Bridging the technology gap

SME business owners have a problem…

Technology is essential to pretty much every business these days…but there is so much of it.

  • Computers
  • Email
  • Websites
  • Social Media
  • Data Storage
  • Mobile Access
  • Remote Access
  • Communications…

The list goes on, but rather than being able to focus on using one specific technology a lot, to work effectively, most businesses need bits of many different technologies. Furthermore, business owners should focus on their business, they can’t normally be technical specialists as well.

I believe the ideal business technology is effectively invisible. It does its job so well that you just don’t notice it. You can concentrate on your business. Herein lies the problem. Accessing different technologies normally means dealing with a range of suppliers who (too often) don’t talk to one another. Your business should use technology as an integrated business-focussed resource but to make it works seamlessly (and invisibly) you need effective support. This support is typically fragmented across a range of ‘expert’ suppliers each of whom is competing for your attention. they can be too focussed on their own needs.

There is a second issue with accessing specialist skills, particularly in the marketing arena, and that is that there are a lot of people offering “Expertise“. But not all are as expert as you might hope. Finding the right expert to fit your needs and expectations can be challenging.

The BSA Philosophy

We understand and appreciate the issue. Both myself and my fellow director, David, have been running and supporting SME businesses for many years, so we have practical experience! Furthermore, we have grown up with the technologies that are now central to running a successful business. These two experience sets work together allowing us to be ideally placed to support SMEs … and bridge the technology gap.

Unlike most technology experts, we start with business objectives. From here we establish how best technology can be used to support and meet these. Only then do we look to the “experts” to assist in the situation. At this point, we have three great advantages:

  1. We understand the business, and what technology is appropriate to move it forward
  2. We have built an effective working knowledge of a wide range of technologies and their application to real-world business.
  3. Because we are dealing with a wide range of technologies on a regular basis, we have the right contacts to call on high-end specialists when required. We can speak the technology language, so can communicate the issues and manage solutions effectively.

Benefits in the Real World

That’s the theory, but how does this philosophy play out in the real world?

To answer this, I go back to the list at the top of the post. Over the next few months, we are going to work through this list and look at some individual business issues, discussing how our philosophy delivers real value in each area.

Taking each subject in turn (Websites, Marketing Content, Social Media, Hosting, Email etc) we will look at how to effectively bridge the technology gap and deliver real world business benefits.

With each subject, we will be publishing a podcast on podcast.bsamarketing.com. Alongside the podcasts, there will also be blog posts exploring the issues. To be sure you don’t miss any of  this content, you can either subscribe to our podcast here, or better still, sign up to our email here.

If you can’t wait, and would like to talk to us further right now, we are always happy to chat.

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger

It’s an old saying, and whilst I am not convinced it is totally true, it is a good way to consider the current situation.

As I have watched the way businesses are handling the restrictions imposed as a result of the pandemic, they seem to fall into two categories:

  1. Those that look short term “we need to cope until things get to normal”
  2. Those who look long term “Things have changed, how do we adapt to the new environment”

As you might have gathered from the title, I would advocate the latter of these strategies. The crazy thing is that both strategies require significant adaption in the short term, but only the latter will deliver benefits in the long term.

To illustrate my point, I would like to use the example of two restaurants in my local town, who have taken very different approaches to business in 2020.

Just hang on in until it is all over

The first, shut during the first lockdown, taking the time to put in place procedures to open as a restaurant with reduced capacity as soon as they were able. This they then did, and by all accounts had a good summer as things opened up.  Though I would expect that margins were down due to increased costs and reduced capacity.

Come the second lockdown which, if we were being honest was inevitable! They were back to square one. This time they chose to do takeaway, but very much in a way that suggested it was not a long term plan (First come first served, no advanced ordering, take the phone off the hook when they get busy). The impression was that their attitude was. “It is just 4 weeks, then we can open as a restaurant again.”

Well, the end of the lockdown came, but restrictions meant that they still could not open. ….The struggle goes on.

Adapt And evolve

Contrast this with the second restaurant. They took a very different approach right from the start.

