Writing a book

As you might have noticed, things have been kind of quiet around here on the Electronic Museum blog.

Two big things have been occupying me recently and form the basis for my non-blogging excuse. One: I just co-organised a ridiculously exciting mobile conference in Bath called The Big M. I won’t talk about this more here – if you’re interested, go have a look at the conference blog over on http://blog.thebigm.mobi. But needless to say, it has been eating up most of my spare time in the last few weeks.

Two – and the thing I want to just quickly write about here – is that after more than a year of writing I’ve finally submitted the last draft of my book to my editor. Hurrah.

Here are a few slightly random observations that I’ve take away from the whole experience. These are my observations about my experience, by the way – I’m not suggesting they’ll be right for you…

1. This hasn’t felt like childbirth*

You know those loooong projects? The ones where you get to the end of them, send the final email / go live / etc – and then swear blind that you’ll never do that EVER again as you take up smoking and cry over about 10 pints of cider?

That hasn’t been the case for me in this instance, at all. This has been one of the most sustained things I’ve done for a while – writing every single day for more than a year – and yet I can say with my hand on my heart that I have enjoyed the entire thing – and not only that, I very much want to do it again. This has come as some surprise to me.

(* disclaimer: yes, I’m being facetious; no, I obviously don’t know what childbirth is like; yes, I was there; no, it didn’t hurt…)

2. Being disciplined is absolutely key

When I started writing I took the unusual step (for me) of deciding to be totally regimented with my approach. Here’s what I did – and please promise not to laugh – it worked for me ūüôā

Right at the beginning, I knocked out a quick Google spreadsheet which calculated how many days remained between the current day and my deadline. I then simply divided things up so I ended up with a “how many words you need to write today” figure for all the time remaining. I also did a bit of maths to show what percentage of this daily target I managed to write on each day.

This did two important things for me. One, it meant that my big fear of an end-loaded panic a month before my deadline was easily avoidable. Two, it meant that I could bust a gut on some nights and knock out way more than my “quota” and then relax at the weekends and not do any writing at all.

As I said above, this kind of discipline isn’t natural to me, but – more by accident than design – it really worked. I’d recommend it.

3. Software matters (a bit)

Much as book writing is obviously all about content, the process by which that writing happens can obviously be helped along by the technology. I had the good fortune to discover a piece of desktop software called Scrivener (used to be just Mac, but now PC as well). It is specifically designed for people writing long scripts – and lets you do things which are very clumsy in “normal” word-processing software like Word: shuffling blocks of text around, comparing one block from one chapter with another, finding and replacing, section word counts and so on. There are probably other ways of doing this, but I for one couldn’t imagine the horror of working on a 60,000 word document in The Beast that is MS Word…

Secondly – it’s an obvious one but always worth re-iterating – backup, backup your backup and then backup the backup you did before you did the backup… I’m a huge Dropbox fan, and trust it implicitly, but that didn’t stop me making copies and FTPing them into hidden folders on my web hosting, emailing them to my mum, putting them on a CD, etc, etc. The disaster of loss was too much to countenance…

Thirdly – although this came as no¬†surprise, it turns out my publisher doesn’t use any of the tools that would actually make their lives very much easier: in an ideal world I’d have had a shared Dropbox folder with my editor, compared documents on Google Docs and so on. The reality – of course! – was email + Word with tracked changes. What a missed opportunity!

There’s lots of other stuff I learnt as I went along but this post is in danger of becoming a book all of it’s own, so I’ll stop there.

It’d be interesting to hear what you think, especially if you’ve gone through this yourself…

Strategic digital marketing: don’t be dis(integrated)

I was asked to speak at At-Bristol recently at a gathering of marketing people from the UK Association for Science and Discovery Centres.

The topic of choice was strategic marketing. Now, as I made it clear on the day, I’m not – officially, at least – a “marketing person”. Nonetheless, I’ve spent more than a decade working with content-rich organisations on the web, and a core part of my role has been about getting people to stuff. And if that isn’t – at some level at least – about “marketing”, then I don’t know what is.

