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(20)10 lessons learned

December 19, 2010

The growth and evolution of social media often puts a different emphasis on the approaches to ‘blogging’ but I still like to use this site as a ‘weblog’ in its more traditional sense – as defined well over a decade ago…

A weblog often has the quality of being a kind of “log of our times” from a particular point-of-view. Generally, weblogs are devoted to one or several subjects or themes, usually of topical interest, and, in general, can be thought of as developing commentaries, individual or collective on their particular themes. A weblog may consist of the recorded ideas of an individual (a sort of diary) or be a complex collaboration open to anyone. Most of the latter are moderated discussions.

So, the following post is a mixture of business and personal lessons learned from the last 12 months – if it proves useful to others reading, that is a bonus in this instance as its primary purpose is to log some thoughts to review at a later date…

1. Picking up the CMS pieces is not a pleasant experience

The year started with a realisation that I wasn’t enjoying what I was doing. I’d taken on an interim role to push forward some web initiatives that had been running in an organisation for several years – but, unfortunately, they had faltered and, to some degree, stagnated. While I was being told I was making a difference, I was inheriting a whole bunch of decisions and actions that were not as easy as I’d previously experienced to change. When the time came to renew the work contract, I decided to decline. This was a classic Seth Godin ‘The Dip’ decision – push through or quit?. Although I believe I have always been mindful of the continuity of web programmes after I move on, this experience has emphasised to me the absolute importance of having a succession plan with regards to web initiatives. To me, the success criteria of any web project/programme I have taken on has been how well it continued after I left.

2. Fail fast and fail cheaply

While seeking a new ‘salaried’ challenge, I spent the first couple of months of this year immersed in a Social Media concept. The driver for this was the idea of ‘turning talk into action’. Having spent the previous couple of months being bombarded with 2010 predictions on Twitter and a myriad of blogs I had become dissatisfied that while there was a lot of talk going on, very little of it seemed to be translated into meaningful action. The idea was to kick-start a social media movement that had a strong sense of purpose and provided a framework for action. I modelled the framework using a mixture of standard solutions including WordPress, Ning and Wikispaces and then an ex-colleague very kindly volunteered his time to create a Drupal 6 version of it. I had a set period of 2 months to be able to make something of the initiative, which included targets for establishing the framework and then the degree of uptake. Sadly I ran out of time and didn’t hit the desired level of take-up to make it viable to continue on a full time basis. It was though, a tangible example of a lesson others have learned – namely fail fast and fail cheaply. Despite failing on this, it’s been encouraging to see how similar concepts and ideas are gathering pace now.

3. ‘Webmaster’ really isn’t a job title or role to be desired

For the first few months of starting a new role this year, I was back in the position of ‘webmaster’. I’ve heard commentary during the year that there are still a surprising number of webmasters and webmistresses out there – and I can believe it. In this instance, I inherited 10 disparate brand sites, each in its own silo and with Dreamweaver and Visual Studio management interfaces. This is the most classic ‘webmaster’ bottleneck scenario I have seen since breaking out of the first one I ever found myself in back in 1996. There was only one person in the organisation who knew how these sites were constructed and had any level of technical expertise to make changes and that person had decided to leave the company 3 months previously, leaving 2 pages of hand scrawled notes and an A4 notebook with a whole bunch of passwords. This was a timely reminder about the importance of distributing content creation and management responsibilities, as some of the sites hadn’t been updated for well over 12 months and were increasingly damaging the brand.

4. Getting Capex expenditure approval is harder than ever

My experiments with social media earlier in the year heightened my interest in the automotive industry and, particularly, how technology innovations could help reduce carbon emissions and improve transport experiences. So when an opportunity arose to work in the automotive industry for the first time, it seemed like an ideal chance to understand the industry and its challenges from the inside. And, boy, is it challenging. It’s a sector hit hard by recession and facing some of the biggest fundamental issues so far in its historyCO2 emissions, a growing energy crisis and staggering levels of road congestion. So in an environment of declining markets and with new entrants and competitors innovating rapidly in new directions, persuading a cash strapped company Board to spend money on technology, rather than cut costs, is tough going and demands much greater degrees of strategic evaluation and ROI analysis than at any time I have known. As on previous projects, my approach has been to take smaller iterative steps and demonstrate tangible return on those quickly thereby unlocking the next level of spend and keeping the Board comfortable that they are investing wisely.

5. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket

A combination of tight budget restrictions and the need to stay highly flexible and adaptable in difficult market conditions means I am even more conscious of vendor and implementor lock-in than on previous projects. In an ideal world I would choose to standardise on one core set of technologies – ie; all initiatives on .NET . However, the last few projects have demonstrated the difficulties in this and that sometimes mixing technologies is the most pragmatic route forward. This has happened when a big, and largely, ideological split occurred on a global ecommerce initiative where Asia favoured Open Source PHP, Europe favoured .Net and the Americas favoured J2EE. In this latest project, the split has been determined largely by having very limited budget but very big ambitions. Currently, the less functional and more narrowly scoped legacy sites have been moved to a Drupal implementation and the multi-lingual consumer facing brand sites are being relaunched on EPiServer CMS 6. On balance, I have personally had more pleasurable user experiences with the Drupal install although members of staff I have been training feel more comfortable with the EPiServer set-up. Whether or not Drupal 7 changes the game somewhat here remains to be seen.

