Monday 29 October 2012

Emergency preparedness for web teams

By U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate 2nd Class Aaron Peterson. [Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsShould web publishing staff be actively involved in emergency preparedness training?  
I’m not talking about social media – I think it’s becoming more mainstream to include SM in emergency response, and therefore in training exercises. Just think of Twitter Gritter, or look at the way BTP tweets to let people know when there’s a ‘one-under’. In this blog I’m thinking of the day-job web officer who may be uploading the press releases (you’re lucky if your press officer can do it themselves), and is certainly publishing the supporting pages - FAQs (*shudder*), detailed professional guidance and pithy public advice. 
Of course a lot of this depends on your organisational structure; this is another argument for close integration between the press office, social media and the corporate website. But too often the web team are still seen as the dumb, mechanical tool of the organisation – no more responsive than a typewriter being used to bash out the latest media statement.
While it’s important that the web team shouldn’t hold things up in an emergency by querying every misplaced comma, they do have a significant and enduring contribution to make. They’re not just there to provide something for your tweets and Facebook pages to link to, or to generate a ‘further information’ URL to add to your Notes to Editors.

The supporting pages that your web team publish are the ones that are going to be pored over, not just during the crisis, but in future when people look back to see how you handled the situation. It’s not much good if you can’t find them through Google or your own site search, if they break when you look at them on a Mac or mobile, or if it’s hard to navigate to them logically through your IA. A naff little homepage ‘quick link’ can’t stay there forever, and won’t help with future SEO.

Your web team must be able to stay calm in a crisis and have the tools to do their job. This means: 

  • They need to understand the organisation’s processes for responding to a major incident (What’s the target response time for this? Who needs to sign off before a page is published? Who should be told if someone spots an error or ambiguity? Who needs to be sent a link as soon as the page is live?).
  • They also need to have experience of working under pressure, so that they can anticipate their own fallibility (Does this need a second pair of eyes?) and perceive errors in judgement in others who are stressed (Do you really want to move that web page now? You do realise it will break the link that you’ve just sent out in a press release?).

So next time you’re planning a major incident exercise, think about your back-office webbies as well as your PR team.

Monday 23 July 2012

No e-news is good e-news...

"You know about websites – you can set up an email newsletter, can’t you?"
If you’re thrown in the deep end of news-by-email and email marketing, here’s a buoyancy aid.

Before you start

  • Have a clear purpose. What’s the business goal? This sets the content agenda.
  • How will you measure success? Generate custom URLs to track website traffic coming from your mailing.


  • Make your subject line interesting and relevant to your subscribers. Not ‘Issue 12 of the hospital newsletter’ but ‘A&E waiting time improvements, beating superbugs, and more’. If you have a system that tracks opening rates, try two different subject lines on a sample of your mailing list, and mail the remainder with the best-performing hook.
  • Choose the right From address for extra impact. Are you more likely to open an email from a real person, or from ‘Hospital News’?
  • Content needs to be relevant to the business goal – think twice about issuing a re-hash of your latest press releases.
  • Keep it brief.
  • Make it easy to browse. If there are multiple articles, include a contents list that will be the first thing people see when they open the email.
  • Follow normal writing for the web best practice. Chunk text using headings and bullet points and write meaningful hyperlink text.
  • Proofread.
  • Set a sustainable schedule if you’re aiming for regular mailings, especially if you need to get others to contribute or sign off content.

Data protection (stay with me)

  • Where did you get your mailing list? People need to agree to you using their information for this specific purpose.
  • Include a privacy statement saying how you will use and store personal details.
  • Make it clear how to subscribe and unsubscribe.
  • BCC. Don’t share your mailing list with everyone on it.

Design and technical bits

  • Branding should be consistent with your corporate identity and ideally with your website – especially if you’re linking from your email to your site.
  • Use HTML email for designed elements. Styles needs to be applied in-line rather than using something like a stylesheet.
  • Make sure the email can be read as ‘text-only’ – some email systems don’t allow graphics and HTML or give users the option to turn them off.
  • Don’t clog up inboxes with large emails.
  • Avoid attachments, because they can get your email caught in corporate spam filters.
  • If you’re using an third party system to send emails on your behalf, make sure the provider has whitelisting measures in place to ensure emails are not flagged as spam.
  • If you’re using a mailing system that is pretending to come from your corporate email domain (‘spoofing’), tell your network team to ensure your own colleagues can receive your emails.
  • Test on all different types of email – from Outlook and Hotmail, to how it appears on smartphones.


