Useful Tools: Blogs

Every month I’ll be highlighting a free or low-cost tool that community groups and not-for-profits can use to improve their marketing and communications. This month’s focus is on blogs.

A blog (short for ‘weblog’) is a regularly updated site written in a conversational style. Blogs originally started out as online diaries written by individuals, but many businesses now also use them to regularly update their users with information about the latest happenings in their industry. A blog is displayed as a series of posts, usually in reverse chronological order (newest first). Blogs also usually have a comment function where users can reply directly to the post.

Blog posts are generally quite short (usually around 500 to 1500 words) and are usually written in a conversational, informal style. Like all web content, they need to be either useful, entertaining or both. Many business posts use lists (e.g. ‘10 ways to improve your search rankings’) as a way of conveying information quickly and easily. Other, more personal blogs, like those written by public figures such as authors, may give some insight into the writer’s personality or creative process and function as a way to develop a relationship with readers.

Having a blog on your site is a very effective way of maximising your search engine optimisation (SEO), as long as it’s updated regularly. Although there are lots of free sites where you can host your blog—Blogger and WordPress being two of the biggest—it’s a good idea to have it attached directly to your site (e.g. yourdomain.com/blog) as any hits on your blog will also count towards your main site’s SEO. If you build a site on WordPress.com, you’ll automatically have a ‘posts’ page that you can use for blogging (if you don’t want to use it, you can elect for it not to be published).

The main purpose of a blog is to build relationships with your users. You want to encourage interaction, although it’s important to also moderate the comments section so that any offensive comments or users can be blocked. You can also interact with other bloggers in your field to develop relationships and possibly share links or guest post on each other’s sites.

The main thing to remember about blogs is that they need to be updated regularly, so starting one is a long-term commitment. Only get into blogging if you really enjoy it—it shouldn’t feel like a chore, and if it does, your readers will be able to tell. But if you enjoy writing and developing communities, a blog can really enhance your organisation’s website.

Working with freelancers

Photo credit: IntelFreePress via Foter.com / CC BY

Many community groups and small nonprofits are operating on very tight budgets and are forced to do a lot of the day-to-day work themselves. But every now and again you’ll probably find yourself in a situation where you need to hire a professional to help you.

If you decide that you need to hire a professional writer, editor, designer or photographer, the chances are they’ll be a freelancer. They may be working as a sole trader or as a limited liability company, but either way you’ll be engaging a small business.

So how do you go about finding a freelance professional?

  • Word of mouth. Most freelancers get at least some, if not the majority, of their work through word of mouth, so start by asking around. Like tradespeople, a good freelancer will get recommended.
  • Industry bodies. Industry bodies, such as your local Society of Editors (or equivalent), usually have freelance registers. Going through an industry body will ensure the person you hire has the necessary training and experience.
  • E-work sites. Many ‘e-work’ sites have popped up in recent years. Just a word of warning—you get what you pay for. You may find that you can get your work done cheaply through these sites, but this will often come at the cost of quality. If you’re not prepared to offer a fair price, you’ll find that highly skilled professionals won’t respond to your ad. In fact, many established freelancers don’t use these sites as they already get enough work through other means. These sites also run on commission, meaning that, unlike hiring a freelancer directly, not all your fee will go to the person who does the work.

Working with freelancers

Before you start working with a freelancer, there are a few things to bear in mind that will help keep the relationship running smoothly.

