Great Content But Can Your Audience Find You?

Stone ArrowRecently I received an exhaustive URL to a great web page about a city’s new project. Then I looked for menu prompts to direct external visitors there but found none. Short of keying in a series of cryptic characters (which would look horrid in print), there was no way to find the page. Likewise, have you ever searched a website for an organization’s specific office or product and given up in frustration?

As communicators, we develop quality content and share it with our audiences, often using it to ignite conversations and engagement. But these efforts are in vain if a large segment of your audience doesn’t find you because the “path” is broken or desperately needs a renovation.

Sure you can fix website menus/links within your organization and use key words effectively but what about sites that others control?  Check how relevant third parties are representing your brand, if at all. You may find some surprises. I don’t mean media/blogger stories where editorial integrity has the last word and your organization’s core messages may never be conveyed verbatim. I’m thinking of websites/other digital properties owned by organizations affiliated with yours − so your brand has a legitimate reason to be there and properly represented.

For example, what if…

  • You manage communications for a public sector organization and your parent Ministry lists you on its website but with an outdated value proposition.
  • You work for a retailer that runs a customer loyalty program with a trusted vendor − but the vendor lists only a few of your participating stores on its promo web page, if at all.
  • Your socially responsible employer is actively dedicated to a cause; the recipient not-for-profit features all its corporate supporters on its web page, with links to their sites, but leaves yours off the roster.

Having lived each of these scenarios, I think it’s worth the time to occasionally retrace your audience’s steps to see how aligned stakeholders cite your brand on their sites.

To do a digital audit, run a:

  1. Manual check of all the relevant affiliate and stakeholder organization websites that should or could mention your brand.
  2. Google search and dig beyond the first couple of pages to find any gaps.
  3. Search on Bing/Yahoo or use other online tools to uncover missed opportunities.

If mentions or messages are amiss, you can outreach directly or use your contacts/networks to tactfully request changes.

More importantly, maybe it’s time to take a page from the social media best practice of “listening” to conversations and using what we hear to inform strategy.  We can do so by using this audit to find out why a mistake or omission occurred. Maybe your contact list is outdated, there is a major disconnect or a relationship gone amok?  With this insight, we can take steps to course correct or adjust our strategy for engaging that stakeholder as we move forward.

Do you do these checks? What works for you and what “surprises” have you uncovered?

8 DIY Tools for Visual Content Creation and Infographics

Since about 65 per cent of us are visual learners, it’s no wonder high quality infographics are 30 times more likely to be read than text articles (according to customermagnetism). Visual content is also noted for boosting SEO performance and consistently appears as a “must have” on content strategy checklists.

If you have the budget or an in-house resource, it’s best to have a data visualization specialist create top-of-the-line visual content but this isn’t always possible. Fortunately, there is also a growing list of free or nominally priced online tools you can access to visually depict data and tell your story.  Here are some I’ve discovered for creating infographics, as well as word clouds and graphic timelines.

DIY Infographic Creation Tools:

  1. EasellyEasel.ly – Provides drop-and-drag templates called “Vhemes,” which  give you a framework for creating infographics that feature Venn diagrams and traditional graphs, as well as maps and pathways. You can easily customize them further by changing backgrounds/colours and inserting shapes, lines or icons from a range of categories (including people of varied demographics) or uploading your own images.
  2. piktochartPiktochart – Offers a choice of six free templates (with more available for an upgrade fee). You can customize your graphic by changing colors, themes, fonts or inserting/uploading icons/images. You can also create charts manually or by uploading CSV files.
  3. InfogramChartsInfogr.am – Still in beta, this easy-to-use tool comes with six templates for creating your own infographic or standalone graphs. You can enhance it by editing data and text and uploading images. I find it stands apart with its incredible range of 14 adaptable graph formats, which include progress gauges, tree maps, and word clouds, as well as bar and other standard charts and tables.  However, unlike some of the other tools, it lacks pre-fab icons.
  4. VisuallyEgVisually – Offers a range of templates that enable you to create infographics but they must be based on Twitter or Facebook data. According to econsultancy.com,  you can also order Visually infographics, which start from $1,495 and take at least 18 days to produce.
  5. GraphicDriverGraphicriver – This tool is not free but offers a variety of intricately designed templates that you can purchase for a licence fee as low as $6.00 and then customize to meet your needs.