In March when they shut their doors, they immediately set up a takeaway system. They posted their menu on a Tuesday. Then took bookings for delivery slots over the weekend. Whilst I would suggest they should look further than Facebook for their marketing, this was a simple solution that worked, and could be adapted further and developed as time went on.

Through the summer, they decided not to make the changes needed to reopen the restaurant, opting instead to continue the takeaway model. As a result, The second lockdown, and the tier restrictions  have not really impacted them too much. They can continue with this model until they are able to open again whenever that may be.

Furthermore, when they do, they will have developed a takeaway model that they can continue to run alongside their regular business.

I am sure that for both of these businesses the last 9 months have been hard work and stressful. But for the first, the best-case scenario is that they survive. For the second, I think survival should not be an issue. And when the restrictions are lifted, they will have evolved and be well placed to go forward strongly.

These are just 2 examples, but have seen many more where businesses taking the second approach:

  • Retailers who have invested in digital focusing on their online offering
  • Conference organisers who have shifted events to high-quality webinars

The list goes on. For these there is no going back to “normal”. The have moved on, and hopefully their businesses will be stronger for it.

5 Plugins we use on every website

WordPress is a great tool, but out of the box it lacks some must have functionality. To address this, we install a number of plugins from the off to handle things from design & templating, through to backup and security.

In this post I want to take you through the plugins we use, and why.

Templating & Design

I love many things about WordPress, but the systems for managing editing and laying out the actual content of the site is not one of them. The recently introduced Guthenburg block editor has improved things a little, but it is still far from ideal. If I am being honest, we usually switch it off and go back to the classic editor.

For building page layouts we use a plugin called Elementor www.elementor.com.  According to the stats, it’s the number 1 page builder, with over 5 million active installations. As such it is being actively updated and has a great ecosystem of developers adding functionality. Again, there are many reasons I like this plugin but these are the 3 main ones:

  1. Elementor has great functionality out of the box, but also has a broad ecosystem for extensions
  2. It integrates well with Advanced Custom Fields (Whilst not on this list, ACF is another plugin we use a lot )
  3. It allows you to split the page template design from the content meaning you can give users a clean simple content management system, whilst still having full and separate control over the design

Finally to ask the question “Why do we prefer a page builder to a theme?” The answer is simple. Themes are driven by fashion and tend not to be consistently developed & updated in the long term. They are also often over complicated as they try to appeal to a broad group of potential users. As Elementor is theme independent, it is developed on an ongoing basis, and designs developed in Elementor tend to be more tailored to the needs of an individual site.  All in all, it’s our experience that themes developed in Elementor give more longevity, and a better experience for both site visitors and administrators.

Security

The next plugin we install on every site deals with security and in this area our plugin of choice is Wordfence (www.wordfence.com). We like it as it’s simple to use and very comprehensive. Including as standard features like, brute force protection, bot management, a firewall and malware scanning. Running Wordfence is as simple as installing the plugin and running through a config wizard. Once installed you can forget it as it simply works. Something a security plugin should be.

This is one of the plugins where we use the free version as it gives all the functionality we need. Furthermore, the fact that it has a well established installed base of the pro version means that it is being constantly developed, and here for the long term.

Backup

Just as critical as security is making sure the site is reliably and regularly backed up. For this we use a plugin called Updraft (www.updraftplus.com). Updraft has a great free offering, but in this case we use the pro vision one simple reason: It allows you to schedule backups. Making sure the backups happen regularly is key, so automating the process is important. Other reasons we like updraft are:

  1. It allows you to easily keep off site copies using a range of cloud storage providers
  2. Updraft automatically prompts you to do a backup whenever you update plugins, themes or the WordPress core
  3. In our experience it is very reliable & “Just works”

All in all, whether you go for the free of paid version, updraft is a great backup tool.

Forms Builder

There are a lot of good forms plugins for WordPress, but we have opted for Gravity forms (www.gravityforms.com). Again this is a paid plugin but is is very feature rich, integrates well with Elementor and has great functionality. It also has a powerful API for integrating forms with other systems – Mailchimp for example.

