Greasing The Skids of Communication

Last week I read two excellent articles on IT and Marketing working together (or not) which got me thinking quite a bit. The first was “IT + Marketing: Innovation Through Collaboration in B2B Software Companies” by Julie Hunt, the other was “I own the technology, you own the content” by Eric D. Brown. Go check them out because each writer makes some excellent points. So, how do we get going in the right direction? Is there any skipping along arm in arm down the yellow brick road? I think there can be. It’ll take some work and a whole lot of communication, but it is possible for all sides to accomplish their individual missions while still working together to bring about success for the overall organization.

Last week I read two excellent articles on IT and Marketing working together (or not) which got me thinking quite a bit. The first was “IT + Marketing: Innovation Through Collaboration in B2B Software Companies” by Julie Hunt, the other was “I own the technology, you own the content” by Eric D. Brown.  Go check them out because each writer makes some excellent points.

Let Me Put On My IT Hat
Those of us who read Scott Adams’ “Dilbert” comics are familiar with the character “Mordac, The Preventer of Information Services.” While we can laugh at the silliness of those comic situations, there is a bit of tongue in cheek truth to what is portrayed.

Often, we IT folks are looked at as spoilers and inhibitors. What I often hear and read from those frustrated people is like a line from the old Five Man Electrical Band song: “All we hear is ‘Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the signs?'” In this case the signs come in the form of a policy document or a banner across the monitor screen of someone trying to accomplish their mission. Their frustration goes up and out come the comparisons to Mordac.

Unfortunately, what these people don’t realize is that we’re just doing the job delegated to us. We’re tasked with making sure the enterprise’s network and data remain secure. No one wants to go through the nightmare of a T.J. Maxx or Epsilon security breach. Many IT Departments are understaffed, overworked and looked at as merely a cost center and not a business multiplier. In this type of environment, the easiest way to head off security issues is to raise the shields and plug up any holes found in the perimeter.

Switch To The Marketing Hat
What marketers really need are flexible systems which allow them to reach out to customers wherever they are.  They need to be able to reach out via email, web sites and social media spaces. While IT development shops dabble in Agile Development, marketing shops need and want to get into what Scott Binker calls Agile Marketing. When we run into what looks like an IT roadblock, we get frustrated and don’t feel protected or secure. We just want to get our mission accomplished.

Can’t We All Just Get Along?
So, how do we get going in the right direction? Is there any skipping along arm in arm down the yellow brick road? I think there can be. It’ll take some work and a whole lot of communication, but it is possible for all sides to accomplish their individual missions while still working together to bring about success for the overall organization.

Department Ambassadors
I once worked in an organization where work was divided into different “shops.” Each shop had its own mission, leadership and way of doing things. Work was supposed to flow from front to middle to back. The front and back offices were supposed to react to priorities based on guidance from the home office while the middle shop had a supporting role in helping the work flow between all three shops. In reality, though, this rarely worked out. What usually ended up happening was the front and back shops argued over what the home office meant by priorities while the middle shop sat back out of the fray and waited for the dust to settle.

The leadership of the front and back shops decided to smooth things out. Instead of two committees of people interpreting home office directives each shop appointed a liaison to work with the other office. All communication was funneled between these two. They made the decisions how home office directives were to be interpreted and those decisions could only be overridden by the managers of their respective shops.

To be sure, it took a little time to work out the kinks in this system. After a few weeks of working things out, though, work flowed much more smoothly. Production went up and arguments went way down. Everyone benefited from this arrangement – even the home office took notice.

There is a lesson to be learned. I propose those IT and Marketing departments who find themselves in disagreement consider having an in-house technology summit. At this meeting, sit down and discuss the challenges each side faces in an open and honest way. At the end, with guidance and direction in hand, appoint a person from each side to be the liaison who will be empowered to communicate and help make decisions on behalf of their department. Let those two work out the priorities and permissions and bring the results to their respective departments.

Oh, and don’t pick the new person to do this. The one tasked with this job needs to be taken seriously. Appoint your best and brightest so the job will get done right.

And don’t forget: You’re all on the same team. In the end, overall success of the organization benefits everyone.

What about you? How do you smooth out communication between departments. Do you think a “Department Ambassador” program will work at your shop? Please feel free to share in the comments.

Speed Is Of The Essence

Back in the day, when I first started building web sites, file sizes and download times were a critical part of the process. This was in the day of dialup. For those of you who grew up in a broadband world you have no idea how unimaginably slow some sites would render. Back then, it was important that image tags acted as placeholders so the text of the page would download on the visitor’s screen in the right place and they could at least read the text while the images downloaded. And those images better be small, or else. I remember chiding many clients for trying to put 1MB PDFs or 100K images on their sites.

