What went down at TestBash Brighton 2017

Testing Animated GIF

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Accessibility testing crash course

A demonstration of Lea Verou's Color Contrast accessibility testing tool

This post is a companion to my ‘Accessibility testing crash course’ talk that I gave at Leeds Testing Atelier 2016. I gave a revised version of this talk at Inviqa DevDay in December 2016.

Accessibility is arguably the ‘last mile‘ of web development. No matter how good your site’s design, tech stack, code and testing is, its accessibility is probably passable at best unless you’ve invested time and resources in getting it right. It’s also fair to say that a high-quality site is probably more accessible than a poor quality site, but this doesn’t mean that people with disabilities will be actually able to use it. But what can you, as a tester, do about this? This post introduces some key accessibility testing tools and approaches, and also provides some business context to help you advocate for accessibility in your organisation.

What is an accessible website?

In simple terms, your website is accessible if people with a range of disabilities are able to use it. An accessible site should also play nicely with common accessibility tools such as screen readers and alternative input devices. That’s it, really. In terms of compliance, you should aim to comply with WCAG 2.0 Level AA or better, but a WCAG-compliant site is not necessarily an accessible site. Likewise, an accessible site may not be WCAG-compliant, even if it is easy for people with disabilities to use!

Why should my organisation bother with accessibility testing?

Other than the fact that it’s the Right Thing To Do, there are several key reasons for an organisation to make its site(s) accessible:

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Testing: 3 lessons learned

Testing Animated GIF

In Summer 2013 I made the difficult decision to move away from my beloved Cardiff to live in Yorkshire with my (now-) wife. During my 6 month job hunting period I blogged about my frustrations with Jobcentre Plus and shared my advice for dealing with recruiters. Dozens of applications and 3 job interviews later, I found a new career as a Web Tester for Numiko, a digital agency in Leeds. Like many others, testing wasn’t a career path I planned, but it had always interested me so I jumped at the chance to try it. As well as a switch from marketing to testing, this was also a change in company type (tiny SME to medium-sized agency), industry sector (desktop software to web development) and location (Cardiff to Leeds)! In October 2015 I joined Byng as their first test engineer.  This is my first blog post since switching careers – it’s been a busy 3 years, but I’ve learned a lot. Here are my top three lessons from this time:

1. Testing is an invisible output of software development.

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Dealing with recruiters – jobseeking advice

Dealing with recruiters

This is my second post for #NaBloPoMo (National Blog Posting Month), in which I’m blogging about my experiences of searching for a new job. Check back soon for more posts.

Recruiters – your worst nightmare?

Dealing with recruiters

Working with a recruiter can help you to find the right job, but it can be difficult to get noticed when competion is fierce. Image courtesy of 1shot / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

What comes to mind when you hear the word ‘recruiter’? I suppose it depends on your past experience of recruitment agencies/consultants, and under what circumstances you are approaching them. But it’s fair to say that recruiters have a somewhat shaky reputation among the general public. Whether that reputation is truly deserved is a topic for another blog post. Nonetheless, by learning a bit about what makes recruiters tick you can maximise your chances of successful job hunting.

The nature of the beast

Arguably the most important part of working with a recruiter is understanding who they’re ultimately working for and what motivates them.

The employer is the client, you’re the service user.

No genuine recruiter would ever charge a candidate a fee to use their services – it is the employer who is paying for their time. This has an obvious benefit to you – it’s free – but it also means that your needs (the right job) are secondary to the employer’s (the right candidate for the job). That doesn’t mean the recruiter isn’t working in your best interests, but it never hurts to remember who is paying their bill.

Recruiters are salespeople!

Recruitment consultants, generally speaking, earn a significant portion of their earnings from commission, paid by the employer. Sometimes the consultant (and/or their agency) is paid an upfront fee to conduct a search in addition to a significant final payment (retained recruitment), but more often than not the recruiter is simply paid a finder’s fee when a candidate is successfully placed (contingency recruitment). Recruitment agencies are highly target-driven, with fierce external (and often internal) competition. For widely advertised roles with a lot of candidates there may be a race to get there first, which might affect your chances if you’re not equally quick off the mark.

Recruiters are very busy!

It almost goes without saying that target-driven salespeople – who are working on a commission basis – often have packed schedules. A recruiter’s daily workload may include:

  • writing job adverts
  • posting adverts on multiple job boards
  • searching job boards for suitable candidates
  • interviewing potential candidates by phone
  • searching for advertised vacancies to recruit for
  • making ‘prospect calls’ to potential clients
  • catching up with pre-existing candidates

For a more first hand account of a recruiter’s daily routine, read this day in the life post by Mohammed Ahmed for Yolk Recruitment.