If I am being truly honest, they only thing I don’t like about Gravity forms is the limited options for styling forms without resorting to custom CSS. This is however a limitation they are aware of and are, by my understanding working on better functionality in this area. That said, even now and with this limitation, Gravity forms is a great tool and one we would not be without.

SEO

Last on the list, but by no means least is the SEO function. For this we use a plugin called Yoast (www.yoast.com). Yoast is a great plugin as it puts the process of optimising content fully in the hands of the person writing the content. It has an easy to use traffic light system to indicate how well optimised a page is. Along side this it gives helpful and easy to understand tips on how to improve your optimisation.

Furthermore, it gives the user easy access to the page meta data like titles & descriptions. These, whilst important to SEO, are often hidden and difficult to edit. Yoast brings these aspects to the forefront, making then a simple part of the page editing process.

This is another one where we use the free version. Unless you are working in highly competitive areas or have more complex optimisation needs, the free version does everything you need.

Other plugins worth a mention

The above are plugins that we install as a matter of routine on all our site. There are a couple of others that we also find very useful and worthy of mention:

  1. Advanced custom fieldswww.advancedcustomfields.com. This allows you to add custom content field to posts and pages. Thus making it easy to structure your content and make page layout and editing much more simple. In our view its this one that turns WordPress into a proper content management system.
  2. Admin Columns Prowww.admincolumnspro.com. This is a bit more niche, but if you do a lot of editing of content in the back end of WordPress, it make the process much more enjoyable & efficient.

We love these plugins so much that we actually include a pro licence for all of them with all our hosting packages, so if you use WordPress, and are using any of these plugins, its worth checking out our hosting offering. It may save you money. What’s more, we have a lot of experience in the world of WordPress, so if you are looking for a plugin to deliver some specific functionality, feel free to get in touch. We would be happy to share our experience.

Dos and Don’ts of Live Chat

When used appropriately, chat on a website is a great tool. But if implemented badly it can also be a real frustration.

Because of this I thought it would be worth giving some of my experiences with chat. Outlining the ways to implement it effectively, maximising benefits whilst minimising frustrations.

Not all Chat systems are equal.

There are a lot of chat systems out there from cheap and cheerful to fully integrated chat, customer service and ticketing systems. The first thing to consider is which one is right for you?

Our experience has been it two systems, Zen Desk and Livechat.  Whilst I am not aiming to create a full review here, I can say that our experiece with both LiveChat and Zendesk have been positive. They are both easy to integrate into a website (Both have wordpress plugins) and offer the features you need to make live chat work. Whilst LiveChat is the more expensive option ($16/month compared with $5/month for the Zendesk entry level), it is the one that most of our clients are using, and has great tools for managing the appearance and functionality of the chat box on the website. Other than the price, we would not hesitate to recommend LiveChat, and if your customers value access via chat on your website $16/month should be a cost effective option.

Chat should not be a messaging system

Ok, I will hold my hands up and say that this is a personal bugbear of mine. Chat should be a live interactive medium, and should only be used if you have the resources to man it. One of the things I like about LiveChat is that it can be set to only appear on your website when you are logged into the system and ready to accept chats. That way, when someone starts chatting on your site, there is a good chance that there will be someone there to answer their questions in real time. If you are not logged in the chat box disappears. In these cases they should have other options like email and enquiry forms to contact you.

Chat boxes should not be intrusive

Another way that I think that chat is misused relates to how obtrusive the chat box is on the site. As a website user, when you need it, it should be obvious and easy to access. But when you don’t, it should not get in the way. By all means include chat pop up box after a user has been on your site for a period of time. But if they dismiss it, don’t keep nagging them. It should be their decision if they need to chat. If they don’t, the chat should not get in the way of their browsing.

Be careful of multitasking during chats

One of the benefits of chat over phone calls is you can multitask. Whilst chatting you can deal with multiple enquiries at once, or work on other tasks whist engaging with customers.  When doing this however, be sure to prioritise the chat and don’t leave customers hanging for an answer to their questions. If you have to go of and find other information, or are going to take more than a few seconds to respond, then let them know.