  • Don’t ever ask a freelancer to work for ‘exposure’. Would you ask your local restaurant to give you your meal for free in exchange for ‘exposure’? No? Then why would you ask it of a creative professional? By doing this you also risk developing a reputation as a time-waster client—established freelancers won’t work with you and they’ll tell their networks. And apart from anything else, it’s just plain exploitative.
  • Freelancers are small businesses. This means they have to cover the costs of everything usually borne by employers, such as tax and retirement fund payments, out of the fees they charge. So while a quote might seem high to you, remember that anywhere up to 50 per cent of it (depending on the freelancer’s financial arrangements) goes straight to the government. It also means that time is money, so don’t ask for a face-to-face meeting unless you’re prepared to have travel time built into the quote. Go for email, phone or Skype instead.
  • Have a realistic budget. You get what you pay for, and what you’re paying for is the years of experience that established freelancers have behind them. The cost will vary according to the size of your project, the market in your location and the turnaround time, but it’s safe to say that $50 or $100 won’t cut it unless the job is very small.
  • Know what you want and write it down clearly. Freelancers of all stripes do their best work when they’re properly briefed. The quote you receive should outline the scope of the project, and for anything beyond that you may be charged extra. So knowing what you want will help you avoid ‘scope creep’ and will save you money.
  • Give them plenty of time. Rush jobs are always more expensive. Also, many experienced freelancers are booked up weeks or months in advance, so do some planning and enquire early.
  • Make sure you understand and adhere to the terms and conditions. Many freelancers will have terms and conditions listed that you agree to by accepting a quote. Make sure you understand and adhere to these—especially regarding payment and intellectual property—and if you don’t like them, don’t accept the quote. Some freelancers may also get you to sign a contract, depending on their business and the size of your project.
  • Pay on time. This is huge. Many established freelancers ask for full or partial upfront payment, and this is done for a very good reason—many clients don’t pay on time and freelancers have to pay their bills in the meantime. You are responsible for your organisation’s cash flow, not the freelancer, so if you don’t have the money to hire someone, don’t. You may be charged late fees if you fail to pay within the terms of the invoice, or in extreme cases you may be referred to a debt collection agency. In addition, many freelancers—especially graphic designers and photographers—won’t release the final product to you until the final payment has been received, and if you use the product without paying for it under these circumstances you’re violating their intellectual property and could leave yourself open to legal action. So make everyone’s lives easier and pay on time.
  • Be flexible and easy to work with. All freelancers get the occasional client from hell, and they usually only work with them once. Don’t be that person. This means keeping communication open and recognising that the freelancer will probably need to fit you around other projects, so stick to agreed deadlines and keep your expectations reasonable.

Rapid changes to the workforce mean that more and more people are choosing to work for themselves. A good relationship with a freelancer can be of enormous benefit to your organisation, and a relatively small investment in something like professional graphic design can have huge payoffs in terms of your organisation’s professionalism and ability to reach its audience. And, as I never tire of saying, a little planning goes a long way!

Developing an effective mailing list

Photo credit: AJC ajcann.wordpress.com via Foter.com / CC BY-SA

In December’s Useful Tools post, we looked at options for email list providers, and why it’s a good idea to use a service such as MailChimp. But once you’ve got your list set up, how can you best use it to reach your audience?

Once you’ve decided to set up a mailing list, you need to encourage people to join. The first thing to do is create a sign-up form, embed it on your website and link it to your social media accounts. You may choose to put it as a pop-up on your website (although it’s important to note that Google now penalises mobile sites that use pop-ups) or just have it as a simple link or button. Make sure the design of your sign-up form adheres to your branding in terms of logos, colours and fonts. If you’re hosting an event, you can also have an area where people can sign up directly. MailChimp, for example, has an app that lets you display your sign-up form on a tablet.


Incentives

In general, the best way to build a mailing list is by providing some sort of incentive—something subscribers can’t receive anywhere else. Although it used to be enough to offer ‘regular news and updates,’ these days some sort of free content or other material incentive tends to work best. Many authors, for example, use a free ebook as an incentive to attract new subscribers. The amateur theatre group above could offer a voucher for one complementary ticket to its next show, valid for a certain number of months from the date of the subscription.

Although this may seem counterintuitive, it’s what is known as a ‘loss leader’ in marketing and economics, where something is sold below its market value in order to drive sales of other related products .  For example, in the case of an amateur theatre group, the cost of one complimentary ticket will probably be offset by future ticket purchases from that subscriber, especially since people generally prefer to go to the theatre with others, so that subscriber may actually bring along new audience members who would not otherwise have come to the show.

Whatever incentive you offer, you need to make good on it. Don’t make an offer and then hamstring it with arduous conditions or otherwise make it difficult for the subscriber to claim. By giving you their contact details, your subscribers are placing trust in your organisation, and they are also giving you a very valuable marketing tool. Don’t take it for granted.

Sending emails

There are a couple of different ways to manage your mailing list. You could decide to send out a regular newsletter—for example, monthly or fortnightly (weekly tends to get a bit spammy)—or you could send out news emails on an ad hoc basis, such as when you have a major event. What works best will depend on your organisation and target audience.

Make sure your template is clean and easy to read, and that your content has been proofread and is properly spaced. Don’t make your email too long—people’s attention spans are short and their time is limited. Put your most important messages up front. The tone of your email should conform to your brand voice.

Embed links in your emails that subscribers can visit for further information, but avoid saying ‘click here’. It should be clear where the link is going to (‘click here’ could go anywhere) and bear in mind that many of your subscribers will be viewing your email on a smartphone or tablet, rather than using a mouse (so not technically ‘clicking’). Make sure all your links are active and unbroken before you send the email.

Send a test version to yourself before you send it to your list, so you can check the layout, design and link functionality, and check for any other errors.

