are inappropriate, or not in keeping with our values. 

One way in which I haven't been so 'pure' is in the launch of our new events calendar. The cleanest approach to this would be to write a full brief for our preferred solution and then get our developers to build it all in-house. This would mean that everything existed purely in our CMS and we would have full ownership of every element - a long road I've been down before! But in researching various plug-in solutions that are available (to help scope out some features) I found something which already fitted the bill of what we were after.

Tockify is a ready-built solution that took literally minutes to configure. So after signing up for their trial I ran some tests and was very impressed with how seamlessly it all integrated. This got me thinking that if something is already built that works then why try and replicate it? The small annual cost for a solution is literally nothing if you take into account the staff time in briefing, building and testing.
There's also our users to think about. In this case we were looking to colleagues to submit and tag up their own events. Again, if something is already about as user-friendly as it gets then why try to reinvent it?

In fact, we're all using plug-ins all over our sites already. No-one would attempt to build their own website analytics platform to avoid giving Google our data. It's just important to not go too crazy with this and slow your website down!

So, maybe I am a purist after all. There is a lot to be said for keeping things simple wherever possible to deliver quicker results (something I'm still eager to do as I try to impress my new employers) and clearly attribute and track what is working for us and what isn't. 
It seems that I inadvertently chose a great time to start a new job. Back in August I was nicely eased in to a longer journey by it being the school holidays. Then parking was easier as there were no students around. I also got to experience both campuses in the sun! Most importantly though it has allowed me to experience a full academic year from beginning to end as the new students were in town for the Freshers' Fair!

I thought rather than just sample the many food vans and free sweets on offer I'd make the effort to speak to the students first hand. This then became filming some impromptu interviews where I asked about them about their initial experiences. I was amused at how excited many of the international students were about being stood in the drizzle as opposed to being in Hawaii and Florida where they had travelled from!

But their enthusiasm was just so infectious it reminded me of my own feelings, when I turned up on my first day surrounded by animals and a pile of digital strategies to write.

These students were all extremely eloquent and clear on what they would find the most challenging. Again, this reminded me of my own mental list of digital marketing mistakes I'd bought with me to ensure I avoided:

1. Failing to set goals and objectives - Without goals, it's impossible to measure success or identify areas where campaigns need additional support or require a shift in strategy. It will also be difficult to justify future digital marketing investment if progress can't be demonstrated against a set of goals

2. An inconsistent and fragmented brand on social - Years of only minimal governance can result in a variety of social channels that range in quality and consistency of posts. The trick here is to audit, lead by example and provide all of the assets that are needed to succeed

3. Too much focus on organic social presence - With organic reach declining, managing an organic social media presence across multiple accounts can be very time-consuming. The best way to get  a lot of new eyeballs on our brand is with some smart targeting

4. Accidentally competing with ourselves - With a college, a charity and three animal hospitals to market this is a real danger. There needs to be some very careful bidding strategies in place on Google AdWords

5. No forwarding planning on reporting - Retrospective reporting is a dangerous trap to fall into. Deciding what questions need answering before undertaking any activity is essential

6. Too much doing, not enough analysing - Everyone wants to look busy but already I've spent more time revising our reporting structures than posting new content

7. Not being targeted – Even the most carefully calibrated campaigns will fall flat if they’re speaking to the wrong audience. In digital marketing, audience is everything

9. Not repurposing content - cutting content in lots of different ways can ensure we get the most engagement out of everything

9. Underestimating mobile - When working on a shiny new Mac it's easy to forget that the majority of the content is going to be viewed on a little screen.  Mobile must be a consideration in everything your brand does online

9. Not converting web traffic to leads - Whilst Google analytics is an essential tool I'm on a mission to try to cut generic reporting from  our monthly reports. This is because the statistics that matter are the hard leads and conversions from our CRM

10. Not being helpful - The death of any piece of content

Seeing the new students and visiting the hospitals has put my own job into perspective.  By keeping these major missteps front of mind it can save time, money, and stress, and help make our campaigns more fruitful in the long run. 
And so continue my adventures in Higher Education and I'm back in the vortex!

Many moons ago, back in 2016, all universities were required to add Key Information Sets (KIS) widgets to their course pages. I remember this well, as at the time, it was a lot of work for us and our many courses. The only sweetener was that the horrible red widgets at least matched our brand colours at the time! These comparable sets of data, about full or part time undergraduate courses, were designed to meet the needs of prospective students as a standard way of displaying this information.

So last week, I get an email from Unistats saying that these require their first major update in 3 years. It's like they knew I was now back! Whilst the technology gets more sophisticated policy doesn't change.

The same is true of the accessibility statements I've been writing for our website. In September 2018 (whilst I was out of the game) the UK law changed for all public sector bodies to adhere to the EU directive on web accessibility. Whilst this doesn't officially need doing for older websites until next September I've been trying to get ahead of the curve and get ours published this month.