Use chat bots effectively

Like much technology chat bots can be used or abused. If you are going to use one, I would suggest that you follow two simple rules:

  1. Be transparent – If a user is talking to a bot, make sure they know it. Good chat bots are effectively an “intelligent drill down menu”. They ask users a series of questions to point them to the right bit of information. If they can deliver information the user is looking for, they can be a great way to give basic technical support.
  2. Always offer the option to talk to a real person – Going back to my first point about the fact that chat should be a “live interactive medium”, always give the user an option to talk to a real person. Most people will go onto a chat system with a specific enquiry. If that can be answered by the bot then great. But when it can’t, you need to give them the opportunity to talk to a real person. Not doing this can easily lead to disappointment & frustration.

Follow these two rules and chat bots can be a really useful addition to the chat system.

3 Golden Rules for using Chat effectively

In summary, I will leave you with three golden rules for the effective use of chat:

  1. It’s not a messaging system. If you are not there to chat, don’t offer it on your site
  2. Leave the customer in control- Don’t nag web visitors, if they want to chat they will
  3. Use chat bots intelligently. Focus on the customer experience when deciding to use them.

Follow these rule and chat can really enhance your customers experience, and your ability to engage with them.

 

Are analytics killing creativity?

I have a dilemma! I am a firm believer in the power of analytics for monitoring and managing your marketing. But I also believe that we live in a world where we tend to overuse analysis tools. The key to reconciling this dilemma is the word OVERUSE!

Whilst I firmly believe that analysis is a key business tool, its overuse is a bad thing. Furthermore, analytics rarely give definitive answers and issues arise when indicators presented through analysis are presented as fact.

In my experience, one casualty of over analysis is creativity. Creativity takes time, and is inherently inefficient. If you are being truly creative, you can’t expect all of your output to be brilliant. It is likely that some of your work will, whilst important in the process, come to nothing!

Over analysing can lead you to kill creative projects that are not going in the direction you expect. But given time these projects may actually deliver great results.

John Cleese on Creativity

I grew up with Monty Pythons Flying Circus, and I believe that they were and are creative genii. I think (maybe because I took Latin at school) the graffiti sketch in the Life of Brian is one of the funniest bits of film ever! But watch full episodes of the Monty Python TV show. Much of it is not very funny, and that’s the stuff that made the screen!  My point is that even talented people like the Python’s don’t hit the mark all the time. But they need the freedom to produce the dogs, to allow them to hit the comedy gold like the graffiti sketch!

Search YouTube, and you will find John Cleese talking a lot about creativity. One point he makes is that to be creative, you need to create space and time “to play”. Analysis may suggest that much of this time is not very productive. Whilst this may be true, it is needed as part of the process, and your analysis needs to recognise this fact.

Its not the Analysis that’s at fault, its how it is used

Analysis itself is not at fault here, its how it is used. It is my view that analysis should be used to inform decisions, not make them. The danger where creativity and innovation is concerned is that the ability to analyse and measure things in detail, encourages a process where decision making is primarily evidence based, driven by data of what has happened/worked in the past.

However by definition, being creative means pushing the boundaries & trying things that have not been tried before. These activities are very difficult to justify based on evidence of past activities.  As Henry Ford is quoted as saying “If I asked people what they want, they would ask for a faster horse”. Whilst it is widely acknowledged that Mr Ford never uttered these words, it does illustrate the issue. If you base creativity purely on research looking to the past, you are never going to be truly creative.

So how do we square the circle?

As Einstein pointed out “doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result is insane”. As such using past activities & results to inform future actions can prevent you repeating old mistakes and thus is a vital part of business. But the flip of this is that just because there is no evidence to suggest something new will be a success, does not mean it is doomed to failure. Creativity requires you to say “That sounds interesting, my gut tells me it has potential, and there is nothing to suggest it has been tried & failed before and failed so lets give it a go and see what happens!”

Being creative is a punt!

Yes you weigh up the risks & rewards, but ultimately you have just got to put analysis to on side and jump into the unknown!

 

Do people really want to work from home?

There is a lot of talk about WFH – or working from home at the moment. And based on the level of resistance to returning to the office when “told” to do so, its certain that people want an alternative to the daily commute. But do they really want to be working from home, or is it more complicated?