Avoiding spam

You will need to comply with anti-spam legislation and your mailing list provider should have procedures in place to help you do this. Among other things, this means you will need to provide contact details, including a postal address, which will go out on every email you send. You will also need to make sure your subscribers are able to unsubscribe at any time (this is usually done through an automated link).

Remember that most people receive tens or even hundreds of emails per day, so don’t annoy your subscribers by emailing them too often. If your open rates are going down and your sending frequency is high, this could indicate frustration among your subscribers with the number of emails you’re sending them.

Keep your list up to date

This is a huge issue for volunteer organisations, particularly those with a lot of turnover in their membership. Although automatic unsubscribe buttons help, if you’re sending out members-only emails then you need to make sure that your list is kept up to date, that new members are added, and that anyone who is no longer a member is removed. This means the person in charge of your membership needs to go through the mailing list regularly to check that it remains accurate. There’s no point sending emails to people who no longer want or need to receive them, and in the worst case you may have issues with confidentiality if non-members are receiving members-only information.

A well-functioning mailing list is still one of the best outreach tools available as you’re going directly to your audience. Above all, respect their time and the trust they’re placing in your organisation.

Trove – National Library of Australia

The internet has opened up a host of treasures, and never more so than when it comes to accessing historical or digitised information. Once upon a time, if a community group wanted to engage with historical sources – either by researching or sharing them – they had to go through a laborious process of libraries and archives. Now, databases like Trove at the National Library of Australia have opened up a world of possibilities.

Trove brings together Australian-related content from archives, libraries and research and cultural institutions across the country, including photos, objects, newspapers, maps, music, sound and video, government papers, diaries and letters, and archived websites. I briefly mentioned Trove in this blog post discussing public access archives and databases, but its possibilities are far more extensive.

Today, Trove Outreach Officer Catriona Bryce shares what the platform can do and how it can be used by community groups and not-for-profits.

What is your role in Trove?

My job is to talk to people about their use of Trove, and tell other people about inspirational uses of Trove. We want everyone who has an interest in Australian history and culture to see Trove as the first stop on his or her information journey.

How and why was Trove developed?

The most important thing the National Library of Australia does is to get Australia’s cultural heritage out into the world where it can inspire, inform and delight. That’s what Trove is for. Trove didn’t come out of a box, ready for the National Library to install. Trove has grown out of other services and evolved through the influence of people, technological developments and business needs. Trove was built from the experience and knowledge gained through the Library’s many years of sharing and collaborating with other organisations. From the collected catalogues of the Australian National Bibliographic Network launched in 1981, through to Picture Australia in the 2000s and the digitised newspapers, Trove was the coming together of a variety of standalone services. In the next few years Trove will be improved to make access to Australia’s collections even better.

What are the main services you provide?

Trove provides free access to the cultural collections of Australia, including university repositories, small historical societies, Australian libraries and government information.

There are three basic types of material in Trove:

  • Digitised items –  A newspaper, for instance, that was first published as printed pieces of paper. It was a tangible item. It’s had its picture taken, and been loaded into Trove. This is a digital copy of the original physical item. People can look at them right now, in Trove. We call this the digitised content.
  • ‘Born digital’ material – Think of an academic article that was created on a computer as a word document and published as a PDF, then submitted to and kept in a repository. There was never a physical version that we could hold in our hands. People can look at some of these digital copies right now on Trove, just like the digitised content.
  • Links to other collections – Only a description of the item comes into Trove. People click on a link and they’re taken to an organisation’s own website to either view more information about the item and hopefully a digitised version, or to consider if it’s possible to come and visit the item in person. Most of our cultural heritage is not digitised and available in a few clicks. We think letting people know an item exists is really important for a more complete story of Australia.

We also help organisations of all sizes share their collections with the world, through a content partnership (where we link to an external website) or a digitisation partnership (where we digitise material and share it through Trove). For both partnerships the Library has teams of people to assist organisations.

What do you find most fulfilling about your work? What’s the biggest challenge?

A couple of years ago a woman from Victoria contacted us to thank us. Her father had been reminiscing at dinner that evening about his childhood in a Victorian state home. He remembered that one day a photographer had come out to take a photograph of the children and wondered if it was possible to find it. Ten minutes’ searching in Trove and his daughter had found the only photograph of this man from his childhood. Trove returns people’s histories to them. Whenever the challenges of organisational inertia and dodgy data begin to get me down I remember this story and I know that Trove is worth the effort.

What sorts of community groups and not-for-profits use Trove, and how do they use it?