In short: don’t be surprised if you don’t always get a call back!

Taming the recruitment beast

With the above characteristics in mind, what can you do to maximise your chances of success? Here’s a few ideas:

Don’t be afraid to sell yourself

I noted above that recruiters are salespeople. This means, of course, that you, the candidate, are the product that they are ultimately selling. It pays, therefore, to make their life easier by doing some of the hard work for them. Here’s some sage words of advice from Aimee Bateman, founder of careers advice platform Careercake (emphasis mine):

You need to influence your recruiter and convince them of the benefits you bring and the value you can add to their clients. They need to really believe in you to really ‘sell’ you.

You can do this by giving them a breakdown of your achievements. You can write them a list of companies that you would love to work for and give them the reasons why and you can hand over as many fantastic references as you can get. Your recruiter can and will use all of this information to help differentiate you from the other candidates and secure you that last interview slot.

Taken from Aimee’s guest post ‘Top 3 Tips for Working with Recruiters‘ on the Undercover Recruiter Blog

The above advice may sound unorthodox but it really works. Following Aimee’s recommendation I include upfront references on cover letters, job applications and my CV. The results are noticeably better when I do. Of course, a similar approach also works when applying directly to employers.

Equally important when selling yourself to a recruiter is to be brief and to the point. When writing a cover letter for a specific role, focus on how you meet the requirements and what additional benefits you would bring to their client. Give concise examples of relevant work experience, but avoid repeating information that is contained in your CV. Not all recruiters place much importance on cover letters, but if you want to increase the chances of it being read then short and snappy is often the better approach.

Pick up the phone!

Many people (myself included!) prefer a well-crafted email or cover letter to a phone call but the truth is that speaking to an actual person guarantees that you’ll get a response. You may not be as eloquent over the phone as you are in writing, but it’s often much harder to demonstrate your enthusiasm using the written word alone. Calling someone up can also save you a lot of time; if a recruiter’s not interested then you’ll know immediately.

Keep at it

Finding a job via a recruitment agency is rarely quick or easy. You might get lucky on your first few attempts but the best way to get the job you want is to be persistent, focusing on your unique skill set and abilities. Here’s some words of wisdom from Joe Morgan, a digital marketing recruiter for the creative industries:

It can be very frustrating being a job seeker but my advice is STICK WITH IT. I work within the digital sector and without a doubt the job market fluctuates month upon month, the trick is keeping that finger on the pulse. Far too often I see candidates who apply for roles they are not suited for in desperation for work. As a candidate you will have a defined skill set and (hopefully) an idea of which industry sector in which you wish to continue your career. So stick with your skill set and stick with your industry aspirations, don’t apply to roles that deep down you know you are not suited for. Every day is a new chance!

Conclusion

I hope that you’ve got something from this post, and please pass it on to anyone who may find it useful. Thanks also to Joe Morgan for contributing his advice.

Jobseeking experiences: Jobcentre Plus

Jobcentre Plus logo

As part of NaBloPoMo (National Blog Posting Month) I’ve decided to blog about my experiences of finding a new job. Despite the late start I hope to make this as daily as possible, so check back soon for more posts.

As some of you may know, I recently finished my job as Communications Manager for LexAble and moved away from Cardiff. I’ve now relocated to Nottinghamshire and currently living with my fiancée Anna and her parents. The two of us hope to move to Sheffield, Wakefield or Leeds in the near future, depending on where the right job is found. Despite being among the 21% of young people who are currently looking for work, I count myself very fortunate that I left my job out of choice, and that I have 18 months of commercial experience under my belt. As part of this I’ve decided to blog about my personal experiences and jobseeking in general. I’ve blogged about this topic previously, albeit only in retrospect. This post will be the first of many in the month of November.

My situation

I’ve been searching for a new Marketing role for about 3 months (1 month full-time). So far I have applied to about 50 different jobs, had a dozen phone interviews and have been to a few in-person job interviews as well. All par for the course in the current climate, but I wanted to get some additional advice and support. My local Jobcentre Plus seemed like a good place to start.

