Philly ‘burbs WordPress Meetup: Considering Purpose and Community

A thoughtful look at the purpose of the Philly ‘burbs WordPress Meetup and the role of community in that group.

Philly 'burbs WordPress Meetup

As the Philly ‘burbs WordPress Meetup moves steadily into its second year, I want to share my own thoughts on what I consider to be the purpose, goals and spirit of the group. Admittedly, the following ideas are my own and only mine. Yet, it is my hope that in posting this writing, I can shed some light on my own hopes and aims for our growing group.

As of today, we are nearing 200 members in the Philly ‘burbs WordPress Meetup. Some are more active than others. Some attend more regularly than others. Some deliver presentations regularly, while others prefer to join in the open conversations. That’s all wonderful. The group thrives on the diversity of its members, on their varying professional interests, skills and their independent and unique viewpoints.

The Purpose of Our Group

When I first began thinking about starting a WordPress focused meetup, I really wanted to bring together the designers and developers who work with WordPress on a daily basis and the marketers, bloggers and site administrators who use this amazing software. As stated in the About us … section of our meetup page, “We focus on both design and development considerations (tips, techniques and hacks) as well as user concerns like expanded functionality and best practices.” After 13 meetups, I hope that we are fulfilling that goal.

As can be expected with such a remit, we have a great range of skills among our members — some are quite marketing savvy while others are more technically minded. Some code sites every day, while others steer clear of code like it’s the plague. That’s great. We aim to encourage both groups (designers/developers and marketers/bloggers) to push their limits and to step outside of their comfort levels. Only by pushing ourselves and taking on new challenges can we hope to improve our skills and develop professionally.

Fertile Ground for an Exchange of Ideas

A fundamental aspect of our meetup is the exchange of ideas from people with different perspectives and different professional backgrounds. The exposure to new ideas and practices has created an engaging dynamic among our group: people learn from each other, even if they don’t always adopt each other’s ideas or practices. By immersing ourselves in an environment of shared ideas, we can develop a wider understanding of WordPress, its use and its value. I know that I have certainly learned a lot about both WordPress and, more generally, web development through the presentations and conversations that have flowed at our gatherings.

A Challenge is an Opportunity to Grow

Invariably our approach challenges some of our members — and I feel that’s a good thing. I am eager for those less code-minded to improve their technical knowledge and skill. I’m also focused on encouraging our designers and developers to learn more about the needs, work and practices of our marketing professionals and bloggers. The idea is simply the more we know, the better we can be at our job — regardless of what our job is.

From month to month, the presentations do range in their technical focus or emphasis. We may have a tech-heavy presentation in one month, followed the next month by something less so. The presentations always focus on WordPress.

What We’re Not

To be clear, we have taken deliberate steps to avoid becoming a monthly WordPress training course. Yes, we want people to learn something every month, but as we rely on our members and other volunteers to serve as speakers, I don’t think turning our meetup into a formal training environment would be feasible or even desirable.

Constructive Feedback is the Brainchild of Improvement

The beauty of a group meetup is the exchange of ideas and feedback. In group settings, especially with such an informal setting as we have with the Philly ‘burbs WordPress Meetup, it can be difficult to get everything right for everyone at every juncture. That’s to be expected. As such, I truly appreciate when our members take the time to offer constructive insight and feedback on the comings and goings of the group. That sort of information, be it positive reviews or constructive complaints, is the only way that our meetup can improve, grow and continue to add value to our members.

Keep Moving Forward

As I look forward to our next meetup, I am reminded of a mantra of Lewis Robinson, the orphan turned brilliant inventor in Disney’s Meet the Robinsons. His byline was “Keep Moving Forward.” I hope that our own group embraces such an inspiring thought and continues to grow and flourish in the coming months and years.

As always, I welcome your thoughts, ideas, critiques and feedback below in the comments.

PowerPoint Presentations on iPad: A review of SlideShark

A review of the new app from BrainShark, called Slideshark, for showing PowerPoint presentations in an iPad.

SlideShark website screen shot

As the owner of a small business, I regularly present to clients and potential clients. As more and more business meetings take place away from office settings, I find myself delivering presentations in coffee shops and cafés. While I love my MacBook Pro, it can be cumbersome when talking through my slides, while trying to avoid knocking a latte or cappuccino off the small sized tables at my local coffee shop.

Last week I decided to start using my iPad for presentations. Inspired by this choice, I was blazing through the creation of a new PowerPoint presentation about lbdesign, when I suddenly realized a flaw in my plan: how was I going to get my PPT files to display on the iPad?

A quick internet search and I had my answer: SlideShark.

Moving PPT files to the iPad

SlidesharkThe concept behind SlideShark is wonderfully simple: keep creating presentations on the same program that you have been for years … but deliver those presentations on the light, easy to carry iPad. Through SlideShark, you can transfer PowerPoint presentations to your iPad and have them available anywhere, regardless of whether you have an internet connection.

Racing to complete my presentation on time, I could spare only scant attention to the process of downloading and configuring SlideShark. It could not have been easier. I hit the App Store on the iPad, searched for SlideShark and then tapped the install button. As the install progressed, I returned my focus to my PPT file.