Trove works with a variety of groups from the community and non-profit sectors, from organisations like RSL Victoria, and the Tatura Irrigration and Wartime Camps Museum, to local historical societies like the Berrima Historical Society. Each of these organisations has shared their collections with Trove through a content partnership. It’s as simple as telling us that you have a collection to share.

Increasingly, local groups are working with us to digitise their local newspaper, journal or newsletter and provide free access to it in Trove.

For instance, a ‘hidden’ journal is now accessible on Trove, according to Jaci Grant, archivist for the Catholic Diocese of Bathurst, who partnered with the Library to digitise the diocesan newsletter, The Record (1877-1884; 1929-1931). The Library completed the 200 issues of this journal just before Christmas 2016. According to Ms Grant, “it was a rewarding and enjoyable process…the hard copy of the Record is often required for research purposes, now that the title is digitised and has been delivered to Trove there is no longer anything to hold up researchers. Having the journal digitised will mean that the hard copy no longer needs to be handled so will help preserve the copies for a longer time.”

Apart from sharing collections or digitising, museums use to Trove to research new exhibitions, historical societies use Trove to find out more about their history, and they train their members in the use of Trove.

Trove brings people together. A small town of 500 people in Western Australia, 300 kilometres north of Perth, is a vibrant centre of historical discovery and sharing. Formed in 1983, the Carnamah Historical Society collects, records, preserves and promotes their local history. They have been using Trove for years to better understand their community and they share their understandings in a museum, a heritage-listed building and the Biographical Dictionary of Coorow.

Being able to search across newspapers has been a game-changer for historians and organisations like this. Trove supports a wide range of the society’s ‘Virtual Volunteering’ projects, such as the Biographical Dictionary of Coorow, Carnamah and Three Springs. Searchability of their local newspapers benefits both their organisation and the broader community and – since October 2015 – has resulted in a steady workforce of virtual volunteers. Some nine months later and in any given week they have between 10 and 60 volunteers from across Western Australia working on Trove correction tasks.

Andrew Bowman-Bright from the society says that volunteers have corrected 1,460,034 lines of newspaper text. This work has led directly to discoveries they would never otherwise have made. “If Trove didn’t exist we’d miss being able to easily discover so much about our history and heritage,” he said.

What’s the most innovative use of Trove you’ve seen?

There are so many innovative uses of Trove, but my current favourite has to be Dr Katherine Bode from the Australian National University discovering Australian fiction long forgotten.

In nineteenth-century Australia, newspapers were the main local publishers as well as the major sources of fiction, both local and imported.

Dr Bode, who is an Associate Professor of Literary and Textual Studies at the Australian National University, wondered about the fiction that had not been studied or even recorded as part of the body of Australian literature. What works of fiction were out there? And what is their contribution to Australia’s literary history?

Fortunately, Trove has now digitised and made freely available around 1,300 of the estimated 7,700 Australian newspapers ever published.

Trove has made it possible, for the first time, to explore this nineteenth-century Australian newspaper fiction in a systematic and extensive way.

Dr Bode devised a paratextual method to mine Trove’s digitised newspapers to automatically identify and harvest fictional content. She discovered over 16,500 fictional works, which has massively expanded the record of nineteenth-century Australian literary culture and its connections with the international circulation of fiction in this period. Her discoveries will be published in a new book called A World of Fiction: Digital Archives and the Future of Literary History, due in 2018.

These newly found works will be highlighted in Trove. Dr Bode is now working with the Trove team to load this newly discovered fiction back into Trove as brand new records, describing works of fiction where any member of the public can easily find and enjoy them.

What’s the best way for a community group or non-profit to get started with Trove?

Click in the search box, type your name, or a topic you’re interested in and click search. Start exploring from there. You never know what you’ll discover!

If you have a collection you’d like to share through Trove, the best thing to do is contact us and tell us what you’ve got. We can then work out which sort of partnership is right for you.

Where can people get more information or become part of the Trove community?

There’s plenty of information in our Help Centre, both for searching Trove and for contributing a collection to Trove. If you have any questions, please contact us.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

If you’d like to read some wonderful stories about the things people have found in Trove, I encourage you to visit the Trove blog. Ghosts, lawn-mowers, long-lost football trophies, the role of women in wartime…there’s a lot to discover in Trove!

Storytelling for community groups

Book on wood planks over beauty mountains landscape background

Here at Pure Arts Communications, among other things, I run two kinds of writing training – professional writing for organisations, and fiction writing (because, when I don’t have my PAC hat on, you can find me writing fiction under the name L.M. Merrington). One of the great misconceptions I encounter, however, is that the gulf between these two types of writing is huge and insurmountable.

