Technology, Servant or Master?

We are a marketing company, and as such tend to focus on the delivery and use of great marketing content. However to deliver & use this content you need your website to be technically up to date and flexible enough to develop as new technologies arise. This point is illustrated perfectly by a current change that is taking place with PHP, the software technology that drives the sites that we and many others develop. PHP is being constantly updated, adding features and addressing security issues as the arise. At the end of 2018, there is a significant event in the life of php in that v5 will die to be replaced by v7 (If you are interested to find out what happened to V6 read this). Whilst normally these version changes pass unnoticed. With the switch to PHP7, this may not be the case. The way the software interfaces with databases is changing significantly, such that sites written to use the old system will not work on php v7. Now v7 and the new technology it uses have been around for a while, and most of  this technology works happily on v5. So developers have been updating their systems to use the new infrastructure for quite a while. The result being that for sites using these system – (WordPress is one such platform), the switch to php 7 will pass unnoticed (as it should be).

Marketing needs technology

Our philosophy is that marketing needs technology but should not be ruled by it. The technology should be in the background. One of our roles as a marketing partner in 2018 is to manage the technology. The aim is to ensure that it does not impact on the marketing activities. This is one of the reasons we love WordPress. Whilst open source & so not reliant on one company to develop it, it has a huge user base, and so is being constantly updated and improved, leaving us to focus on the Marketing, knowing that the core platform we use to deliver this is “keeping up with the times”

Technology needs updating

One downside of open source is that a website can rely on a number of different elements with different developers. And different developers have different update cycles. As such the process of keeping systems up to date needs constant focus. By having a process to manage this, we ensure that sites stay technically up to date. Ensuring that any issues that may arise from updates are taken care of in the background. Keeping the impact on day to day marketing activities to a minimum. Remember

Technology is a useful Servant, but a dangerous Master

   

Can we just? – 4 examples

As you have probably gathered from our posts this month we have a mixed relationship with the words:

"Can we Just...."

In this article, we look at how Can we just can cause issues. We explore how the idea of Can we just causes frustration through a lack of joined-up thinking. Alternatively, Can we just…?  can demonstrate a fluid and innovative pace of SME marketing, opening a wide range of possibilities. Here, I am focussing on this second idea and how the practical and positive approach to Can we just can deliver real benefit. I highlight four examples where planned and joined-up strategy allows “Can we just…” coupled with web technology, delivers a real business advantage.

1. Can we just…. run a customer satisfaction survey?

The initial idea was to use a third-party service such as Survey Monkey, While this type of service is good, there is a risk of missing branding opportunity that comes from fully integrating a survey into your website. However having time to plan, allowed us to do this.The survey was built into the client’s WordPress website. The flexibility of the WordPress platform meant this was reasonably straightforward. Furthermore, this approach enhanced the impact of the survey and actually made branding easier as much of the layout already existed within the website. Even better, the results were automatically collated – though to be fair, most of eth 3rd party options do this too. We have used this approach several times and, coupled with effective. well-targeted communications, we regularly see response rates between 20% and 30%

2. Can we just… add a shop to our website?

This is an interesting one. At first, it may sound like quite an ask. However, adding e-commerce functionality to a WordPress website is not too challenging. Woocommerce is the go-to e-commerce plugin for WordPress and, now in version 3, it is a powerful beast. It is a simple process to install. You then add a few products & a link to PayPal and you are good to go! Okay, I admit that a bit of configuration is necessary and prior knowledge is helpful but it is definitely possible to do this within a budget of £100’s rather than the £1000’s normally required if you want someone to set up e-commerce for your business. However, this is also a great example of a situation, where it is not the technical but business and marketing issues that need the most thought. this is especially true when selling direct to end users is a new channel. Things like:

  • Shipping costs/logistics
  • Packaging
  • Customer service
  • Promotion

All need to be considered, and in the main, these are business rather than technical issues. To be successful, an e-commerce website should be considered as from the business process angle rather than as a technical challenge. Get the business plan right and you are in a strong position to specify your technical requirements and end up with a good and workable solution to your e-commerce needs.

3. Can we just…convert our website to WordPress?

WordPress boasts some impressive statistics. It offers extensive functionality both out of the box and as add-on options yet is still pretty accessible for non-techies who want to manage their own website content. So what do you do if you have a website where you like the content but don’t can’t edit or control it? The structure of WordPress often makes it possible to efficiently transfer a website into WordPress, retaining the content and style of the old site but introducing the Content Management functionality and upgradeability and enhancement options of WordPress. If you have a significant investment in your existing website and content but need more control, you don’t need to go back to square one. … and one more. Simple but important 4. Can we just…resize & crop these images to fit the website better?  Images are a crucial part of a modern website and manipulation (particularly resizing & optimising) is a key requirement to fit in with the written content. There is a great tool to allow you to handle tasks like these without resorting to the cost and complexity of Photoshop. This tool is Irfanview. It is free to download, and you will find it here.

