My Favorite Free Communications Tools

I am frequently amazed by how many excellent communications tools are now available for free. Just a few years ago they were either not available at all or were expensive. Now, with a little time and ingenuity you can express yourself (or promote your clients) in ways we only dreamed about.

Here are a few of my favorites.

  • WordPress: This blogging platform has now evolved into a full fledged Content Management System that rivals Drupal and Joomla but which (IMHO) is much more intuitive to use for the non-programmer. Not only is the platform itself free, but there are thousands of free templates, to give you a customized look and feel, and innumerable free plug-ins that provide a wide variety of functionality. I use both WordPress.com and WordPress.org, depending on the application. Certainly for the complete novice, the hosted platform at WordPress.com is a blessing. My 11 year old daughter set up a blog by herself in less than an hour on WordPress!
  • Freeconference.com: This free webconferencing service is easy to use and works pretty well. Only once have I had a problem with the sound quality.
  • YouTube: With a little imagination you can create your own broadcasting channel on any topic you want. While it’s helpful to provide your own content, even that’s not necessary: You can bring other people’s videos into your Channel using playlists.
  • Blog Booker: Turn your blog into a PDF book in less than five minutes. It works like a charm!
  • Self-publish your e-Book in a number of electronic formats including Amazon Digital Text Platform (DTP), Smashwords, and Barnes & Noble PubIt. While these services don’t charge you for creating your book, all do take royalties on sales.

Of course there are also platforms such as Twitter, FaceBook, and LinkedIn for people who want to stay connected.

The hardest part is keeping track of all of the new offerings. I’ve really been enjoying the proliferation of these new digitally available platforms and products because they have allowed me to manage my own content on line and present it in visually appealing packages. I was shocked recently to find that I was able to recreate a site that in WordPress that I paid major $$ for someone to build for me in Drupal. The real kicker? Mine looks better.

www.tineye.com help track where your graphics appear

Let’s face it, “borrowing” images off the Internet has become rampant. It’s bad enough for photographers to find their images posted (without credit) but what if you found your logo gracing someone else’s site?

I read about this happening to someone recently and when she contacted the designer of the website that had illegally used her copyright protected logo, the designer had the balls to respond:

I received this graphic hrough a graphics group I was a member of. I made a logo for xyz.com out of it unaware of the copyright. I was recently informed of this and wanted to contact you and ask if they can continue to use the logo since it’s been over 2 years. Here is a copy of the log [sic] so you can see it.

No apology. No contrition. Just a request to keep using the logo!

After several more exchanges, the owner of the logo got a bit more of an apology but revealed something more concerning. He had received this logo through a graphics group at Yahoo where, it appears, people have been stealing artwork off of website for several years and then distributing it to their membership. Not an excuse in my book. Any web designer worth his salt should not be using artwork with unknown provenance.

I did not take this off your website. I received it from a yahoo graphics group a long time ago. There are literal thousands of people who have this and are using it. I am sorry for using your graphic, I did not know it was copyrighted. As soon as I found out I wrote to you so hopefully we can work something outs o my friend can continue to use her logo. I am sure you are upset and it is understandable. I hope you will see this truly was something that I had no idea about. I have approximately 10,000 graphics on my computer that I have collected over the last 10 years of graphics design. Unfortunately yours was one of them that was given to me through tube-time@yahoogroups.com Please, forgive me for this infringement as it was totally unintentional. I was given the graphic with the understanding that it was not copyrighted. Again, I am sorry for all of this.

So what can you do to protect your graphics? Apparently specifically forbidding the use of the image doesn’t help (it was on the original site). But there is a search engine for images that you can use to see if it appears anywhere else. It’s called http://www.tineye.com and it works!

IE 6 officially a relic

According to an article in Mashable, Internet Explorer 6 now has such low market share that it has become a relic.

Now many readers would say, duh, I’ve been using IE8 for months. But that’s not the case with many corporations. In fact two of my clients still use IE6. Why? Because it’s the standard and upgrading an entire corporation takes time and planning.