I suspect that in reality what people really want is twofold. Firstly to work more flexibly, and secondly to avoid the daily commute. Given this, one obvious solution is to work from home. This certainly delivers these two objectives, but is it really the answer?

Throughout my career I have commuted, including one point where I was doing some extreme commuting between Northampton in the UK, and Aarhus in Denmark.  and I have worked from home! In my experience, neither scenario was ideal. In my current situation, I live and work in Glossop. My trip to work is 3 minutes by car, or more usually a 20 minute walk. To me, this is “Living the dream”, with the best of both worlds!

Working from home has its downsides

Whilst I don’t feel the need to go into the downside of commuting (Though I do know people who claim to enjoy it!) The reality of “working from home” does invite closer inspection!

Whilst everyone is different, in my experience, working from home has three big downsides:

  1. Isolation – working in the office environment, you are surrounded by other people, whilst this makes it easy to interact on work matters, it also allows more general interaction. Those so called “Water cooler moments”, where you can chat to others whilst taking a break from work. Whilst zoom and other video meeting systems can go a long way to replacing face to face meetings required to “do your job” they do not replace more informal conversations so important in building rapport, and enhancing the working environment. In reality, working from home can be very isolating!
  2. The working environment – When working from home, I found the separation of work and home life a challenge! I was lucky enough to have the space to have a dedicated home office, and I would “commute” to that room every day. When I was in the home office I was was “at work”. Anywhere else I was “at home”. This allowed me to separate my work and home life. For many home workers however, this is not the scenario. The “office” is a laptop in the kitchen or dining room table, maybe I am getting old, but for me this is OK for the occasional bit of work that needs doing now, but not an environment that promotes sustained productivity. It can also make it more difficult to create an ergonomically correct environment. Living with a physiotherapist, I know how important this is to health and wellbeing!
  3. Distractions – Again, I was lucky in this aspect. when I was working at home, other occupants were out at work. But trying to maintain focus, when others are in the house going about their day can be a challenge, especially if you add children into the mix.

All in all, I find working from home on a regular basis a challenge!

The middle ground – The new way of “going to the office”

So if you are not wanting to work 100% from home, and not wanting to commute, what is the alterative. The alternative is finding a new place to work, somewhere where you can engage with others and get those “Water cooler moments”, and that are set up to provide an environment conducive to productive work, and a professional place to meet people should you need to, free from the distractions that can be all too common in the home environment. Somewhere that you can access as and when needed. Historically this place would belong to the company you work for, but it doesn’t need to. Increasingly these facilities are found in business centres, shared offices and co-working spaces. Whilst these are widely used by the likes of Start-ups and freelancers, they provide the perfect working environment for all those more traditional jobs that are now being done “from home”.

To conclude – A prediction

I think when all this washes out, the idea of everyone commuting to a central location to work in a corporate office will be seen as old hat. Central offices will be smaller & more flexible. A place to meet clients and for teams to get together when zoom just doesn’t cut it. I think these offices will be smaller and more importantly cheaper.

By not investing in big central corporate offices, this should free up resources to allow workers to access more flexible facilities close to where they live. Whilst they may not be appropriate all the time – even for me working from home occasionally is a great option – they would add useful flexibility to the mix.

In closing, I think its is worth highlighting the fact that this scenario works for part of the workforce, if you are in a job where you are working with “things”, whether manufacturing or distributing them then the traditional, central model may be here to stay. But for everyone else a more de-centralised model may be the future.

As for the city centre infrastructure (Cafes, bars shops and the like) that are now struggling as people avoid the commute. In reality, their customers still exist and still want these services. They have just moved. I am sure that the smart business will follow them!

The Social Dilemma – Are we part of the problem?

In this week’s podcast we discuss the ethics of marketing on social media. This comes on the back of a recent documentary “The Social Dilemma” where ex social media execs from the likes of Google, Twitter and Facebook talk about the way that social media company business models are impacting on the way we think and live our lives. In essence the model is that they sell our attention, as users of their platforms, to the highest bidder.