In Conclusion

Can we just…? is an inevitable consequence of the dynamic world of running an SME Business. Whether you see Can we just…?  as a frustrating consequence of not having a clear plan, or, as we see in this article, an opportunity to innovate and develop your business in a joined-up way can be the difference between real success and continual fire-fighting. Which would you prefer?

Our new website – Can we just…

One thing is certain if you are in business, you need a website. Furthermore, you need a website that is easy to adapt to the evolution of your business. Yet many sites are developed as a project which is specified in detail at the start, and with an end date focused on the day the site goes live. Consequently, it is inevitable that the phrase “can we just…..” will be used as the business moves on and the requirements for the website evolves. The usual effect of this being a delay the delivery of the new site. And often leads to frustration for all those involved.

Embrace the “Can we just…”

The alternative is to accept the fluid nature of the web requirements and embrace the can we just…. In this scenario, the focus of the web project is not to deliver a finished site, but rather to deliver a flexible web platform that can evolve & develop with the business. In this way, the site does not go live when it is “finished”. Rather it goes live when:

  1. It professionally represents the activities of the organisation
  2. It is better than the current offering

Once these two factors are covered, the new site can and should go live in the knowledge that it will be continually developed on into the future. In this way every “can we just…” can be categorised in 1 of 2 ways:

  1. It is required to fulfil the criteria above in which case it gets done now Or
  2. It is something that can be built into the ongoing development of the site

A platform, not a finished article

In reality, a website is never “finished”, and when considering a new site, the number one priority needs to be delivering a platform that will easily adapt to the needs of a business into the foreseeable future. In this way,  in the future when “can we just…” rears its head the answer should be

 "Yes, no problem"

Can we just… in the real world

We now use WordPress for all our site developments, and the number one reason for this is its flexibility. Using WordPress, it’s easy to deliver a great looking site quickly, and what starts as a simple site with a few pages, can easily evolve to deliver complex functionality tailored to the needs of the business as they develop. Want to know more? here are a couple of articles from our blog that you may find interesting:

What is WordPress and why should you use it

The 3 Stages of Website Development

Can we just….improve our marketing?

Can we just…? Yes, we can – but a bit of forethought and planning helps. As I’m sure you know, Marketing is a process, not an event. Unfortunately, all too often in the SME world, marketing ends up being a series of disconnected projects, campaigns or events. Over my 30+ years marketing with owner-managed businesses, there are 3 words that I hear time and time again. 3 words that, if you think about it, reflect an underlying issue in many companies’ approach to marketing. The 3 words are:

Can we just….

I blame the internet!

The growth of the internet has been a gamechanger in SME marketing with new ideas, apps, opportunities and services being launched all the time but herein lies a problem. Most of these services are initially supplied and driven from a technical standpoint and promoted as ‘a great new idea’. Consequently, there is a risk that a business will focus on ‘what a great idea’ and start using something without considering how well the new approach will fit in to deliver integrated marketing value to the business. Whether we are talking about a new communication tool, social media platform or a new approach to developing and up to date website, the same issue can arise. The work starts on the wave of enthusiasm about the innovative newness of the approach. However, the brief the work is done to can be a bit superficial. As a result, all too often, the results can fall short of the (admittedly not carefully thought through) expectations. This isn’t to say the results are necessarily bad, just not quite as forecast. The next step is to start to look towards what the business actually needs at which point the limited up-front planning gets exposed as a disconnect between what is best for the business to achieve your goals, and what you are actually doing. You realise that you need to make some changes and so, rather than immediately halting the work and rethinking, the immortal words get uttered…Can we just...

More cost and delay

Almost inevitably, Can we just… will lead to additional and unexpected cost as well as potential delay. Both of these can add to the dissatisfaction of how things are going. In turn, this can result in a decision to commit increased resources to the project from where the expectations rise further, often compounding the problem. Alternatively, you end up deciding to cut your losses and pull the plug – which means you are back where you started! Neither is great.