The problem is that with a browser this ancient, there is no longer any support which means when websites can’t be viewed properly or other problems arise, there is no one to turn to.

Of course it could be argued that IE6 has suffered from this problem since its inception. This was a browser that always required special programming and which was plagued with holes and bugs.

So maybe it is time to let it rest in peace. But to all you corporate IT departments out there, better make that transition before it takes its last breath.

Stan Schroeder

IE6 Finally Nearing Extinction [STATS]

As far as other web browsers go, IE8 holds 30.49% market share in the U.S., followed by Firefox (Firefox) 3.6 with 19.85% and IE7 with 16.64% market share.

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According to web analytics company StatCounter, Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 6 is now truly a relic of the past with less than 5% of market share in the U.S. and Europe.

For years, IE6 caused headaches for developers and prompted many users to switch to alternative browsers. It was full of security holes and it broke nearly every web standard in the book.

Since it was the default browser on many Windows (Windows) machines, it was also the dominant browser in the early aughts, reaching 90% market share in 2002 and 2003. Unfortunately, it outstayed its welcome by a good five years, keeping a solid chunk of the market even after Internet Explorer (Internet Explorer) 7 and 8 were released.

Now, based on an analysis of 15 billion page views in May 2010, StatCounter’s numbers indicate that IE6 usage in the U.S. has fallen to 4.7% from 11.5% in the last 12 months, meaning that IE6 is finally becoming a footnote in the history of the Internet (Internet).

Does anyone take responsibility for their actions any more?

Last week I bought an item on eBay. When I received it, I discovered that the seller had mis-measured two of the dimensions. It was the wrong size.

I explained this to the seller and asked her to take it back. Her response was that she’d measured it carefully, that if she’d made a mistake it was a completely innocent one, and what did an inch matter? After all, I’d gotten a great deal. So what was I complaining about? Oh, and by the way, she sold the item for a friend and she can’t refund my money because she doesn’t have it.

There was no admission that she had made a mistake. That she was sorry. Or that she was willing to take responsibility for her action. I guess she never read the part on the eBay auction site which says that the seller is responsible for the listing.

It’s a trend that I find disturbing.

Here’s another more serious example.

I’m locked in a dispute with a web programmer who built a database driven web site for me. Although we had a fixed fee agreement at the end of the project he handed me a bill for more than twice the price I’d signed off on. This was not a small overage. It amounted to more than 100 hours of work at his billing rate. What was he thinking? I can’t even imagine turning in a final invoice to a client with that kind of overage especially when our agreement was for a set fee, not an hourly rate.

I took a look at the invoice. The major item was “trouble shoot search function.” Translation: he couldn’t figure out the programming and he wants me to pay for his learning curve. He took no responsibility for his own ineptitude. He never submitted a revised estimate or consulted me on how I wanted to handle the problem. In fact, most recently he’s threatened to sue me! His rationale appears to be that I paid him less than other bids I’d gotten for the project, therefore I got a bargain! Maybe if I’d hired one of the other firms I would have gotten a website that worked.

What happened to making an agreement and sticking to it? Am I aging myself to admit that’s how I do business?

A life experience that I could have skipped

I’ve worked in the public relations industry since 1982, in my own consulting firm since 1991. I guess I’m lucky that until this past year, I’ve never had a serious problem with either a client or a vendor.

That has changed. I’ve been locked in a dispute with a web programmer that I hired to create a personal business (a fun website) since the beginning of the year.

One of my attorney friends has told me that everyone needs to live through a lawsuit once. That it’s part of life’s essential experiences. I must say that while this hasn’t progressed quite that far, it’s something I could have easily lived without!

I’ve always thought of myself as a fair person. I try to give my clients good value for their money and, if I sometimes underestimate the difficulty of a particular job, I live with it. When I’ve hired people for client work I’ve also tried to be fair. Many times I’ve gone back to clients and asked for more money when I’ve seen how hard people have worked on their behalf.