The government will be monitoring all public sector websites to ensure we have these published and are clear on what works and what doesn't.

Whilst I'm not a fan of unnecessary policy this is definitely a good thing to ensure that our websites and apps work for an audience with a disability. Importantly, it ensures that my upcoming website roadmap will have accessibility as a key deliverable and is taken seriously. It certainly makes a change from the public sector where budget was a bigger consideration than the usability of the site!

So with all this policy, the challenge is making higher education websites, and campaigns, stand out from the rest. My new favourite parody account summed this up perfectly in a recent tweet:
The really exciting thing about my new role though is that we do have a clear differentiator. All of the cute animals! These are a marketers (and social media managers) dream so the pressure is on to really make the most of this great content. In fact, we have so much potential content that I've been surprised how small the institution is compared with how I perceived it before I started.

So, to not get ahead of myself I've been spending a lot of time putting in some strategy to leverage this all properly. Whether it be the plans for the website, CRM, or intranet, these channels must come first as this is where we drive all of our traffic.

This isn't to say that I haven't had a look at tightening up our social media posts tone of voice, imagery and reporting. This is important to put a marker down on where I think we'll be going in the future and I've also wanted to demonstrate to my new colleagues that I am doing and not just planning! I particularly enjoyed getting involved in some animations for our Clearing campaign and ensuring we had some great posts lined up to drive engagement on #InternationalDogDay last month:

It's hard holding back when the temptation is to try to fix everything at once but setting goals, asking questions and understanding if things are worth doing in the first place and the ways I'm really going to make an impact in my new role.
Four an a half years ago I wrote a blog post outlining my top 5 tips for starting a new digital marketing job.

Now I've left the glamorous world of construction marketing and returned to education marketing at The Royal Veterinary College and many of them still stand. That's right, I'm back in Higher Education and what an amazing place to work it is!

In many ways, after my time away from the sector very little has changed. It's as competitive as ever, there are all the same acronyms and there is still the same amount of policy to wade through. Where I've noticed a difference is in the type of institution I'm working for. For a start, clearing isn't a thing here and the students around campus are massively more hard working, eloquent and intelligent than I'll ever be.

Then of course, there's the animals. Lots of them. In my role I'm responsible for helping market the small and exotic animal hospitals as well as student recruitment. This definitely fulfills my ongoing desire to market something which actually makes a difference to people's lives. The work the professors, doctors, nurses and students do is truly world class.

The hardest bit for me has been going from a job where I understand the business, know my stakeholders and have configured all of the systems, to inheriting new ones. In some ways they're better (all CMS systems have their eccentricities) and in others I'm all at sea.

In my first week, and for the first time in a good few years, I picked up a new system and couldn't immediately get to grips how it worked. This was an uncomfortable feeling and I immediately started to feel that maybe this was the point when I'd lost my touch.

I'm not usually one to pay much heed to the many motivational quotes that are shared around the internet but I saw one the other day that made me feel a lot better.

"I'm not lost, I'm just at the beginning of the journey".

I knew there would be lots to learn in a new job and one of the reasons I needed a change was to be challenged again by people I could bounce ideas off and have healthy debates with. As long as I make positive progress each day then that's enough at this stage.

For now, I'm taking the approach that the best way to learn is by doing. Thankfully I have lots of projects I've either picked up from others, or see the need to instigate myself, in order to do this. The fact I've still got lots of drive and fresh ideas shows I'm not washed up just yet!

The other danger is that I set an early precedent for bad habits like not going for walks or leaving my desk to eat at lunch. The big problem with office work can be that thinking doesn't look like working to others. I've proved this to myself already but cracking a technical problem in my head during a lunchtime walk and having my most productive afternoon's work for ages after enjoying a particularly delicious lunch of beef tacos in the campus restaurant.

So with all this in mind I'm going to make a few promises to myself:
  1. Blog more regularly (writing this has been quite therapeutic!)
  2. Be thankful that I'm being paid to learn
  3. Appreciate my surroundings and the great work of the company I now belong to
  4. Don't spread myself too thinly in an attempt to immediately try and impress everyone
  5. Eat more tacos
At school my favourite subject was English - I remember putting way too much effort into my short stories compared to the rest of my work. I used to enjoy art as well and combined the two by also illustrating every story I wrote. In fact, when I recently discovered my old history books, at the back of the garage, it was obvious that I'd spent more time drawing pictures of Anne Boleyn's six-fingered hand than actually demonstrating what I'd learnt.

I used to continue this at home by illustrating comic books and writing more stories. I sort of still do by continuing to write this blog! I think that part of this is my drive to try to create more content than I consume. But with so many distractions around it's not an easy thing to do. I'm by no means the best writer, or even a very good one, but I do enjoy the evolution from writing for school to writing for business. With the former, I used to finish an assignment and hand it in. Whereas with blogging, I find I can create something and iterate on it with a goal of always improving.