An alternative – a joined-up approach

By recognising that marketing is a process, not an event, it is easier to put your marketing activities into a joined-up context. This also creates an opportunity to consider your business goals and plan activities around these. Part of the planning process is to acknowledge there will be a need to review and refine as things proceed and you learn more. A joined-up approach may require a bit more up-front thought but this normally pays real dividends in the impact your efforts have on taking your business where you want it to go.

‘Can we just’ can be a good thing

Even better, in the context of a planned, joined-up approach, ‘Can we just’ can be a good thing. Because a joined-up approach allows planning time, new ideas can be introduced, not as a knee-jerk reaction to a problem, but as an opportunity to innovate. Next time you are working on your business rather than in it, give yourself time to plan and consider options. The luxury of time gives the chance to reflect and you might just think…Mmm, can we just… To see some examples of how BSA works with clients using Can we just..to deliver real benefit, click here

Leaping into the Cloud

Managing BSA’s accounts is important to me. I have always believed that if you are on top of your accounts and your cash flow, you have fundamental, day-to-day control of your business. It is a philosophy that has served me well for over 30 years. For virtually all of those 30 years, I have been a Sage Accounts man. I know the software and it has proved reliable. I have tamed the Sage Reporting system and quietly thanked them for the option to restore backed up data when disaster struck (or more specifically, I made a stupid mistake!) Yes, it is over complex for our straightforward needs, and the support can be quite expensive but it was what we (and our accountant) knew and fundamentally, it worked. Yet in the rapidly changing world of business technology, Sage started to become a victim of its own success. The software didn’t really evolve. Sure there were regular new versions – though the only time we tended to upgrade was when our existing copy stopped working because it wouldn’t run on an upgraded PC. New versions did bring new features but nothing groundbreaking. All the time, the new kid on the block – high-speed internet – was growing. About 4 years ago I started reading about cloud accounts, web-based accounting where, for a modest monthly fee, you got access to a fully regulation-compliant accounting system that was supported and evolved as part of the package. My first thoughts were that it was too big a step. Sage worked for us while the idea of such a radical shift was to big a leap into the unknown. We also had a huge investment in Sage with many years of financial data stored and archived. The process of transferring this to a new system didn’t bear thinking about!

The winds of change

Life evolves, and so does business. While Sage Accounts had been our stalwart for so long, BSA as a company has consistently metamorphosed over the years. In early 2014, our accountant started talking more earnestly about retirement and ‘shouldn’t we perhaps be looking for someone to replace him?’ To be fair we had heard this idea for a while and never really taken him seriously but this time, something was different. Coincidentally, around the same time, I found myself talking to a young accountant, relatively new into practice, who was promoting an online accounting package – KashFlow. Previously, many practitioners I had spoken to saw these new services as a threat to their business where my guy (Mark) saw it as an opportunity to do things differently. Tentatively we decided to investigate further, particularly encouraged by 2 factors:

  1. Mark offered to support us through the transition at no cost
  2. KashFlow included a facility to directly import data from Sage

My plan was to get KashFlow up and running then use it in parallel with our existing Sage system for a couple of months. I might be taking that leap into the unknown but I like to keep my options open! Unfortunately, it wasn’t to prove straightforward.

One Step Forward, 2 steps back

We had taken the step towards the brave new world of online accounting. The plan was to implement the KashFlow import/conversion facility and work with Mark to tidy up any loose ends. We had a lot of data to import so the process ran overnight. The following morning I logged on to KashFlow in great anticipation… According to our new accounting system, we owed just over £2 million in VAT! Something wasn’t quite right. The second backwards step reflected a common problem with IT (and many other) services. We all only know what we know. It turned out that Mark’s experience with KashFlow was quite limited and – perhaps coupled with the fact that he had offered to support our transition at no cost – trying to figure out what had gone awry with the transfer and fix it proved too much. We were back to good old Sage and our dalliance with online accounting was over – or so I thought.

Business is a process, not an event

Another day, another networking session, another forward thinking accountant. To be fair, the scenario was remarkably similar save 2 things:

  1. The accountant in question was more experienced
  2. The software in question was Xero, not KashFlow

By now, our existing account had retired so the pressure was on. I know that business is a process, not an event, so we decided to give internet accounting a second chance. This time we did things a bit different. rather than try to import all our historic data we only went back 2 years. The older data was still available in Sage should we need to access it. We also recognised that trying to run Sage in parallel with the new system was going to be impractical. Assuming we could get the balances to balance and the reports from the 2 systems to match, we would take the plunge. the general view is that you make this sort of change at the end/start of your fiscal year or at least at the end/start of a VAT quarter. We are gluttons for punishment and did neither – but it worked! The combination of Xero knowledge and accountancy from our shiny new accountants was invaluable. We wouldn’t have done it without them. The hiatus lasted for the first few months, through the first VAT return on the new system but by the time we got to March and the end of the financial year things had settled and we have never looked back. 2 full years down the line and Sage is all but forgotten.