For several years I dreamed about building a website that would let me turn a favorite hobby into a small business. I didn’t have a lot of money to invest so I chose to hire a local web programmer who was known to several of my colleagues. He hadn’t built a site exactly like I wanted (it is a database driven site, so not as simple as a standard site), but he expressed his desire to expand his capabilities and collaborate with me on the development.

We agreed to proceed in phases. Each phase had a budget which was submitted to me in writing. I approved it. If something changed, he sent me an updated budget to discuss. This system worked fine.

Until it didn’t.

When we started the fourth phase of the project he gave me an estimate that gave me pause. It was considerably more money than I had anticipated and more than he’d originally told me I’d have to spend. We discussed it at length. He explained why he felt this phase of the work would be so expensive and eventually I agreed. The phase took several months to complete. There were frustrations when essential functions (such as search) just weren’t working the way they were supposed to.

Finally, those problems seemed to be solved. I started to talk to him about the final phase. The one that would turn my dream site into a real viable site.

Then I got a new invoice from him for the just completed phase. The amount was more than twice what I had agreed to pay. I was — and still am — stunned that someone, especially someone with whom I worked for a year, would send me an invoice for what represented more than 100 hours of his time without ever discussing it with me. I consider the work to have been part of the scope of the project. It was programming. Something that could have been outsourced to India and done for a pittance. Had he come to me and explained that he was having problems that he would charge me for . . . I could have taken control of the project and decided what it was worth to me. Instead, he said nothing. He simply handed me a bill.

I paid what I had agreed to pay. I even offered to pay 15% of the overage. It didn’t satisfy him and so far I’ve gotten no satisfaction, either. In fact, I’ve gotten the everything but. Every month I’ve received letters trying to intimidate me into paying the overage and demanding interest on funds (not) owed. I’ve been threatened that I’ll be liable for attorneys fees, collections fees, etc. I’ve received a letter from a collection agency. I’ve learned that despite the exorbitant overages (that I haven’t paid) and the amount of money that I paid, I was left with a website that was rife with errors . . . that I’ve needed to pay another firm to fix the problems. At that time I discovered that many of the changes I’d been told were not possible were indeed just simple programming. They’ve been fixed for a relative pittance.

By a professional.

I am embarrassed that after so many years of evaluating vendors that I so badly miscalculated on the skill and integrity of someone who was supposed to work on my own project, the one that I cared the most about.

I’ve looked at the laws in Massachusetts and am contemplating whether it’s worth the emotional energy and the additional funds to consider a suit against him. I’ve gone through the exercise of consulting a lawyer and am fully aware of how quickly legal fees would add up. Mostly now I want him to go away. I want to put my project aside until I can look at it without feeling betrayed. I’d like to get my dream back.

Anyone in the Boston area who would like to avoid the problems that I encountered are welcome to contact me so that I can share the name of person with whom I am in dispute.

Analytics saving California Social Services Agency Millions

I know lots of companies that don’t measure the performance of their websites or enewsletters. On colleague of mine told me that he had a “gut feeling” about what works for his company.

However, when you look at what you can learn from studying your stats, it’s eye-opening. Many of my clients are truly surprised to find out what information their constituencies find most interesting, which pages on their sites get the most traffic, and which of their pearls of wisdom are generally ignored!

Now the Alameda County, Calif., Social Services Agency  has found that using analytics can save taxpayers a lot of money.

In July of 2009 the county agency launched a $1.5 million business intelligence and analytics package from IBM that integrates six systems in order to give caseworkers a nearly real-time look at how and when clients are using various social services.

Bingo! This is the beauty of information shared on the web. You can measure it. You can track responses, view traffic patterns and look at referring urls.

Now, you don’t have to spend $1.5 million to do so. In fact, for someone just starting out, a free program such as Google Analytics is a good start. I use it for several of my own sites and for client sites.