Jobcentre Plus – my experience

Jobcentre Plus logo

At the Jobcentre I spoke to the welcomer at the front desk. Here’s roughly how the conversation went:

Me: I’ve recently moved to this area and have been looking for work for about a month, but I was hoping to get some additional advice and support.
Welcomer:
Have you registered for the Universal Jobmatch website?
Me: No.

[The welcomer explains what Universal Jobmatch is and how it works, then gives me a leaflet]

Welcomer: Are you claiming Jobseekers’ Allowance?
Me: No, not at the moment.
W: Would you like to claim it?
M: Possibly, but not necessarily*.
W: Are you a graduate?
M:
 [I explain my situation and tell her that I have worked in Marketing for the past 18 months.]
W: So how did you get your last job?
M:
 Through work experience.
W: I expect that most of the jobs you’re looking for are available online, either on job boards and our website.
M:
 [I agree.] Are there any other services you offer?
W: It depends what you mean by services.
M:
 Face-to-face advice, for instance.
W: Well, we don’t apply for jobs for you, but we can point you in the right direction. We can also help you to make a CV; do you have one?
M:
 Yes. [I gesture to the folder in my hand.]
W: Is it up to date?
M:
 Yes.
W: If you registered for JSA then you would attend regular interviews. We could help you with your CV and point you in the direction of some jobs to apply to.
M: Are there any services that Jobcentre Plus can offer to people who aren’t claiming JSA?

[The welcomer talks about the Universal Jobmatch website and something called Futures, but doesn’t go into any more detail.]

And that’s pretty much where the conversation ended. Unfortunately I don’t think I got much out of this meeting. I also went back a few minutes later to ask about temp agencies but they weren’t able to help.

Thoughts

  • Even though Jobcentre Plus’ advice wasn’t much help to me, all the staff were friendly and helpful. It was a pleasant environment and they had an open-access computer which people could use to search for jobs.
  • It’s clear that Jobcentre Plus (or at least the branch I visited) is primarily set up to offer advice and support to JSA claimants.
  • It’s unfortunate that there isn’t currently any alternative careers advice available in my town, nor any recruitment agencies. Obviously this isn’t Jobcentre Plus’s fault; I’m sure they would have pointed me towards these places if they existed.
  • As a graduate with pre-existing work experience, an up-to-date CV and access to the internet, I didn’t feel that there was much the Jobcentre could do to help me.
  • Although not stated explicitly, it was implied that I would need to be a JSA claimant to access face-to-face advice. This seems counterintuitive; why should not receiving government benefits exclude me from some of their services? Furthermore, surely it’s better value for the taxpayer if Jobcentre Plus just gave me advice, rather than ask me to claim JSA and give me advice?
  • Universal Jobmatch is a perfectly good job site. But despite being run by the government it is still just one of many and by no means a silver bullet.

JobCentre Plus – how could my experience be improved?

My experience at my local JobCentre Plus branch wasn’t what I’d hoped for, so here’s a few suggestions for improvement:

  • I expect that many Jobcentres are equipped to offer information about other services and advice that may be available (even if it involves travel). That being the case, it should be ensured that this happens no matter where the Jobcentre is located, how big it is etc.
  • My experience with the welcomer was frustrating mainly because I had to ask several times about the services they were able to offer. It would have been better if they had given me an initial overview of what was available. This would allow me to ask about the specific services I was most interested in.
  • Jobseekers’ Allowance is obviously an important part of what DWP offers, but it’s not for everyone. It would be better, therefore, to offer face-to-face advice independent of the JSA scheme, tailored to individual need and circumstance.

Further Discussion

This post is of course just my experience, but I’m sure there’s others in a similar situation to me. If you’re currently looking for work I’d love to hear from you in the comments below, or on Twitter. Was your experience of Jobcentre Plus similar to mine, or completely different?

Social Media and The Arts: Focus on content, make the most of USPs, get your stakeholders involved!

Social is not your personal megaphone - use it wisely, and avoid quick fixes.

This article is intended for smaller arts organisations, but I hope that it will be somewhat useful to arts marketers of all shapes and sizes. A huge thank you to Opera’r Ddraig for agreeing to be featured as an example in this article. You can find more about them (and their upcoming production) on their website.

Can social media be used to sell tickets?

Social is not your personal megaphone - use it wisely, and avoid quick fixes.