A Learning Process

Moving our business accounts into the cloud is definitely one of the more significant changes that have happened at BSA – and certainly one of the most beneficial. Here are some key wins:

  • Significantly reduced book-keeping and accounts admin time
  • Reduced accountancy costs
  • Easy access to our accounts from anywhere I have internet
  • Online storage of invoices and other paperwork
  • Streamlined reporting
  • Integrated submission of VAT
  • Flexibility to integrate with the rest of our business

…and what did we learn? Things that would have been good to know when we started

  • The transfer required some work – but it was worth it
  • Working with a professional accountant who knows your chosen system is essential
  • Xero support has been great
  • Not having traditional backups was a concern but there are add-on backup services we now use

The future

One of the exciting features of the growing world of cloud-based software is the opportunity for data integration. There are more and more ‘Apps’ (both good and bad!) being developed that extend the functionality of Xero and other cloud-based software allowing business to be done more quickly, more easily and more cost-effectively – interesting times ahead. If you are contemplating moving your accounts into the cloud and would like to chat, do get in touch

Cloud-driven Marketing

Good Marketing is Collaborative

Marketing is a broad discipline. Consequently, to deliver effective marketing, you need a wide range of skills.

  1. Planning & Strategy
  2. Creative/Design
  3. Copywriting
  4. Web development & coding
  5. Social Media Management
  6. Research & Analysis
  7. …The list goes on

No one can be an expert in all these areas, so by its nature good marketing needs to be collaborative. In the SME world, this tends to mean a single person or small team within the organisation. Working with one or more third-party specialists. In other words, good marketing relies on a team of people working together To complicate matters further, in today’s workplace teams tend not to be all sat in the same office from 9-5 Monday to Friday.

The Importance of Management

Today’s marketing environment is also fast paced, especially when it comes to search and social media marketing. As well as being monitored & managed on a weekly/monthly basis, aspects of marketing like social media need to be continually monitored & managed. Daily or even hourly. Put these two things together and you have a situation where delivering a joined-up effective marketing programme can be challenging, requiring diverse and disparate teams to work together closely on an ongoing basis

Controlling the Chaos

Fortunately for today’s Marketer, the Cloud is throwing up some fantastic tools for managing this. I would like to look at 2 of these specifically

  • WordPress – for managing your content
  • Hootsuite – for managing your social media

I will then finish by looking briefly at more general tools for managing the wider marketing process.

Managing your content

We are big fans of WordPress – no secret there! – But as well as being a great web development platform, it is also a great tool for managing the content creation process. It is web-based, so wherever a team member is in the world, as long as they can get online, they can do their job. Working together to draft, review and publish posts is a piece of cake. Out of the box, WordPress allows user role management, keeps a full history of revisions and allows posts to be flagged in their different stages of production. Add a couple of choice plugins, and you can take the workflow management process to the next level:

10 Great WordPress Plugins to Manage an Editorial Workflow

Managing your Social Media

To be truly effective, social media requires multiple platforms to be constantly managed, ideally side by side. Difficult enough when it is being handled & managed by one person, but a real challenge when managed by a team. Hootsuite to the rescue – Hootsuite is a social media management tool that allows you to pull together all your activity across multiple social media platforms into a single place. It also allows you to create role-based teams to manage social media activity, so you can control exactly what individual members of the team can do. Whilst there is a charge for some of these features, much of the functionality is available via the free account. Furthermore, if your social media presence is exclusively based on Twitter, you can get the same control for Twitter using the free Tweetdeck tool.

Wider Management in the Cloud

Having looked at the management of individual elements of the marketing mix, to finish I thought it would be worth taking a look at broader management of the marketing process. Again there are some great cloud options in this area. If you are using Microsoft’s Office 365, take a look at Microsoft Teams . Teams is included in many of the Office 365 subscription packages and delivers some interesting tools for online management & collaboration. We have just started using it at BSA, so expect a post about our experiences in the coming months. Whilst there are still some issues with relying on the Cloud (what happens if you can’t get access online, and how do you ensure that your content is secure to name two) I think these are rapidly becoming very manageable. As a result, the Cloud is increasingly becoming a valuable marketing platform. If you would like to explore some of these ideas in more detail, we would love to hear from you.