Being a “webmaster”

When I started my career as a webmaster 10+ years ago, the role was all about putting things on websites then telling people how many “hits” they got.

While these functions are still part of the story, they are not what being a webmaster is all about. Now days at it’s core it is less about having the technical skills to deploy content in html/css format (as modern content management systems largely take care of this) and far more about establishing business objectives and working to constantly improve content and design to deliver on them for your users.

So with this in mind here is what I believe being a webmaster it 2014 is all about.

Understanding why you have a website

Websites are not a place to dump content to keep a CEO/Head of department/Manager/Colleague/Yourself happy. They are a place for your customers, in whatever form they take, to do something. That customer and that something are key, if you lack a clear understanding of either of these, you’re all but certain to fail.

Business objectives

Start by figuring out what your business objectives are. The odds are good if you’re working in an organisation of any size you’ll have some sort of strategy document that should outline the direction of the organisation. Let this be your guide, compare the document to your website and ask yourself, does our website reflect what we are trying to achieve as a business. If you work for a smaller organisation it’s probably more likely than not you do not have a documented strategy. Talk to the owner/manager. Find out what’s important. Create the strategy. It doesn’t have to be 500,000 words, it’s unlikely you’re in the business of putting men on the moon. A simple one pager is often all that’s required.

User profiling

Once you know what you’re trying to achieve as a business next we need to understand the people using your website. My preferred method of doing this is to develop persona profiles. These allow you to create a generalised view of a group of users that interact with your site. It will include things like age range, basic demographic info as well as softer information such as likes and dislikes, technical proficiency, basically whatever you see as important information that will enable you to help this type of person do whatever it is you’re wanting them to do.

Unlike the strategy document it’s very likely that regardless of your organisations size you will not have persona profiles done for your audiences. It’s also likely you wont have all the information you’d like to build the profiles. Don’t let this deter you. Just start building your profiles with what details you do have. If you need to, simply make assumptions about the gaps, then over time test your assumptions and refine your profiles. It’s better to start with something and get moving than wait to get the profiles exactly right. In truth you’ll never get the perfect profile. These will always be at best a guide to help you and your team have a shared understanding of the audience.

Understanding what “content is king” actually means

Content is king is a term online that is often used when talking about whats important on a website, in my experience is totally misunderstood term by most. It does not mean more content, less content, multi media content, mobile content, or interactive content. What it does mean is content is the most important thing, so make sure it is prominent in your web design and delivers what your users actually need.

Quality content should always serve your users and business objectives. It’s where you should invest the bulk of your time and efforts. It does not matter how fancy your site is, how good your standards compliance is, how accessible your content is. The thing that matters most to your users is that your content is useful to them. Focus on this and everything else should follow.

Understanding what to measure and how

As I said earlier, when I started out the main measurement for success came in the form of “hits”. Hits are a very loose term, particularly in the minds of senior managers. Normally what hits translate to for most people is the number of people that view a page. While this is not an entirely useless metric to pay attention to (if we are measuring it correctly), it isn’t really enough to take meaningful action on. That really is the key point here, why do we measure? It’s not so we can pat ourselves on the back when a number goes from 1000 to 2000. We measure so we can improve performance and better achieve those business objectives we talked about earlier.

If you’ve ever worked on a website the chances are you’ve at least heard of google analytics. It is extremely important you master this tool (or something similar) and learn what to look for in your particular site. The secret to this is looking for insights that improve outcomes for your users. For example, if you’re looking to increase the number of sales on your site, look for behaviours in people who purchase. You may find a good chunk of them are showing a constant behaviour. If 75% of your purchasers first viewed your shipping rates page, then this may be an indicator that this content was a factor in them deciding to purchase. You now have something to act on, perhaps something as simple as making the shipping content more prominent.

Conversely you should also keep an eye on negative outcomes. A common example of this are browser compatibility issues. Take a look at your sales “success” page by users browser. Are there any notable browsers at 0% of purchases? This might be an indicator of browser compatibility issue with your sites sales process. Obviously that’s another thing to act on. Every second an issue like that persists is another lost sale.

Ultimately your metrics need to feeding actions to improve your site. If you’re just reporting on simple stats like bounce rate or page views you’re really missing out on the true value of collecting stats in the first place.

Thinking beyond your website

Websites are only part of the puzzle. No I’m not talking about other digital platforms here, because although things like mobile apps are important, they really are just another medium to deliver your content to your users. What I’m really talking about is working with other teams/people outside of the web department to achieve your business objectives. A good example of this is the marketing department.

Tracking marketing information such as campaign performance against website outcomes like sales, is a critical business driver in most organisations. The web team cannot track this information effectively alone and marketing will benefit greatly from properly tracked campaigns. Insights such as what marketing mediums are most useful for specific outcomes can save organisations significant dollars and really effect the bottom line. With the correct google analytics setup you can even compare the effectiveness of different physical campaigns, such as bill boards, right down to variations in the words or colours used in the ad. Building a relationship with other teams in your organisation will lead to greater insights into both business objectives and user needs making for an over all more effective website.

Your website isn’t a silo, it’s part of the wider organisation, so embrace this and you’ll see the benefits and increase the value of the website to the business.