Keep evaluating against the business goals. Innovate, iterate, and enjoy.

Thursday 12 April 2012

email etiquette - to CC or not to CC

Is your work inbox stuffed with incomprehensible, oversized or irrelevant messages? Follow these simple tips to make sure colleagues and customers smile when your email arrives.

get your message across

  • Use a meaningful subject line – never leave it blank.
  • Keep it short – one subject in one email.
  • Use clear English – not jargon.
  • Avoid abbreviations and acronyms unless you’re sure the other person understands.
  • Check your spelling and grammar – a misplaced apostrophe can change the meaning of a sentence.
  • Don’t write ALL IN CAPS (which is hard to read, and is seen as “shouting”).

what about the bells and whistles?

  • Use ‘urgent’ flags sparingly.
  • Use simple formatting – use the standard font and avoid lots of fancy colours, bold and italics.
  • Avoid BCC – it’s sneaky.
  • Don’t CC ‘just in case’ – only copy in people who really need to know.
  • Rather than attaching large files, save them in a shared drive.

when not to email

  • Can you phone instead? Or even walk round and talk to the person?
  • If you’re in a bad mood, don’t bang out a cross email and hit send. Save a draft and come back to it later.
  • Don’t use sarcasm because it can easily be misinterpreted. And never write anything in an email that is libellous or otherwise inappropriate – even as a joke.
These tips are intended for work email but I think most of them can be applied to your private correspondence too. And if you're organising a hen night, one extra rule - be judicious in your use of exclamation marks...

Monday 30 January 2012

Looking back to look forward

What have you achieved in the last week? What about the last month, or the last year? What did you achieve in your last job?
We’re a month into the New Year, and for me it’s also been a couple of months since I changed job. It’s a period of relative calm and, I think, a better time to reflect.
For a web manager, the days can feel like a blur of removing capital letters, running reports, meetings with content providers and battling to fix glitches. It’s really important to step back occasionally, to see the progress you’re making, and recognise each of these regular tasks as part of the bigger picture. So if you’ve done all these things today, you’ve also been implementing the editorial style guide, making yourself accountable, developing your content strategy and ensuring your site is reliable and usable.
Keep the evidence
Don’t wait till you’re buffing up your CV or preparing for your appraisal to look for the evidence. Keep a record of everything you’ve done as you go along. It’s easy to forget all those single new pages you’ve added or sections you’ve reviewed, when your website feels like a never-ending task. But it looks impressive for your boss – and is a great psychological boost. Look how far you’ve come and how much all those little changes add up.
It all adds up to a plan
The same applies to looking forward. Don’t wait till you’re asked to write a plan, then stare at a blank page until you pass out (or start writing “I am a fish” over and over). You have ideas and thoughts every day, and they might not be earth-shattering on their own, but they can add up to a great plan. And capture your subsconscious genius. 
  • When you spot an out of date page but don’t have time to edit it immediately, write it down on your ‘review’ list. You WILL forget it.
  •  When you’re on a competitor’s website and spot something interesting they’ve done but don’t have the resources or contacts to produce your own version immediately, write it down on your  ‘new content wish list’. 
  •  When you wake up in the night because you just couldn’t get that menu structure to work, write it down on your list of items for user testing or to talk to colleagues about.
  •  When your boss mentions her grand schemes that you don’t quite ‘get’ after she comes back from the latest board meeting, put them on your ‘blue sky thinking’ list and mull or research them when you get a chance.
An evolving picture
It’s not just about lists – visual cues help.
Take screengrabs for posterity, not just of things that have obvious or flashy design elements like your homepage, but of basic content pages and menus. The best websites evolve slowly over time rather than having massive redesigns every couple of years. As the web manager you’re so close to your site you barely even register the incremental differences that altering the size of the standard font makes, or making it grey rather than black. This quickly gets absorbed into ‘normal’. But in 2 years time when you compare, you’ll see a massive change.
Counting your successes
And while it can be tricky to measure some things, it’s obvious to keep a regular track of your web statistics – not just top level statistics, but examining growth or otherwise of new areas or parts you might want to get rid of. Record the number of pages added or edited or approved or rejected. Track the number of requests into your mailbox, and how quickly they were responded to.
So now the festive whirl has faded (and the pain of writing all those handover notes has eased), I’m enjoying looking back, putting my achievements into perspective, and learning how I can realise the potential of the new opportunities ahead.