Social is not your personal megaphone – use it wisely, and avoid quick fixes.
Photo by tranchis (via Flickr)

The short answer to this question is: no, not directly. Social media is, for the most part, a passive medium; its users consume far more than they contribute, and they will only respond to others’ posts when they feel that have a genuine reason to do so. With this in mind, how can a tweet or Facebook post convince anyone to part with cold hard cash? One tactic (the ‘hard sell’ approach), is to offer large discounts to people who purchase via social media, greatly reducing the purchase barrier. This tactic is often expensive and does a disservice to the audience members that are paying full price. There is, however, another way. Here’s the long answer:

If you want to sell more tickets to your production, social media can help you do this. Achieving results requires considerable planning and time investment (and time = money, as they say), but I promise it will be worth it. Your use of social media should also be as part of a wider marketing strategy, so think carefully about how it fits in with what you’re doing already. Every arts organisation is different, but here are three tips that should help you to make the most of social media:

1. Content is everything.

The most effective way to engage your audience using social media is to give them what they want: photos, videos, previews, interviews, and anything else that will give them an insight into your production(s) and/or your organisation. An endless stream of tweets is pointless if you’ve nothing to talk about, but genuine content will engage, inform and entertain. Even more importantly, posts that include or link to interesting content are much more likely to be shared or reposted by your followers

So, with this in mind, make sure you take the time to create meaningful content that you can share with your audience. If you do a flashmob, film it and upload it to YouTube. Take lots of rehearsal photos, plus some quick vox pops with cast and crew – show the world what they’ll be missing! Social media is also a great place to share content from traditional media such as radio interviews, press coverage and past reviews.

2. Exploit your assets and unique selling points.

Social media is a noisy environment. Everyone wants you to read their blog posts or buy their stuff, so you should stand out among the crowd by demonstrating what makes you different to others. For example, here’s the key assets of Opera’r Ddraig, a Cardiff-based opera company:

  • Youth – There isn’t an established opera company anywhere else in the UK that is run entirely by young people for the benefit of young people. This is appealing to all sorts of groups, from the young opera sceptics through to seasoned opera lovers looking for something fresh.
  • Accessibility – Opera’r Ddraig has always gone out of its way to make established repertoire easy to understand and bang up to date. Their productions are also accessible in the sense that everything is on display: there are no fancy special effects and their instrumentalists and conductor aren’t hidden away in an orchestra pit.
  • Credible – with excellent performance quality and proper staging, an Opera’r Ddraig production is just as good as a multimillion-pound staging but in a more intimate setting and at a fraction of the ticket cost!

If you want your social media activity to have more bite, then work out what your unique selling points (USPs) are, then put these on full display. This strategy can be applied to all your marketing activity, by the way.

3. Get your stakeholders involved

If you’re not familiar with this term, a stakeholder is an individual or group that affects, or is affected by, you and your activities. An arts organization’s stakeholders will include:

  • cast and crew
  • friends and supporters
  • existing audience members
  • your local community
  • other arts organisations
  • business partners

These people are already emotionally (or financially) invested in your production, so it should be much easier to get them on your side. Let them know how they can help you to reach a wider audience. If your production has a hashtag (which it definitely should!), make sure everyone knows what it is and tell them to use it when they tweet about the production. Encourage cast and crew to share rehearsal photos and tidbits of information – these will be much more interesting when they come from real people, and will provide you with even more content to share with your audience. Another good tactic is to encourage audience members to post reviews on social media – yet more genuine content and a powerful persuasive tool.

Summary

I hope that you’ve found this post useful, and that it will help you to promote your next production, big or small. Here’s a final summary:

  1. Focus on content, not the method of delivery.
  2. Make the most of your USPs.
  3. Ask your friends and supporters to help get the word out.

Final Thoughts

For arts organisations, social media is so much more than a marketing tool, or a means to sell tickets. The ultimate purpose of the arts is to enrich the lives of others. This goal is far more important than bums on seats or making a profit, and social media is a great way to achieve this. Not all of your followers will be persuaded to come to your production, but if you can inform, educate or entertain them along the way then your time, and theirs, will have been well spent. Keep this in mind when talking about yourself and your production, and you won’t go far wrong. Good luck!

The Picture of Dorian Gray: The Musical! An interview with Callum Nicholls, Cardiff School of Music composer

The Picture of Dorian Gray: The Musical

This week I’m moving away from my blog’s bread and butter to speak to Callum Nicholls, a talented composer and fellow Cardiff University School of Music graduate. He’s also the composer of The Picture of Dorian Gray: The Musical, a student-led production based on the legendary Oscar Wilde book of the same name. The musical will be premiered in the School of Music on 22nd/23rd February, and you can buy tickets here or on the door (if there’s any left!). But before you buy, here’s my interview with the man himself!