Word Cloud Tools:wordle-tree

  1. Wordle – Generates “word clouds” from text that you provide. The words are sized according to how frequently they appear in the selected chunk of text, with the largest point size used for words that appear more frequently in a selected chunk of text. You can tweak your clouds with different fonts, layouts, and color schemes.
  2. Tagxedo – Similar to Wordle, this tool gives you more control on what specific shape your text forms, as well as its colour scheme, orientation or font style.

Timeline Tools:

  1. Dipity – This tool enables you to easily create, share, embed and collaborate on developing a static or interactive timeline that can be integrated with video, audio, images, text, links, social media, location and time stamps. (An alternative, more sophisticated  tool for creating multimedia timelines is Timeline JS)

Some Cautions

The work however starts long before you open the tool, when you….

  1. Decide the purpose of the infographic and what you want it to inspire the viewer to do.
  2. Identify an angle that speaks to people beyond your organization or client. Ideally, it should tell a story and try to answer a question (or questions) that someone, somewhere has likely asked or wants answered. (News hooks like human interest, novelty, drama, proximity or conflict might be a good place to start.)
  3. “Google” the web to source ideas and check for infographics with similar themes to ensure you create an original.
  4. Gather and validate stats, which may show: a sequence/process, relationships, before & after, comparisons, map…
  5. Clean, refine and cull the most compelling data points.
  6. Storyboard, sketch ideas and try out formats for graphs or images offline that you can bring to life online.

I know many designers cringe at the thought of  over zealous “suits” and others creating abominable results (like early websites with mismatched “ransom note” text that blinked on and off). Fortunately, many of these tools have built-in features to keep you on the right design track but to play it safe:

  • Keep text to a minimum by making your graphs and illustrations tell the story.
  • Restrict your colour scheme to a maximum of three core colours, plus black but avoid white backgrounds.
  • Keep it simple, by sticking to a core message and using a conservative number of elements that leaves the viewer with some blank spaces to rest their eyes.
  • Limit yourself to two font types, if possible and use a type’s weight (bold or light), italics or colour to emphasize a point, instead of  all capitals or underlined text.
  • Draw the viewer in by setting illustrations/icons to move from left to right (or the direction your audience reads), versus featuring a graphic of a person/animal running or looking to the left side of the screen.

What tools have you used? How did you apply them to your business needs?

Note: In researching this post, the following sources were particularly useful and worth checking for more relevant insights:

Six Reasons I Find Blogger Outreach Refreshing

A colleague recently suggested outreaching to media and bloggers has become one and the same, but I disagree. After years in the world of media relations, I’ve found blogger outreach opens new doors, creates opportunities and brings pleasant surprises. As I increasingly apply blogger outreach as a tactic, here’s what I’ve learned about the bloggers I’ve encountered:

  1. Bloggers command a personal approach and return the favor. Word is out that starting an email with Dear Blogger (instead of their name) is one of the best ways to burn a relationship at the get go. Similarly, a blogger wants a personalized pitch tailored to their interest, needs and format. In return, they don’t call you a “handler” and may even name you in their post. Being mentioned is not something I want but I met one blogger who did this as a part of her editorial style and I had to work with it. (Ideally you should pitch personalized opportunities to a traditional reporter but many tolerated generic titles and news releases for years.) 
  2. Bloggers don’t always take the liner path. You may pitch via email but bloggers respond on Twitter, LinkedIn or another social channel  but often not email. For this reason and to build a relationship before making the “ask,” I try to connect with bloggers and other influencers when I start work in their niche, by following them on Twitter, posting meaningful comments on their blogs or connecting on LinkedIn. 
  3. Bloggers are positive and passionate about their topic. Not that I haven’t met pumped traditional journalists but let’s face it, most reporters are assigned a beat or role but bloggers usually create their niche and embrace it.
  4. Bloggers are objective but many are also notably humane and striving for a greater ideal. They seek content with substance but rarely at someone’s expense. In reviewing products, some bloggers will hold the review rather than trash an item that proves disappointing.  This shouldn’t discredit covered products but rather raise a red flag on those omitted. In pitching a story on workplace tragedies, I found some print reporters wanted access to next of kin within days of losing loved ones; bloggers were content to profile older accidents with fresh insights on lessons learned that could prevent future tragedies. (I’m not suggesting all reporters are out for blood but we tell clients “nothing is off the record” for a good reason.)
  5. Bloggers like fun and rise to the occasion when given the opportunity to engage with a new curve. In pitching a book, I offered one copy to the blogger and one as a giveaway to their readers by whatever route they chose.  One launched a contest to draw a winner from readers who tweeted the book’s hashtag. When offered a sample of a pet food not yet available in her state, a pet blogger offered to spark interest by running a contest instead. Traditional reporters can be fun but their creativity is often restricted by the medium, as well as their publisher and other watchdogs.
  6. Bloggers do recurring coverage within a short time span. After reviewing a pet food, one blogger referenced the food in later posts on travels with her dog. Bloggers embraced my book pitch by running preview posts or contest follow-ups with additional excerpts and references.

On the flip side, as bloggers own their time and often blog as a sideline. They may feel less pressure to quickly turnaround a post, if at all. Although reporters do drop stories,  you generally sense an article will run once a reporter has clocked significant time and seems content with the way it’s evolving.

I still have a high regard and good rapport with traditional journalists but find these subtleties inviting.

I’m still learning about social media and how to best work with bloggers and other influencers but this is what I’ve found so far.  Are my experiences unique or “one offs”? Did I miss any other key differences? Please tell me.

Efficiency Links for a Desert Island with Wi-Fi

Truth be told, working as an independent consultant is sometimes like being on a desert island. Fortunately, there are plenty of online tools to make business and personal life more efficient.

Here are my top picks (in Letterman order) and most are free (unless cited):

10. You Send It – When everyone has access to an FTP site except your client (or employer) and you need to send a massive video, conference call recording (done that), presentation or the like — it’s indispensable and free for files up to 100 MB or 1 GB per month.

9. Mapquest – I’m chronically direction-challenged and even some well meaning GPSs can throw me off. So getting step-by-step directions in advance can make my day.  Even with a high navigation IQ, you may still find value.

8. Jacquie Lawson ($12 CDN or US per year) – Personal niceties are good and near the top of the list is remembering a birthday. Sending an eCard is wonderful but your intentions may backfire if you hit them with a ton of ads. This site offers an array of watercolour animations set to classical and original music. Great if you’re a pet lover or even if you’re not.

7. SurveyMonkey – Dependable online survey development tool for external questionnaires to internal peer evaluations. There is a free version but to stop the ‘hard sell’ to your users, the $20 (US) monthly fee is worth it. [As an aside, I’ve just discovered Fanappz for somewhat hassle-free Facebook quizzes.]

6. morgue File – Sounds morbid but this is my site for a good range of free, downloadable stock photos you can legally copy, distribute, transmit or adapt. (You just can’t use them as standalones to profit by.) Ideal for small iconic photos for blogs and Facebook pages (e.g. events) and I’ve yet to see a corpse pop up. And you can make a donation to help sustain this site for the long-term.

5. Twellow – Good tool for identifying Tweeter users (tweeps) that cite a specific topic in their profile and you can use it to narrow to a specific geographic region [e.g. Search: Toronto, Within: Dogs (selected from available topics)]. Wefollow and Listorious are also helpful. None is perfect but you need to start somewhere.