Rather than doing anything too fluffy and high-level, I thought I’d focus on ten practical activities which ultimately help pull together strategic ways of thinking about digital marketing. The list certainly isn’t definitive, by the way, but it should help…

#1: Develop a Shared Vision

This sounds obvious, but it is actually one of the hardest things to do. When you’re working with cross-departmental teams such as IT, web, marketing, a clearly defined strategy is a difficult thing to agree on. One of the best tricks I’ve found for doing this is to map (visually, if you can!) your high-level organisational strategy to your web and marketing strategies and look for common ground. It helps keep you and your team heading in the same direction, but is also useful for “justifying” digital activity.

#2: Decide What “Success” Is

Too often, organisations have badly-thought-out notions of “success”. Measuring success is easy in a profit-making organisation: leads, conversions, sales – etc. For everyone else, it’s often much harder. Strangely, our organisations often then fall back on “virtual visits” as the metric of choice, ignoring things which can be better indicators of engagement and success.

#3: Use Google Analytics

There’s italics on “use” on this one for a reason. L0ts of organisations have installed GA and use it a bit – but few actually use it properly to try to understand how users are engaging with their content. This is hardly surprising given the huge and sometimes baffling amount of information the system offers you, but nonetheless something to focus on.

#4: Have a Social Media Strategy, Not Just A Presence

In the particular context of this conference, almost all of the organisations represented had a fairly strong presence on sites like Facebook, Twitter and so on. But few of them (and this is very common) had a sense of why. Social Media needs thinking about strategically in order for it to succeed in the longer term – and it needs to fit with your strategy and purpose. Sometimes this means not doing it!

#5: Be Aware Of How Your Organisation Fits

This one covers a whole range of stuff, from user testing to things like keyword monitoring and feed-reading. You can’t hope to market your content if you don’t understand the trends, people and technologies of your environment.

#6: Use A Dashboard

This one is for all the “I’m too busy to do all this stuff” people out there. Using a dashboard (for me, it’s a combination of¬†Netvibes and Google Reader) saves a huge amount of time when it comes to monitoring all this activity. The Google Analytics dashboard is the same – use these tools to radically reduce the noise and replace it with signal.

#7: Build Internal Knowledge

Building knowledge within your organisation is often forgotten. Let people know what you’re doing – whether you’re talking about marketing activities, ways of measuring success or wider strategic goals. Send a monthly “KPI” emailing, have a “lunch and learn” session – do whatever it takes to keep people in the loop and break down those organisational silos. If you do this regularly you’ll start to understand what the barriers are and how to remove them – and you’ll probably get some interesting ideas from others about how to improve what you do as well.

#8: Fail Quickly: Be Iterative

It’s as true in marketing as in anything else: try stuff, see what works – build on what does work, kill off what doesn’t. Use things like multivariate testing to rapidly tweak on the fly and then use this knowledge the next time you launch a campaign, send a mail shot or whatever.

#9: Understand Search

Search is a powerful web traffic driver, but it needs to be understood in the context of SEO, “Search Intention” and other factors. Do what you can to get up to speed with how content and links can improve your search engine rankings, and what this means to your traffic and auciences.

#10: Share!

Talk to people at other similar organisations and ask them what they’re doing. Find out what works, what doesn’t, and why. Set up a monthly meeting to discuss your web stats and campaigns, or put together a discussion mailing list. Your peers are probably going to be the single best source of information – use them!

That’s it.

What do you think? How do you join up your digital activity in strategic ways in your organisations?

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Managing and growing a cultural heritage web presence

I’m absolutely delighted (and only slightly scared) to announce that I’ve been commissioned to write a book for Facet Publishing.

Ever since I started working with museums online, I’ve felt that there is a need for strategic advice to help managers of cultural heritage web presences. There are of course hundreds of thousands of resources if you’ve got technical questions, but not many places where you can ask things like “how should I build my web team and structure my budget?” or “how do I write a strategy or business plan?”.