Callum Nicholls, Cardiff School of Music composer and creator of The Picture of Dorian Gray: The Musical

Callum Nicholls, Cardiff School of Music composer and creator of The Picture of Dorian Gray: The Musical.

James: Hi Callum, thanks for humouring the ex-muso! First of all, could you sum up the plot of The Picture of Dorian Gray in one sentence?

Callum: A young man, weakened by vanity, creates a painting that ages instead of him, and his life spirals downwards!

J: What inspired you to compose and produce your own musical? Does the School of Music have a track record for performing student compositions?

C: I have always loved musical theatre, particularly Phantom of the Opera and the darker musicals, and became fascinated with Oscar Wilde’s The Picture Of Dorian Gray. A few musical ideas started in my head and after a solid composition period the work came to life.

The School of Music has a good track record of performing student compositions, however this one of two large works (the other being Rambo: The Opera!) that has been done completely under our own steam!

J: What will the musical be like? Can your audience expect all the usual bells and whistles, and will there be anything extra or unusual?

C: Dark is the best way to describe the musical. Nonetheless, it’s chock-a-block with memorable melodies that I hope the audience will be singing in the shower for weeks! All I will say is: don’t expect a happy ending and your stereotypical musical melody lines, there are a few surprises in store!

J: Anyone who has ever put on a production will know that filling seats isn’t easy. How will you be overcoming the challenges of a small marketing budget and no mailing list?

C: Spam is a word that is thrown around lightly… I am contacting everyone I know and their grandmother! Luckily with Facebook and Twitter it’s possible to reach a wide audience. Plus, in the next few weeks an article will be appearing in The Gair Rhydd and Cardiff University will be publishing an article on their website and Facebook page!

J: Finally, what have you enjoyed most about this project so far?

C: It is a labour of love. If I said it was stress free I would be lying, but my cast and orchestra are fantastic. I’m also hugely grateful to Drew Mabey (School of Music Technican) who is helping me deal with the technical side and my costume team from the University of Glamorgan. All profits from the musical will go to charity and I want nothing more than to share this music and the hard work of all of those involved.

The Picture of Dorian Gray

Ticket Info

The Picture of Dorian Gray: The Musical

The Picture of Dorian Gray: The Musical – click for more info.

When: Friday 22nd & Saturday 23rd February, 7.00 PM
Where: Cardiff University School of Music
Why: It’s the world’s first musical theatre production* of a modern classic, right on your doorstep.
Tickets: £5 (£3.50 student/concessions) from TicketSource.

*There’s also a 1996 opera, but this is the first musical as far as I’m aware!

Tips for graduate jobseekers, from a recent graduate

Unemployed graduates

The following post is partly a personal reflection based on my own experiences; a combination of things that worked for me and things I wished I’d known when I was looking for work. I’d welcome your thoughts and contributions, in the comments below or via TwitterI’m also grateful to the wonderful Aimee Bateman of CareerCake for contributing to this blog post!

Finding a graduate job

Getting a graduate job in today’s world is no easy feat. The so-called milk round of our parents’ generation is long gone and will probably never return, and as of July this year the average applicant per graduate job is a whopping 52, 11% more than 2011. We’re constantly told that we have to go the extra mile to stand out from the crowd, but this is often easier said than done when everyone else is given the same advice! So here’s my take on the subject:

Embrace social media

If there’s one key skill that employers of all shapes and sizes are seeking today, it’s social media savvy. Recent research has found that companies who embrace social media across their organisation (not just in the marketing department) are reaping the benefits. Use this knowledge to your advantage by demonstrating to potential employers that your use of this medium would be an asset to their organisation. If you’re going to do this though, you have to do it properly; populating a LinkedIn page or Twitter bio is one thing, but for it to have an effect you have to use these channels to engage with others and demonstrate your knowledge of the industry (or industries) you are working in. Great places to start include LinkedIn groups and Twitter Chats; both of these will enable you to target relevant industry sectors, engaging with thought leaders and practitioners. Your social media presence should also act as an interactive CV and Cover Letter combined, a personal brand if you will; for more on this topic see my blog post Cultivate your Personal Brand using Social Media. See also this Guardian article for even more practical advice. Of course, this strategy requires a considerable investment of time; don’t expect results overnight.