As a result of what we’ve learned from collecting data over a period of time one of my clients redesigned their site and changed the type of information that they presented. For example, we found that the FAQs section of the site drew the most visitors. As a result, we started putting the information that we felt was most important for customers to know in that section. We also found that there was an enormous need for basic educational information which drove us to create several tutorials.

As for e-newsletters, knowing which topics attract the most readers is valuable from an overall perspective but critical for sales people who want to learn more about the customers in their territories.

I think that one of the greatest barriers to installing analytics programs is that people are afraid what the measurements will show; that their programs aren’t performing as well as they should. My take on this is different. To measurably demonstrate the value that public relations and marketing communications adds to a company you must be able to provide the data and you must establish a benchmark for your current success. After all, you can’t improve your outreach if you don’t know there’s a problem.

Who’s Using Which Browsers? And why does it Matter?

Browser compatibility is one of the trickiest issues in web site design. Just because a site looks great in Firefox (which is apparently programmer-friendly) or IE7 doesn’t mean that it works well (or even at all) in IE6 or IE8. As for Safari, Chrome, Mozilla and Sea Monkey (!), you have to decide whether the number of visitors requires compatibility testing.

You would think that blanket compatibility, at least of the major browsers,  would be top of every web designers list of “Must Haves”. Sadly, I found this isn’t always the case — it’s something that needs to be written into the contract and then tested, tested and tested again.

Last year I worked on a Website for a client where the site looked great in Firefox and IE7. The problem was that they used IE6 in their office and in that browser, they couldn’t see the entire page so important information appeared to be left off. The programmer’s initial response? They need to upgrade their browser. I think not!

This year I had a client who had a Website that worked perfectly in everything except IE7. If it was an obscure browser like Sea Monkey, maybe it wouldn’t be an issue but according to my own tracking, IE7 is still the most popular browser on the market. The programmer’s response? We’ll fix it in the next phase. I think not! Browser compatibility is integral to the success of your clients’ websites. It’s not something you get to later. I understand that each version of Internet Explorer has specific programming requirements, but absolute conformance just needs to be part of the completed job.

Who uses what browser depends a lot on your target audience. Consumers tend to upgrade their browsers frequently than large corporations, where IT departments generally standardize the use of a particular browser company wide.  I know several companies that still use IE6 (with no immediate plans to upgrade) even though IE8 is gaining market share.

While there are mass statistics that dictate browser share, I monitor the visitors on my own and my clients’ sites to give me a finger on the pulse of the industries that I serve. I’ve found that my figures are not much of the mark as those reported in Wikipedia.

For example, here are the trends I’ve seen over the past year for one of my clients, which is in the telecommunications industry. The people viewing their site are fairly technical, international in scope, and many work for larger companies.

Here are the stats for visitors to their site during the past 30 days:

Browser share over the past 30 days

This chart shows browser share over the past 30 days. IE is by far the most dominant browser. More than 63% use IE with Firefox at just under 30%.

This graph shows the breakdown of the different IE Versions.

This graph shows the breakdown of the different IE Versions. No surprise -- IE7 is the predominant browser with 48.5%, but IE6 still enjoys heavy usage for an "old" browser at 33%, and IE8 adoption is up to 18%, a significant increase since the beginning of the year.

IE8 usage has grown considerably since the beginning of the year.

Look at the stats from Jan '09. Just six months ago, fewer than 2% of our visitors were using IE8. Interestingly, IE6 usage is pretty consistent; IE7 had a larger share of the browser market.

So, what’s the bottom line? Don’t underestimate the longevity of the major browser versions. Make sure that your clients’ websites work on all of them. Browser testing should be done by your web designer or firm, but it’s a good idea to check for yourself. I generally have the current versions of Firefox and IE on my computer but there are resources on-line that can help you look at some of the versions not immediately available.

Here are two that I’ve used:

Browsershots.org lets you look at your website in a large number of platforms (some of which I’ve never heard of!) You can look at a limited number of screen shots for free.

Browsercam.com lets you see your website using any browser and any operating system.