Back in the day, when I first started building web sites, controlling file sizes and download times were a critical part of the process. This was in the days of dialup. For those of you who grew up in a broadband world you have no idea how unimaginably slow some sites would render. Back then, it was important that image tags specified height and width of images so they could act as placeholders. This allowed the text of the page to download on the visitor’s screen in the right place so they could at least read the text while the images downloaded. And those images had better be small, or else. I remember chiding many clients for trying to put 1MB PDFs or 100K images on their sites.

Today, we take broadband for granted. Download speeds are so fast, that the occasional multi-megabyte PDF doesn’t faze most people. Some of us (yes, including me) have gotten a little lazy when it comes to optimizing images and other files for size. Some of our code is bloated and filled with redundancies. Still, for many of our customers, these things don’t really matter. Or do they?

Ah, But It Does Matter
There are two main reasons why download time really does matter: Consider mobile and SEO.

Mobile Browsing
It’s a given that mobile browsing is becoming a larger and larger share of overall internet usage, and that share will continue to grow as time goes on. Think about your customers using their mobile device to visit your site. If they are running on a 3G connection, depending on their provider they can download at speeds from 350 kilobits to 1.7 megabits per second. Those speeds are under optimal conditions and can be/are often slowed by such factors as weather, network congestion, distance from the tower, tall buildings or trees and a host of other things.

While on average your mobile visitors can expect speeds faster than dialup, are they going to wait patiently while the beautiful 150 kilobyte image on your home page downloads? Chances are they won’t, especially if they are stopped at a red light trying to find your address or phone number.

SEO Considerations
I remember during Search Engine Strategies, San Jose in 2006, Google was already warning that Adsense relevancy scores were going to be tied to download times of the landing pages the ads led to. Since then, they have started using download speed as a signal for organic search results as well. I haven’t heard anyone specifically mention Bing using download speed as a relevancy signal, but I can well imagine if they are not using it now they eventually will.

To illustrate this point, Aaron Shear reported in his presentation at last week’s PubCon South during the Advanced SEO Tactics session, that performance gains alone accounted for a 5% increase in traffic to web sites he monitors because of better placement in SERPs on Google. How fast are your pages downloading? Could a performance gain help your placement in SERPs? It’s certainly something worth considering.

Speedometers
There are a couple tools you can use to check your download speeds. My employer uses Webmetrics as an outside monitor to alert if the web sites go down. Part of their weekly report shows download times for monitored websites from their multitude of monitoring sites along with  a comparison to the average of all web sites they measure. This is a paid service, but it might be worth the cost for keeping tabs on downtime and download speeds.

A great free tool is the download speed indicator found inside Google Webmaster Tools. This shows you how long it takes to download your pages, “straight from the horses mouth,” so to speak. Google Webmaster Tools has so many other great features, I highly recommend signing up and using it to help you manage your sites better.

Speeding Things Up
If you find your pages are taking more than 4 seconds to download, there are some things you can consider doing to speed them up:

  • Check your image sizes. If you have images on your pages larger than, say, 50 kilobytes, consider putting in some smaller images with options to click for a larger version. Making sure text is text and not embedded in images will not only make the images smaller, it will help search engines index your content better.
  • Consider ditching large Flash movies if you have them. If you have one of those “Please wait while the content loads” things on your home page, your Flash movie is too large. Consider moving the “cool” content to other pages with links to it from the home page.
  • Use CSS to control the look of your site. This helps eliminate redundant code by taking many style-related tags off each page and refers back to the CSS file, which can be downloaded once and used from the visitor’s local cache.
  • Watch for code bloat. If you have CSS files and you’re no longer using some parts of it, delete those parts out. Copy and paste unneeded lines into a text file somewhere off the site if you think you might need them again.
  • Consider moving your images and CSS files into a cloud service with distributed data centers. This can help speed up your downloads because bandwidth for these services is usually higher and multiple locations offer better speeds for visitors because files download closer to them. This isn’t usually a cheap solution, but if you have a large web site it could pay off quite well.

What about you? Have you wrestled with download speeds to improve visitor experience and/or SERP placement? Feel free to share in the comments.

Calling All Marketing Technologists

Last week I did a quick poll in preparation for my presentation at PubCon South next month. I asked IT folks what they wished their marketing colleagues better understood so they (the IT people) could better help them.