In some ways, of course, they’re very different – but increasingly we’re starting to see businesses incorporating many of the principles of narrative storytelling into their communications. Why? Because as humans we’re hardwired for story, and narrative storytelling is one of the most effective ways of conveying information. Just how effective this method is can be seen in the phenomenal success of TED Talks, the most popular of which has garnered nearly 24 million views (yes, you read that right!).

So how can you start incorporating storytelling techniques into your organisation’s communications?

Understand your organisation’s story

Community groups and not-for-profits often have rich stories and histories, because more often than not they’ve been started by people who are incredibly passionate about what they do. Think about why your organisation exists and what drove the people who began it. What community need is it meeting? This sort of story – where you came from, where you’re going and why you care about it – is perfect for your website’s ‘About Us’ page. Being able to clearly articulate your group’s story is also crucial for fundraising, because people want to know what they’re supporting.

Find and emphasise common themes

A couple of years ago, I helped a community theatre group prepare an oral history project (through a series of video interviews) as part of their 50th anniversary celebrations. A thing that interviewees consistently said – no matter whether they’d been there right from the start or had joined relatively recently – was that they stayed because the group was like a family. Given that the amateur theatre world can sometimes be cliquey and elitist, having lots of clips of people saying that they found the group warm and welcoming was communications gold, because it showed how they were different and what their values were.

Be passionate, personal and authentic

One of the reasons storytelling is so powerful is because it connects with our emotions. People who are looking to get involved with a community group will probably use a rational basis for their decision – Is it close to me? Does it engage my interests? – but they’ll also be looking to connect on an emotional level as well. Is the group friendly? Will I fit in here? What are their values and do they align with mine?

One of the best ways to connect at this emotional level is to talk about your organisation passionately and authentically, and in a way that builds relationships. This may mean asking some of your members to tell their stories about why they joined and why they stay – testimonials are very powerful – but also showing the passion that your organisation has for its cause.

Being authentic and passionate doesn’t mean being unprofessional. It simply means finding a voice that’s unique to your group and staying true to your organisation’s values across all your communications.

Enjoy it!

Storytelling is great fun, and it can make your communications so much easier and more interesting. There are many, many resources for non-profits available online, so have a look around and give it a go. Even if you’re not a natural writer, you might surprise yourself!

Authentic communication

One of the biggest sticking points for community organisations when it comes to outreach is worry about having to engage in ‘marketing’ or self-promotion. Terms like ‘personal brand’ can give the impression that we have to create something apart from ourselves, a persona that’s disconnected from who we really are. This is particularly alarming if you’re naturally introverted, and the thought of having to blow your own trumpet gives you chills.

In fact, however, the most effective engagement usually comes from simply being yourself. This is a surprisingly difficult lesson to learn – I say this from experience – because, especially in this age of social media and carefully curated images, it’s so easy to keep comparing ourselves to others and feeling like there’s a whole lot of things we ‘should’ be doing, even if they don’t really float our boat.

A common refrain I hear is that people feel their group needs to have a presence on every social media platform, but they just don’t have the time or the inclination to manage it all. My response to that is simple: if you don’t like it, don’t do it. The chances are your audience will be concentrated on one or two main platforms (probably Facebook or Twitter, although Instagram may be more appropriate for artists or those with a strong visual focus, and LinkedIn can also be good for professional-level networking), so go where they are and don’t worry about the others. It’s much better to learn how to use one or two platforms really effectively than to spread yourself too thinly across many.

The same thing goes for organisations’ websites. Some people get great engagement (and presumably enjoyment) out of having a blog for their community group, but blogs take maintenance, and if that’s not your thing then don’t worry about it. Your website needs to be informative and serve your audience’s needs – and this may or may not include a blog.

I understand this pressure all too well, having gone through the same thing with my own business. Being in strategic communications, I felt like I should be blogging about new technology or developments in search engine optimisation, because that seemed to be what everyone else was doing. Then, at the prompting of a very wise business coach, I stopped and thought about what I was really passionate about – helping community groups and not-for-profits bring their work to a wider audience, because I see immense value in their work and the contribution it makes to society. Once I remembered exactly why I’d started my business in the first place, blogging suddenly became a whole lot easier, because I believe in what I’m writing about. So if your research and passion is planting trees, or feeding the homeless, or teaching people how to trace their family tree, use that as your main point of engagement. If you’re authentic in your outreach, you’ll attract people who share your interests and who want to hear more about your work. You can’t please everyone, but the good news is you don’t have to.