Find a ‘career sponsor’

The word ‘sponsor’ has obvious financial connotations, but in this case I’m talking about something completely different. The concept of a career sponsor was first introduced to me live on the air when I appeared as a job-seeking graduate on BBC Radio Walesmorning show. A fellow guest, an HR manager at BT, described a career sponsor as:

A person you know who is successful, who you can go to for advice and support whenever you need it, and who will sing your praises to others.

This is perhaps the most useful piece of career advice I’ve ever been given. A career sponsor, in other words, should be your rock, someone who knows you well and who understands your unique strengths and limitations. Chances are, you know someone like this already; if so, use them! Of course, it’s just as likely that there are several people who could each fulfil one part of this role. On a personal note, my Dad has always been a great source of inspiration to me, helping me to see the bigger picture and to understand my own abilities and strengths. A Cardiff University School of Music lecturer has been another source of wisdom for me and many other students, so much so that I nominated him for an award! And finally the wonderful Aimee Bateman (as featured in this post – see below) has helped me to re-evaluate my approach to job-seeking and my career and I’m very proud to count her as a friend. Basically, the key message of this bullet point is:don’t go it alone; seek out and make use of a person or persons who will keep you motivated and help to show you the bigger picture.

Success is found in unexpected places

This is perhaps the most abstract piece of advice in this post, but bear with me; when it comes to finding a job, imagination is just as important as determination. It’s very easy to get stuck in a rut, or to think that there really aren’t any jobs that you’re suitable for, but more often than not you just need to change tack. Apply for work experience (if you live in Wales, GO Wales is a great resource for this), even short-term placements, and don’t be afraid to go after opportunities in different sectors. As a music graduate I gained my current job (Marketing Executive for LexAble, a software company) through a 2 week work experience placement. Part of this was being in the right place at the right time, but it was my transferable skills (namely IT proficiency, a working knowledge of web design and the ability to write well) that got me the job! Another important message that I would share is to never overlook small businesses; when I started my placement I never thought that my now boss would have any need for a permanent employee, but I was quickly proven wrong! After months of applying for advertised jobs in the arts sector with well-established and much larger organisations, it was in a completely different sector, with the smallest possible company and in a role that was yet to exist where I found my first big career break! In brief: be creative in your job search, don’t be afraid to look outside your sector, and ignore the ‘little guys’ at your peril!
To finish off this post, I asked career guru Aimee Bateman what the most important thing graduate job-seekers should be doing to ensure their success. Here’s her reply:

Make it personal and adapt your cover letters and applications to each employer. Don’t ever make an employer feel like they are just one of many companies you are contacting (even if they are). If you want an employer to be genuinely interested in you, then you must show you are genuinely interested in them

For more advice, check out the videos on her site or the CareerCake YouTube channel.

What about you? Are there any job-seeking strategies that worked well for you? What’s the most valuable piece of advice you’ve been given? Let me know in the comments.

Writing a Social Media Strategy – Part 1 (before you begin) – featuring Rhys Gregory

Rhys Gregory - Digital Marketing Specialist

Rhys Gregory is a Digital Marketing Specialist based in Cardiff, UK. He helps businesses use social media and digital technologies effectively, assisting with planning, strategy and development at every stage of the process. He is also an active blogger and a volunteer with Canton Social Media Surgery. You can visit his website, or connect with him on Twitter or LinkedIn.

This article is the first in a series of posts intended for small businesses (or their employees) who are thinking about using social media as part of their marketing activities. The posts assume a certain amount of basic knowledge of Twitter/Facebook/blogging etc. but you certainly won’t need to be a social media nerd like me to get the most out of it! Please do share these posts with anyone who might find it useful!

As some of you may know, I work for a small software company (LexAble) based in Cardiff as a ‘Marketing and Business Executive’. As the company’s first employee whose primary focus is Marketing, it’s been a fantastic opportunity to really hit the ground running, putting into practice my existing skills and learning new techniques along the way. As part of this I’ve written the company’s first social media strategy, outlining how (and, perhaps more importantly, why), we will use social media. So I thought I’d share a few tips based on my experiences. I’m also grateful to Rhys Gregory for his contributions to this post.