On the face of it this is a great model! It allows them to give away their services to the general public and then to make their money from advertisers. But as users we have to remember that as the saying goes “If you are not paying for the product, then you ARE the product!”

The suggestion made by the documentary was that this model was creating a situation where algorithms driving social media platforms were focused on keeping people’s attention, subtly and gradually changing the way they perceive the world. Creating systems where advertisers could use this process to shift users towards their point of view and make them more likely to buy their products or support their activities. One end game of this is that as users we become simply drones plugged into “The Matrix” with the sole purpose of creating value for the social media platform.

On that basis as advertisers, by buying advertising we are encouraging this business model, and we become part of the problem. But as with most things, it’s never that simple!

Things themselves are neither good nor bad

The way I look at it is that the platforms themselves are not good or bad, they are simply tools that do a job! In principal the idea that you have a tool that allows you to shift peoples perception, drawing them in to your point of view is not an issue and as a marketing tool it is powerful. The idea that you can target people very accurately, allowing you to focus your efforts in directions that are most likely to deliver results, means your marketing will be more effective, and you are less likely to irritate people by pushing your message at people where there is little or no relevance.

These algorithms were set out to do a job and they do it very well. As always with these things, the issue lies with what we do with the tools we are given.

It’s all about motivation

Look at any invention or discovery trough history, drugs, splitting the atom, genetic engineering… the list goes on, and there is a debate as to whether its invention was good or bad for humanity. The reality is that in all cases these inventions have brought both good and harm. But once invented, you can not put the genie back in the bottle. As individuals our responsibility is to make sure that we personally use them for good. We can not control what other so with them. That is the job of regulators and governments.

In the case of social media, as marketers we need to explore our motivations. Our role is to promote our point of view/service/product, and convince others that it is in their interest to buy into what we are offering. The question we must ask is – On Balance:

"Are we doing this for their benefit or our own"

I say “On Balance” as in reality it will be a mixture of the two. In most cases, you go into business because you see a benefit to yourself for doing so. But good business should be  Win:Win, with both you and your customers gaining benefit. In some cases it’s clear cut, but in others is it not.  Especially where you are aiming to convince people that your way is better than the status quo. Here you have to be sure that your way is truly better. And not just “better for you”!

Only you can decide

The bottom line is that as a business owner, only you can decide. The important thing is that you actually recognise the potential issues, and take them into consideration when making your marketing decisions. The social media genie is out of the bottle. As a society, the challenge now is how we use it for good!

The many ways to skin a cat

I am quite an opinionated person, and in my youth, I may have been accused of having an “I am right and everyone else is wrong” attitude to life. 50 odd years down the track, I have finally realised that this is a pretty ineffective approach as in reality, I am rarely right, but at the same time neither is anyone else!  Accepting that there is no right way to approach a problem has made life much easier and made me, I believe, more effective in most things I do.

Understanding the team

I have done a few psychometric tests in my time and used other tools to try to understand how to work more effectively. But the one that has stuck in my mind is Meredith Belbin’s study on team dynamics. In short, it categorises people into one of 9 roles within a team and suggests that to be effective, a team should contain all 9. I am now of the opinion that whilst useful, the idea that people fit into neat pigeon holes does not play out in reality. That said, the idea that having a mix of approaches when tackling a task does have significant merit.

Recognising the value of different

In managing a team, whether formally or informally when approaching a task. The real skill is not in knowing how to succeed on your own, it’s more about teasing out the ideas of the team, and focussing these into a strategy and plan that will complete the task.

Coming back to my original point about no one being 100% right about anything. In a team, different people will approach the task in different ways, the skill of a team manager is to identify which elements add value, and to combine these into a whole solution, whilst at the same time uniting the team behind a common approach.

The folly of focussing on your own approach.

Why, if this is the best way to approach an issue, is so much energy expended by leaders trying to convince everyone to do it their way? Persuading people to do it your way may seem like a fulfilling way to approach a problem, but as the saying goes “No man is an island”.  Understanding this and accepting other ideas may be as valid, or, perish the thought, BETTER, than yours, is a good place to start.