5 things I’ve learnt from running

There’s a difference between knowing the path and walking the path

Yes this is a quote from The Matrix and yes it’s a cliché, but neither of these things make it any less true. I’ve always known if I really wanted to run 10km or even a marathon (that’s on my list for 2014) I could. Here’s the thing, knowing I could do these things didn’t change me, it didn’t challenge me, it didn’t add any real value to my life. In fact all it really did was inadvertently stop me from doing things that make interesting people… well… interesting. Doing is where the value is, so go out and do.

It’s all in your head

Running is physically challenging, you can’t just get up in the morning and run a marathon (and survive anyway), you have to train your body to meet the physical demands of a run. The aha moment for me was about my 3rd-4th run. About then I started thinking about not running. I started hearing my mind saying, “screw this”, “why bother”, “might as well stop”. Overcoming my own self talk was 90% of the battle and it continues to be. The great thing about this is building mental toughness, persistence and grit has far greater effect on every day life than simply being fit. Staying mindful of your thoughts is the first step to overcoming them.

Goals matter

Without the right outcomes there’s no purpose to an activity. This sort of calls back to the mental component of running. If I don’t give myself a why, it’s much harder to fight the voices of decent in my mind. Goals give me sort of physiological ammunition, so when I start to think of stopping, instead I can just smile and say to myself, “not today brain, today is for X”.

Balance is important

When I first started running I would go out every day and just try and smash it. I’d push myself hard and as a result tire myself out. It wasn’t long before physical tiredness gets the better of mental will, and I stop running with the excuse, “I’m just not a runner”.

As it turns out to find success I didn’t need to kill myself. In fact what I really needed was the opposite. I needed to introduce some “nothing” into my day. It really helped me to learn to take time for nothing, clearing my head, refreshing my body, giving myself a chance to succeed.

Every day is it’s own challenge

After a few runs were behind me and I got comfortable in a quick 5km, running begins to feel mundane. Becoming I little less impressed with each run I needed to challenge myself again. For me this was another aha moment. Greatness is all about raising the bar. It’s treating myself like a project, being mindful and working to become a better version of me. Yesterday’s challenge was for yesterday’s version of me. My greatness comes from how a behave here and now, not yesterday. This is where greatness lives.

My maker space

I have a lovely wife and two equally lovely children. I have a full time job, and a great team I work with every week day. I run and challenge myself to be better every day. I lead a busy and full life. In the last few months I’ve realised something very important has been missing for some time now, headspace.

I’m not an introvert, so I don’t crave time to myself to recharge, but I am a creative type. I have a million ideas in my head swirling around my like a 1000 marauding bumble bees. Without a window to let the bees out… Well you can see where this ham fisted metaphor is going.

So in an effort to provide my creative side with some thinking space I’ve been steadily converting a small 3x2m tool shed into a “maker space”. To be clear, this space isn’t your traditional “man cave” (I loathe the term). It’s not for drinking and playing poker with my “buddies”. It’s a space in the house designed specifically for creation, creativity, exploration and well, making things.

The room is still far from finished (a recent addition to our family has slowed things down a little in that regard) but so far I have lined the room, put in some network cables, power, lights etc. Next comes completing the stopping, prepping the floors for carpet tiles, painting and then installing a bench and some shelving.

Once completed (in the next few weeks) I’ve got a few things I’d like to kick off in the space:

  1. Cider brewing – I haven’t been able to drink beer since being diagnosed celiac circa 2010 but cider has been a great gluten free alternative. Inspired by a friend of mine who makes her own cider, and a cider brewing kit I received as a gift earlier in the year, I’m planning on brewing a few different craft ciders, experiment a little and see what I can create.

  2. Arduino – I work in a relatively technical field as the Web Content Manager at Massey University. I know my way around a development environment but I’ve never really spent any solid time doing it. I also have a keen interest in mashing up physical world interactions with virtual digital ones. With these interests and skills in mind playing around with an Arduino micro control seems like a natural fit for me. My first project is to create an RFID reader that identifies me via my staff ID card and registers an action to google analytics. Perhaps logging my cider brewing activities somehow. Still working on the exact details here.

  3. Guitar – My wife gave me a guitar for my 27th birthday. She then went away on a trip and I spent the free time playing it and teaching myself a song to play her upon her return. She loved it, I loved it. However something no one loves listening to someone else practice a guitar. So it’s been largely unused for the past 6 years. Hopefully with a quiet spot to practice in this will change.

  4. Writing – As I’m sure you can tell from reading this I’m no writer. The skill however is something I admire in anyone who has it. So rather than just be the guy whose always wanting to become good at something and never does I intend to write more, mostly in the form of blog posts like this one. Practice makes perfect after all.

  5. Drawing – A skill I think everyone should have. It’s sorely missing piece of our education system, to my mind being able to communicate your ideas visual is as important as reading and writing. I’m a huge fan of FiftyThree’s software, hardware and perhaps most importantly philosophy towards creativity. Over Christmas I managed to acquire one of their fancy new pencils, which I love. Ideally I’ll make use of this and the paper app over the next year to really improve my creative drawing skills.

  6. Anything else – Any and none of the above may stick, but I don’t really think that matters, what matters is I’m creating and enjoying doing it. The above is not a hard and fast list, just possibilities, and what could be more fun than that?!