4. Klout – Once you’ve found them, Klout measures the size and strength of a person’s sphere of influence on Twitter in terms of: True Reach (real people followers & friends not robots)Amplification (likelihood their messages will be re-tweeted or spark dialogue); and Network (if their engaged followers are influential). Would I bet money on its accuracy? Definitely not, as it has me pegged as a Montreal Canadiens fan, for one thing. (As a Toronto native, I’ll always hold a candle for the Leafs.) But it does offer some insights.

3. Bit.ly – Even before Twitter, URLs were like octopuses always getting tangled and truncated at the worst times but with the 140 cutoff, something had to give. Drop your URL in the gigantic blue field, release mouse and a short URL appears. What’s more, it can track clicks to this URL and even create a Quick Response (QR) code. (Click Info Page+)

2. Alexa The Web Information Company – Comprehensive tool for navigating the web to find relevant blogs and discover their DNA (inbound links, origin, Alexa ranking, traffic ranking within various countries, etc.). You can even set it as a widget on your toolbar to assess sites on the fly.

1. Snag-it ($49.95 US one-time purchase) – More an application than an online tool — but I keep it open 24/7, so it might as well be. It captures small sections of a screen that you can then “copy” and “paste” or save in almost any file type. (Guess how I made the collage on this post?) Invaluable for copying sections of a reference document or website that refuses to print the regular way.

That’s my list. What’s yours? And what have I missed?

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Making Lemonade with Life’s Lemons

A year ago, my position was eliminated after a corporate sale. Déjà vu to many.

Sometimes you can’t jump back to full-time immediately for fiscal or other reasons. Given the options of resting, hitting the pavement for an elusive senior role in a recession or a hybrid of working and growth, I chose the latter. Here’s what I aimed for and did. Hopefully one or two options suit you.

  1. Pursue a short-term contract (even if it’s slightly below your ideal title or compensation) – While the fallout from an involuntary exit varies, I don’t think anyone escapes a jab to their self-esteem. Bouncing back’s important but you may need to regain balance first. I contracted to a former manager who wanted my skills for a short-term crunch.
  2. Catch up on giving LinkedIn accolades & pursuing some yourself – It’s an ideal time to recognize people who’ve made a huge impression or been a major asset. As networking starts with giving, I didn’t position it as quid pro but separately pursued references from established contacts, with one from my last employer as a top priority.
  3. Boost your social media knowledge & online library – Set-up a feed reader, subscribe and devour social media blogs. Adopt a bookmarking tool to catalogue relevant articles. I set-up iGoogle but readers have grown since. I fell for Delicious to bookmark but latterly switched to trunk.ly.
  4. Strengthen  personal use of social media & grow your online brand – Update your online profiles, claim new ones (check your name’s availability) and take ownership of those morphed with your name (begin with zoominfo.com). Participate in conversations. Post thoughtful comments & answer forum questions. (Even one favoured answer to a LinkedIn query earns you a profile highlight.) For me, it’s a work in progress.
  5. Develop content creation or curating skills in low-risk settings – Learn WordPress.com and develop blogging acumen if possible. If not, focus on curating. (I fail at blogging but took rudimentary steps with a sustainable living wiki using Wikia and managing facebook pages, starting with one for my church.) Curating is on the rise with even more opportunities to explore, such as Paper.Li, the time’s ripe to embrace it.
  6. Volunteer during core hours (as well as night-time) to enhance skills & learn new disciplines – Daytime hours open new insights and sometimes you can negotiate a work-in-kind donation. One day a week, I re-vamped a national, not-for-profit’s website. And don’t forget IABC’s wealth of volunteer roles.
  7. Polish your presentation skills with diverse audiences – Present to professional and IABC forums but also stretch your audience agility by addressing PR college classes or career day at your child’s school.
  8. Teach a post-secondary class part-time – Teaching doesn’t have to be full-time but taking on one class forces you to identify the steps behind core PR skills, keeps you current and gives you firsthand knowledge of gen next thinking.
  9. Take in-class or online courses – They don’t have to be expensive. IABC offers select free webinars  and other organizations offer IABC member breaks.
  10. Reconnect with family & friends for intangible value but sometimes this too uncovers opportunities.

Other ideas?  Please share.