Building a Website using Wordpress

Recently I volunteered to help my riding club update their website. While I have experience designing information architectures and writing content for websites, I’m not particularly HTML literate. So when I peeked behind the curtain I was appalled. Where was the content management system (CMS)? There was none. Instead you had to ftp the articles over to the site.

This is when I learned that I was truly technology challenged. The first time I tried to go onto the site and make edits I managed to ftp all the articles from the site onto my computer, leaving just an empty URL. That convinced me that there had to be a better way.

I’ve been using WordPress.com for more than a year now. In addition to this blog I also have a popular equestrian blog, Equine Ink. I like the flexibility afforded by the templates and I find the interface to be intuitive and easy to use. In addition, I could see that by using the WordPress CMS, we could make our website more of a community effort and involve more of our members.

Since the club wanted a Website rather than a blog, I turned to WordPress.org so we could use our own URL and have email addresses associated with the site. I set up hosting through GoDaddy.com, a service that makes it incredibly easy to upload WordPress templates. Given my previous experiences using an ftp client, I was skeptical, but it turned out that after downloading the templates onto my computer, the GoDaddy interface made it easy to upload and install them.

The wealth of free — and low cost — WordPress templates is amazing. Of course, many of them look like templates and it took some time to find one that met all of my requirements. Along with finding a template with the layout and fonts I liked, it was also important to me to find one that is supported by the author. In the end I selected Paalam, a theme written by Sadish Bala. It’s a very elegant design that works well with photo-intensive postings. Having access to support forums has already helped. I wanted to move the position of the title and was able to get the revised code very quickly.

I quickly found plug-ins that added functionality such as a photo gallery and used WordPress’s password protection function to safeguard a members only section of the site. For the technically challenged, this is certainly a quick and easy way to build a fully functioning site without becoming a programmer!

For comparison purposes, here’s the site that we started with:

The original site did not allow you to easily size photos for the header and was text heavy. Since all members love to see photos and videos of the hunt, I thought we would be better served by a design that enabled us to easily incorporate images.

The original site did not allow you to easily size photos for the header (so the image repeated) and was text heavy. The navigation bar was only across the top and you need to mouse over the tabs to see the sub pages. Since all members love to see photos and videos of the hunt, I thought we would be better served by a design that enabled us to easily incorporate images.

Here’s the new WordPress site:

The template of the new site allows all sub-pages to be shown in the left hand navigation bar making it easier to find topics. It is easy to incorporate images into the pages and posts. I particularly like the dynamic nature of the blog format. Rather than having a static site, new posts can be easily added making the site more representative of the community.

The template of the new site allows all sub-pages to be shown in the left hand navigation bar making it easier to find topics. It is easy to incorporate images into the pages and posts. I particularly like the dynamic nature of the blog format. Rather than having a static site, new posts can be easily added making the site more representative of the community.

Is Public Relations in a Golden Age?

According to Larry Chase, in his latest issue of of Larry Chase’s Web Digest for Marketers, Internet marketing is giving Public Relations an additional boost.

PR packs new punch online.

The Internet has brought a golden age to Public Relations. Pre-Internet, there were bottlenecks between those who wanted to reach an audience with news and the target audience.

You had a fixed number of newspapers, magazines, radio and TV outlets, networks, etc. But, with millions of people using Yahoo News, Google News, RSS feeds, blogs, email newsletters and the like, press releases have a new, reinvigorated life online.

If you send a newsworthy press release, you can reach the end user, news outlets and the blogosphere all at once.

But, wait: It gets better. You can track the success of that press release. You can see how many Tweets, blog mentions or pickups by syndicated RSS feeds it collects.

Press releases enjoy a new life because they are (when done right) content-driven. People turn to the Internet for commercial as well as editorial content. Display ads don’t convey as much information as a press release.

I certainly agree with much of what he said. However, I don’t think that the advantages provided by the Internet stop at press releases. In fact the ability to reach your customers and prospects directly through Websites, forums and blogs provides a level of access previously unparalleled.