Facet approached me in July asking whether I’d be interested in authoring something for them, and this seemed like the ideal opportunity to try and answer some of these questions.

My (draft) synposis is as follows:

This book will provide a guide for anyone looking to build or maintain a cultural heritage web presence. It will aim to cater both to those who are single-handedly trying to keep their site running on limited budget and time as well as those who have big teams, large budgets and time to spend.

As well as describing the strategic approaches which are required to develop a successful online presence, the book will contain data and case studies on current practice from large and small cultural heritage institutions. This research will help give the reader an insight into how these institutions manage their websites as well as providing hints and tips on best practice. It will have an accompanying web presence which will provide template downloads and other up-to-date information including links and white papers.

As you’ll see, I have no intention of trying to do this all by myself – over the coming year I’m going to be on the phone to many of you (hide now!) asking how you do what you do, and compiling this into what I hope will be a useful guide.

If you have any ideas about what I should include, or the questions I should be asking – please do get in touch either via this blog or on Twitter at @m1ke_ellis!

Being serious isn’t the whole answer

It’s been interesting watching the response to whatever 2.0 is as the whatever it was has matured into whatever it is now.

…I should probably rephrase that…

The social web has changed as it crawled its way through those painful teen years of greasy skin, piercings, “you just don’t understand me” and shouting at its sooooo 1.0 parents. And so, too has the institutional assessment of these environments and tools.¬†Once upon a time the development of social tools had our fellow insitutions looking on with horror. After a while it became entirely de rigeur. Round about now, it has become unfashionable to launch anything without some kind of social element.

This is the inevitable Gartner Hype curve in action. We’re right up there at the peak. Everything is exciting, new, spangly. Institutions – not just cultural heritage, but enterprise too – are like kids in a toyshop. Everything we see is exciting. Everything, frankly, also has FUNDING embossed¬†on it in an enormous web2.0 font.

This is inevitable, but irritating. With the rise to the peak of inflated expectations, budgets rise, projects become longer, teams get bigger. In some ways, this should make people like me happy. What we’ve banged on about for so long is at last funded and adopted by institutions. As always, the irritation is more about doing technology for the hell of it rather than looking at how users might really want to interact with our content.

Being at the peak naturally has people considering the trough. Recently, I’ve noticed two cultural heritage commentators taking this kind of angle. Brian Kelly’s recent¬†stop doing, start thinking presentation took our original one (stop thinking, start doing) and turned it around in ways that are probably obvious from the titles. He suggests a more conservative approach to Web 2.0 which looks at risks, balances concerns, considers reliability, accessibility and archiving. Nick Poole does the same – a recent tweet talks about the “luxury of the last ten years” and asks how we should be focussing our efforts from now on.

These are extremely valuable viewpoints. Building our digital strategies on ground that is shifting constantly is a scary thing, and it is absolutely right that we have considered, serious responses to new technologies and the hype. It’s obviously particularly important that we consider this stuff carefully given the current economic climate.

The problem I have is that serious is where people start asking about¬†consequences, are suddenly asked to provide figures on return on investment.¬†Serious is where things slow down and stop being agile.¬†Serious is where Project Managers live.¬†Serious, frankly,¬†isn’t where innovation, fun and excitement happen.

Twitter didn’t grow out of serious. Nor did Facebook. Or Launchball.

Now, I’m convinced that the core proposition of the social web¬†transcends any kind of hype. So ultimately, I think we’ll continue producing online experiences that tend (albeit slowly) towards a viable, fun, user-centric horizon. I also think we’ll come up with the kinds of strategies that Brian and Nick have written about. We need to find ways of safeguarding our approaches, shielding them from the hype as much as is possible. But we need to do this as much (if not more) with big, funded, serious projects (“do it because it addresses user needs, not because you¬†can get funding”) as with the lightweight, agile, rapid ones.

In a sentence: let’s work hard to find coherent and sensible strategies to what we do, but let’s also make sure we continue to innovate, to play, to fail rapidly and then move on. It is here that we’ll likely find true audience engagement.