Last week I did a quick poll in preparation for my presentation at PubCon South next month. I asked IT folks what they wished their marketing colleagues better understood so they (the IT people) could better help them.

I only had a few responses with some additional email discussion so I can’t claim definitive results. But, the general sentiment among those who responded was that the marketers they work with don’t understand the technology used by the IT folks.

Now, that’s not to say that the IT people are mad at their marketing counterparts. I believe they really want to help, but sometimes are hampered by the lack of knowledge of the people they work with.

Enter the Marketing Technologist
Marketers: here is a chance for you to get into a growth area of your field. Rather than looking at this as just another “challenge” to deal with or proof of the “struggle” with the IT Department, look at this as an opportunity. Join the ranks of the Marketing Technologists.

There is a huge need and a growing demand for marketers who understand technology to the point where they can do some of the tasks traditionally done by IT people. Look at how much marketing is going online. It only stands to reason that IT cannot support everything Marketing needs to do. Someone has to come in and fill the gap. That could be you.

Develop a skill set which includes traditional marketing as well as IT skills. You don’t need to be a class-A coder (but that certainly wouldn’t hurt). To begin with, start learning to use and understand the technology already around you. Dig into it a little bit and pick up some of Marketing’s technology tasks your IT Department doesn’t have the resources to support. As you learn, you’ll be far better equipped to work as a partner with your IT folks when you do need their assistance.

For more information on this, I highly recommend you follow Scott Brinker’s Chief Marketing Technologist blog. He has some great ideas about what a Marketing Technologist should be as well as interviews with people who have already crossed the line and stepped into the Marketing Technologist role.

IT Folks: Here’s Your Chance To Speak Up

In preparation for my presentation at PubCon South next month, I thought it would be good to ask IT folks what they wish the marketers they work with understood to help them work together better. I first posed the question on LinkedIn and got quite a discussion going via email with those who answered.

In preparation for my presentation at PubCon South next month, I thought it would be an interesting learning experience to ask IT workers what they wish the marketers they work with understood to help them work together better. I first posed the question on LinkedIn and got quite a discussion going via email with those who answered.

From those answers and the subsequent email discussions, it would appear that for those who answered the biggest pain point is the lack of understanding of the technology the IT folks use.

In the interest of continuing the discussion and helping everyone learn to work together better, I pose the question here:

Poll for IT folks who work with marketers: What’s one thing you wish your marketing colleagues would understand which would help you work better with them?

I’d very much like to hear your opinion. Please feel free to answer in the comments below, on LinkedIn or on Quora.

House Cleaning Time – Get Rid of That Old Code

This is a “Lesson Learned” for me as well as a reminder or tip for you who are admins for web sites running on IIS. For years it’s been best practice that when you move web site content from one place to another, to set a server-level redirect so search engines will know to remove the old addresses from their index and add the new addresses in their place. No problem, we all do this.

Hack day 3: dreaming of Micro MachinesThis is a “Lesson Learned” for me as well as a reminder for you who are admins for web sites running on IIS.

For years it’s been best practice that when you move web site content from one place to another, to set a permanent server-level redirect so search engines will know to remove the old addresses from their index and add the new addresses in their place. No problem, we all do this.

Over the past several years, my colleagues and I have been coding background processes of our web sites in ASP.NET. Over that time, we’ve converted many applications from Classic ASP. Some applications were outright moved as they were converted based on guidance from our Marketing Department.

In one case, we had an old press release application, written in Classic ASP, which we redid in ASP.NET and moved. Being the student of SEO, I set up a permanent server-level redirect in IIS to the application’s new address. “Done and done,” or so I thought.

Fast forward a few years and we find ourselves troubleshooting a vexing problem with one of our servers. Through the course of the investigation, we found something very interesting. Those Classic ASP pages in the folder of which the server-level redirect was set were still firing; this despite the fact that the IIS server was set to automatically and permanently redirect visitors to the new page.

We did a number tests on those pages and confirmed our findings: the underlying Classic ASP code was, indeed, running before the visitor was redirected to the new page. The redirect happened so quickly that the end user was completely unaware it was happening.

From a security standpoint, I should have known better than to leave old code on a web server. That is a classic “no no” and a possible opportunity for hackers to come and exploit your system. Thankfully, that didn’t happen.

From me to you, here is a reminder (or a tip if you’ve never heard this before): If you move web pages from one address to another set up a server-level permanent redirect on the old folder, then archive and delete the old pages from the server. This keeps your server cleaned up and gets rid of any old code which might be exploited later down the line.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Andrew Mason