Before you begin

It’s very tempting to dive straight in, outlining in explicit detail the things that you’ll be tweeting about or how to present yourself on Facebook, but before you do it’s a good idea to consider the following:

  • What do you want to achieve?
    First thing’s first: social media is not a direct sales tool, and anyone who tries to use it for this purpose is doomed to fail. Furthermore, it’s often difficult to quantify in simple terms the benefits (financial or otherwise) that it will bring to your business. Therefore, in your social media policy you should outline how you want social media to benefit your business. Example aims could include:

    • Increasing awareness of your business and its activities.
    • Positioning your business as an authority or knowledge-holder in its field.
    • Connecting with new and existing customers.
    • Reducing the time or money that you spend on support and customer service.
    • Organically improving your search engine rankings.
  • Is social media right for your business?
    Unfortunately, not every business will be able to properly benefit from social media. Some factors to consider:

    • Do your customers use social media? If, as a general rule, they don’t, consider why that might be (e.g. age, income, social class, lifestyle). (But you should never just make assumptions – ask them instead!)
    • How about the potential customers that you haven’t reached yet? Think about the markets that you’ve yet to tap into and whether social media would be a good way to break into them.
    • Is social media an appropriate forum to talk about your product? Is there a way that you can create relevant and interesting content that other people will want to share or view?
  • How much time do you want to spend?
    Social media is often thought of as free, but remember that time spent using it is time that you’re not spending on other things. It’s therefore very important to clearly define how much time you and your colleagues will dedicate to it. Another issue with social media is that it’s not always possible to predict when you’ll be using it – you can check for replies and new followers (and respond to them) once a day, once an hour or once every 5 minutes. Pick a schedule that works best for you, and stick with it as much as possible.

To conclude this post, here’s some salient advice from Rhys:

It’s really important to set out objectives before doing anything, that way you can measure its success. You’ll need to consider how much time is involved, the cost, and who’s responsible for what. Do you have the necessary expertise, or do you need to bring in an external training or digital agency to help get you started? Your overall goal might be to increase brand awareness or even increase leads, but you’ll need to know exactly how you want to measure this.

Measurement tips:

  • Make everything trackable – You want to be able to measure the effectiveness of everything that you do. Use a service like Bit.ly to track the number of clicks on the links that you post. What type of content is most popular? Is there a best time to post? Example – http://bit.ly/linkedin-me+
  • Define a lead-process – For those businesses that want to generate leads from social media, and trust me that’s probably all of you, you’ll need to define a nurture-path. When someone clicks on your blog post link, what do they see on that page? Make sure you have clear call-to-actions (CTAs) that take the user to the next step. Whether that be signing up for your newsletter to continue the path, or hitting the contact us button.

This is the first part in a series of posts about developing a Social Media Strategy. If you’d like to be notified when the next post arrives, you can subscribe to my blog, follow me on Twitter, or leave a comment below so I can notify you manually!

Review: Drupal Gardens by Acquia (managed Drupal hosting)

Drupal Gardens
Drupal Gardens

The Drupal Gardens homepage.

Believe it or not, my current job was gained off the back of a small web development project, which then turned into a full marketing project before I was invited to stay on permanently! My company’s website was originally hand-coded by our graphic designer (the talented Tayler from Blindspot Design), but, as the company had started to grow, my boss was finding it difficult to manually edit and add new pages, so he arranged for a GO Wales participant (me) to migrate the content and design over to a Content Management System. For this, we decided to use Drupal Gardens by Acquia. For those who haven’t heard of it, Drupal Gardens is a managed Drupal hosting service. This post outlines my experiences of using the service to build, launch and manage a medium-sized website.

Drupal Gardens – Key Benefits

The key benefits of Drupal Gardens are:

  • No need to worry about server/database configurations, load balancing or software upgrades – it’s all managed on your behalf.
  • WYSIWYG design editor – simply click on an element, define the properties (colour, background, border, position) and the CSS is written for you.
  • Fully extendable – you can override CSS properties and specify new classes, and plugins such as jQuery, Typekit web fonts and Google Analytics are fully supported.
  • Built-in social sharing tools  – again, you can bring your own if you want to do so.
  • If you ever want to migrate to self-hosted Drupal, you can easily export the site in its entirety and host it elsewhere – free of charge.
  • Fantastic FAQs, documentation and community forums for support and advice.