6. Poor usability hurts when deadlines loom

One of my biggest irritations with technology vendors and the promotion around their products is that I know, from first hand experience, that often they don’t even use their own solutions for undertaking the tasks they tell others they are suitable for and that those developing the solutions spend very little time actually using them for the purpose they are designed. For that reason, poor usability can be built-in from the earliest versions of the product and then becomes too complicated or costly to change with subsequent versions. Clearly, it is the buyer and, ultimately, the user who ends up feeling the pain. If I am training another person to use a CMS and I am struggling myself, after many hundreds and possibly thousands hours of use, to remember what order to click something or where within a dialog box I need to add and save something, I’m thinking this really isn’t intuitive or usable enough. Also, if it is taking twice as long to undertake tasks in a business environment that I know can be done in a fraction of the time in a consumer orientated tool then this also raises the question of usability – quite often I have plenty of time to do something at home but I don’t have that luxury in the workplace.

7. If you don’t get the marketing basics right, social media isn’t going to help

The phoneless cord struggled to find a market

The term ‘marketing’ gets tossed around these days without any real understanding of what it means and most frequently, elements that are just one small part of the marketing process are treated as if they encompass everything. As articulated in this recent post, my experience of marketing across a diverse range of product and service scenarios is that it is the process of ‘making what you can sell’ versus ‘selling what you can make’. Get that right and ‘Word of Mouth’, viral promotion and/or network effects will be a natural consequence. Get it wrong, and now matter how hard you try to get some buzz going for it the chances are your efforts will backfire. It is too early to say how and where ‘social media’ helps or hinders in that process of identifying a marketable opportunity. Right now it is just too noisy out there to get clear enough signals and it is also questionable  just how much information and communication you really need beyond what has been easily accessible by electronic means for well over a decade now.

8. Email is still the best way to engage

In the last few weeks I have rallied (or as some say, ranted) against the terms WEM and CEM. There are several reasons for this. The first is that I really do believe that the majority of web practitioners and marketers have understood that their websites should be ‘engaging’ from as far back as the turn of the century – so why it needs to be added into another acronym 10 years on is a mystery to me and also seems entirely unnecessary. The second is that despite the claims of vendors about the sophistication of their ‘web engagement’ solutions, email will remain the primary and most effective form of consumer engagement for a long time to come. As expressed in this recent post, email provides an excellent filter for a very noisy social media environment and if it isn’t handled properly then that is often the most frequent point at which negative sentiment is triggered online. I can cite many examples during the last year where product development and customer service has benefitted from the direct interaction with customers, suppliers and partners via email and have also seen how this is more often complicated rather than simplified through the growth of social media. My advice to organisations in similar scenarios is not to get distracted and remain focused on the basics.

9. Buzzwords and bandwagons make the job harder

I spotted an interesting comment on Twitter the other day – that the term WEM, as an example, is understood by all those other than the audience that really matters – namely buyers and users of Web CMS. My instant reaction to this is ‘good’. Over the last 3 years I have faced constantly the challenge of demystifying web content management and demonstrating through the adoption of systems and processes how the web can be integrated into business functions so that it is no longer this ‘techie’ thing that someone else does. Where social media has proved useful in this, is helping demonstrate to a broad cross section of people that publishing content on to a website is a straightforward and non-technical thing to do – afterall many of them are doing it daily in their personal lives through platforms like Facebook. Therefore, concepts that then start to complicate these processes again through the idea of personalisation (with its inherent overhead of greater content demands and business rules management) or introducing the analysis of noisy social media content when many are still struggling with traditional web analytics are not helpful and often very distracting from getting the essential basics right.

10. Social Media is like a hamster wheel

As a personal postscript to these main lessons learned, 2010 also reminded me why I love Australia, motorcycling and scuba diving so much, but also what a fine line we walk between good health and disability. One of the Ten Hopes for The Tens I expressed this time last year has looked quite precarious at times as my mother continues to fight a serious illness.

Finally, I discovered why some people refer to ‘social media’ and particularly Twitter as a hamster wheel. Firstly, you can expend a lot of effort getting absolutely nowhere and secondly it’s clear you can jump on and off without missing very much at all.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. Hao permalink
    December 23, 2010 3:50 pm

    Best of wishes for your 2011 James! Hope you will be in a job that you can put your ideas through with less effort, and a life with lots of scuba divings and motorcycling.

    Also those buzzwords trouble me, too. Hope their meanings will become clearer next year. Have a happy holiday for now!

  2. December 23, 2010 4:29 pm

    Thanks Hao – Best wishes to yourself and Spring too :)

    Given the whole of the Twitterverse is giving their predictions at the moment, my top one is that 2011 is going to be a lot harder work than 2010 :( Both the public and private sectors have some big challenges to face with the tough economy and heavy cuts.

    Hopefully you guys won’t get too diverted from your core competencies by the ‘social media bubble’ – as it will be painful when it bursts.

    Best of luck with ACM7 and hope you have a great xmas and new year break.

  3. Lyndon Bye permalink
    December 29, 2010 2:07 pm

    Yeah! Get the basics right first

    Good stuff James

    All the best for 2011, see you in the ether

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