But writing content for the web is HARD. Just because you work in PR, once wrote a book or even have your own blog it doesn't mean you can write web content. I became so bogged down with it during a recent website rebuild project that we decided to brief and outsource it to copywriters. So, here are a few pointers, which I always try to stick by, when writing for the web:
  1. Don't start by thinking about what you want to say but what people want to know. You need to decide immediately on your target audience and identify their pain points.
  2. Think about the purpose of your website/blog and the page you're writing for. Is there something you can offer different to your competition (i.e. some relatable examples?)
  3. Stick to your brand guidelines. Every large business should have a style guide which needs to be adhered to for a consistent tone of voice. It may take longer at first, but writing in different styles (personal/professional) will eventually become easier. 
  4. List and include your keywords. Before writing anything compile a list of prioritised keywords to ensure your content is found. There are lots of different ways of doing this and using social media to 'listen' to your audience in advance is an important one. 
  5. Make your writing visual. People read very differently online. It's important to ensure that you break up sections with sub-headings and lists to avoid reader fatigue. 
  6. Ensure that your content helps visitors through the conversion funnel. Anything you write should engage and involve your readers. This is especially true in blog posts where you want to present an interesting idea and spark debate. 
  7. Edit and proofread and have someone else read your draft. My wife is my long suffering sub-editor! You should also be clear about what you want the reader to do once they've read the article and link to relevant content elsewhere within your site. 
  8. Make sure your article is easily summed up for social sharing. If you focus on keeping your content focused and about one subject this should be much easier.
So it's time for me to publish this post and ensure I've done a decent job of summarising it's content for Twitter and LinkedIn. 

Now I've put myself out there by documenting my process let the stream of social media comments on how badly written this post is begin!
Any business, whether they have an active presence or not, needs to pay close attention to their online reputation management (ORM).

It's very likely people may seek out your reputation before making, buying or entering into contracts with you. If there’s no information online about your business, then whilst this may not be damaging in itself, your brand may not be getting the same coverage as competitors.

But it's not just a case of setting up some social media monitoring, or increasing your focus on public relations. Your brand is constantly being talked about either on review sites, on social media or by getting media coverage.

So what do you do if your online brand reputation suddenly decreases with negative news articles appearing as the top Google results?

Google’s ‘Top Stories’ feature means that if your company are in the news (by high traffic sites news specific sites such as BBC) this is prioritised at the top of any search for your brand for a maximum of 5 days.

There are things that can be done to decrease the prominence of these results and affect the top five listings in Google. Especially as they receive about two-thirds of all clicks from users.
Here are some very quick wins to ensure your own content is ranking well which don't require any additional external spend:
  • All website blog posts and news releases should contain images, which Google likes, to ensure content is ranked well
  • Adding referral links to other pages on your website from your news releases increases your Google ranking - it does not like dead-end pages
  • Where possible, ensure that you are the first to publish any news stories to achieve a better  ranking
  • Track all live mentions on social media, via Google Alerts and a media monitoring tool (i.e. Brand Watch) to tackle any media issues
  • Post content on more contentious subjects and speed up the publication of certain high-ranking news article topics
  • Upskill those publishing content using online tools to do extensive keyword research and web specific writing using tools like Keywords everywhere, Headlines analyzer and Hemingway app to ensure content is ranked better by Google
  • Deliver training on updating LinkedIn profiles to educate the business on optimising their personal profiles
  • For crisis control you can create bespoke webpages which clearly state the issue, are transparent and can provide up-to-date information about the actions being taken
Of course, your social media presence is very important and you should optimise your profiles and ensure you are posting regularly at the very least.

If budget isn't an issue you can undertake Pay Per Click (PPC) activity via Google AdWords to further control what appears at the top of Google searches and relegate the problematic ‘Top stories’ section.

Many B2C brands do this and essentially bid for their own brand name as it also allows them to have sub-links to key parts of their website. Keyword research will show your most searched for terms and the cost per click (CPC) in order to rank first. This CPC is determined by other companies bidding for the same/similar terms and search volumes.

Of course, an essential element of a successful ORM strategy is measuring success. Therefore you'll need to track and report on:
  • Key web influencers which could potentially be targeted to run content with as identified by Brand Grader
  • How paid and organic activity has affected brand sentiment (positively or negatively)
  • If your website traffic has increased meaning more users are visiting for news updates rather than third parties
  • How many clicks you have received on your ads as a percentage of searches (which previously would have gone to third parties)
  • Social media complaint increase or decrease
The key thing to remember is that your brand is being talked about and it's up to you to ensure that these mentions are truthful and positive!
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