There are, however, a few important limitations:

  • You have no access (none, zero, zip, zilch) to the backend – so server-side includes, custom header elements and embedded PHP scripts are not supported. Still, there’s plenty of things you can achieve using JavaScript and external plugins, so it it’s not a deal-breaker if your coding needs aren’t too complex.
  • There is also less flexibility on Drupal plugins – many popular ones (and some custom-built options) are available, but requesting additional plugins is a slow process – you’re at the mercy of their to-do-list, which I’m told is rather long!
  • Likewise, the original CSS files for the base theme can’t be edited, which means that you sometimes have to do a bit of hackery if you want to remove/significantly alter the behaviour of a theme.
  • The HTML editor has a rather annoying habit of minifying your code so it isn’t human-readable – to combat this, you should always keep a copy of complex HTML/inline JavaScript for reference purposes and ease of editing.
  • It’s not currently possible to import Drupal themes (even ones created using Drupal Gardens), but they’re working on it.
  • Native e-commerce functionality is still in the pipeline, but alternative solutions include Cashie Commerce and E-junkie (we use the latter because our needs are simple and we’d prefer to pay a monthly fee rather than commission).

Design, Implementation and Launch

The Theme Builder in action

The Theme Builder in action

My brief for LexAble’s website was somewhat unusual; I had to migrate an existing hand-coded site over to Drupal Gardens, preserving both content and design.Often a new website means a complete overhaul, but as I was on a time-limited work experience placement this wasn’t an option. To achieve this migration, I chose a theme that was the best match for what I needed to achieve, then using the in-built WYSIWYG editor I slowly tweaked the colours, layout and functionality until it was nearly identical to the original website. One hurdle that I faced was the fiddliness of selecting the correct element to edit, but this was easily overcome by enabling the ‘power theming‘ option. The images below show the original site, the theme in its unedited state and how the website looks now.

The theme design I started with.

This is the Theme (Kenwood) that I used as a base for my design.

After I had got the appearance sorted, I started the process of migrating the content and functionality. This was for the most part a case of copy & paste, with a few adjustments to the HTML and CSS along the way. The most difficult part was getting the appearance of forms just right, which was made more complex because of existing CSS that was hard to override.

The LexAble website as it looks now.

The LexAble website as it looks now.

In terms of time spent at the design and implementation stage, I would estimate the following:

  • Adjusting base theme to match original design: 6 hours
  • Migrating basic content: 2 hours
  • Tweaking HTML and CSS: 10 hours
  • Migrating site functionality (e-commerce, forms etc.): 8 hours
  • SEO, Google Analytics, Typekit, AddThis etc.: 3 hours
  • Final tweaks and changes to design and content: 6 hours (not including time spent planning/writing)

Total time taken for entire project: 40 hours (again, not including planning, writing and time spent in meetings).

Site Management and Maintenance

Managing a Drupal Gardens site is much like managing any Drupal site, and it will be a familiar experience to anyone who has used WordPressJoomla and other CMS. Adding a new page is as simple as pressing the ‘add content’ button, giving it a name and URL then creating the content. If you pay for a Professional subscription or above, you also get access to SEO tools such as Open Graph, keywords (which are mostly pointless these days) and Google crawler settings, all of which can be edited on a per-page basis. Compared to self-hosted Drupal, there’s a lot less maintenance – small upgrades to security and functionality and the latest stable Drupal release are done automatically. Notice is given before each upgrade, and any downtime is either minimal (2 or 3 minutes) or non-existent. As a marketing professional, the handling of all the backend stuff is money well spent, allowing me to focus on improving the site and its content.

Verdict

For LexAble, Drupal Gardens is ideal. It takes away 90% of the hassle involved in managing a Drupal site, but there is great potential for customisation and extending functionality. For someone like me, who has excellent HTML/CSS skills but struggles with MySQL databases and server configuration, it’s ideal. At every stage of the process I felt able to do things my own way, and I was constantly surprised by all the extra touches that the Drupal Gardens team had added in. Another great benefit is that it’s always being improved – for instance they’ve recently added the ability to make your site’s design responsive, which is a must for every website these days.

There are a few drawbacks and quirks to Drupal Gardens, but none that can’t be overcome or worked around. And when I did get stuck, the Drupal Gardens team were only too happy to help!

All in all, I would highly recommend Drupal Gardens to individuals or small businesses who want a professional, modern website but don’t have the time, resources or ability to manage the backend stuff. Their prices are probably a little higher than your current web host, but the customer service and behind the scenes stuff is worth paying for.

Have you used Drupal Gardens, or a similar solution? What are the positives and negatives of this approach? Let me know in the comments.

Disclaimer: I have not received any tangible reward, financial or otherwise, from Drupal Gardens, Acqiua or anyone else for writing this post. Although if they’re reading this, I do quite like chocolate!