My presentation completed and saved locally, I returned to the iPad. Registering an account was an easy and straightforward process. The app configured, I switched back to my MacBook Pro to upload the presentation to SlideShark via its website. My presentation was bigger than I normally create – 5.6MB. Still, Slideshark crunched through the conversion process in only a few moments. Then all I had to do was sync the Slideshark app on the iPad with my online account and — Whammo! — my presentation was on the iPad.

The beauty of SlideShark is its simplicity. Never once did I need to review the demo or surf to the help section on the SlideShark website. The process of uploading, converting and transferring my PowerPoint presentation to the iPad was seemless and quick.

My Slideshark Wishlist

Slideshark is a new app and I accept that it may not have all the features that the smart people at BrainShark might eventually include. If I could one add one feature to the existing app, it would be more advanced slide transitions; Slideshark currently only offers a basic right-to-left slide transition. The beauty and style of the iPad certainly calls for more exciting changes between slides. Still early days for this powerful new app, but that’s one feature that would make Slideshark even more impressive.

Ideas of valuable content for small business blogs

A list of ideas for types of valuable content that small companies can post on their business blogs.

Blog ideas

As a communications designer and online marketing consultant, I regularly field questions from small business owners about the sort of content they should post on their company blogs. “What can I say that people will want to read?” is what I hear from businesses in the US and the UK alike.

When responding to such questions, I emphasise that small businesses are not competing with the BBC or CNN to be the primary news source for their audiences. Small businesses should focus on their target audience (existing customers, potential customers, suppliers, local journalists and other local businesses), generating content geared to make a connection with that audience.

Valuable blog content for small businesses

Over time, I have developed a list of ideas for types of valuable content that small companies can post on their business blogs. By no means exhaustive, this list gives small business owners a place to start when thinking of ideas to blog about.

  • An exciting case study: Discuss how we met a particularly tough business challenge and how that more than met our client’s needs.
  • Insight into our business: Reveal our business personality … what sets us apart from our competitors?
  • Examples of innovative problem solving: Demonstrate that we’re savvy business people by describing a problem that we resolved with particular ingenuity or innovation.
  • Photos of new products, services or from social events: A picture is worth a thousand words … enough said.
  • Connections with partner companies: Publicly offer thanks or share the credit with our business partners or suppliers.
  • Links to valuable offerings online: When we find a great article offering tips or advice for small businesses, share it!
  • Promotion of other local organisations: Market our local business community. There is strength in local promotion, so be an integral part of that.
  • Customer ‘how to’ insights: Give customers tips on how to get greater value from our services or products. It’s a good approach for building brand loyalty.
  • ‘Day in the life’: When our business interacts with customers it is through our staff; help our customers get to know our greatest assets by featuring them on our blog.
  • Professional commentary on recent industry news: Use our experience and expertise to offer insight to high-profile news stories that affect our industry or local area.

My list of valuable content for small business blogs is only a starting point. Use your creativity to generate other ideas. What additional examples can you add that might help other small businesses generate valuable posts for their blogs?

A Blogger’s Approach to SEO

A day-to-day, practical list of actions that bloggers can take to increase traffic to their websites through web searches.

Screen shot of adding a new blog post

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to send a client a detailed email offering practical advice to getting search engine optimization (SEO) value out of my client’s blogging efforts. Rather than burdening my client with the technical aspects of SEO, I shared a day-to-day, practical list of actions the client could take to increase traffic through web searches.

The list below has been generalized for wider application. Additional suggestions are welcome. Google is used in this discussion as a representative of all internet search engines.

Regular posts

Google really likes new content. Fresh blog posts and web pages filled with keywords have a great ability to attract Google’s attention. In the early days of launching our blog, we should publish as often as is practical and sustainable. Once a week is a good target. Such a pace can, in a sense, entice Google to recognize our website as a reliable provider of content on our focus topic. Breaking down longer posts into several posts is one way to help us post frequently, running the article as a series rather than as a single post.

Writing for keywords

When writing blog posts, it’s important to include instances of our keywords — words which we want Google to associate with our blog when they are searched for on Google. Of course, some of that will come naturally as we write about our focus area. Still it’s important to use our selected keywords as often as is practicable. Although we definitely want to write for humans – which means that our content must be intelligent and coherent – packing a post with keywords will certainly help improve the search-engine friendliness of the posts.

Use headings and subheadings

The use of heading tags (<h1>, <h2> and <h3>) is important from an SEO standpoint. In addition to providing structure to our posts, they also serve to present the post to Google in an outline format. Well … that might not be the best way to phrase it, but the use of heading tags allows search engines to know more about the content in our blog posts. From a readability standpoint, they also allow humans to more easily scan through the post.

Include internal links and hyperlink titles

This section was added on 30 Sep. 2011 as a result of feedback that I received from Alex Walker (@AlexatSage). I am grateful for his readership of my blog, and more importantly, for his valuable contributions.

To encourage our readers to flip through more than just one post on our blog, let’s be sure to include internal links within each post. Look for ways to link to other, related posts on our site. This will make it easier for visitors to our site to casually work their way through our content. Moreover, if we do consistently blog on a specific topic, linking articles will assist our readers in obtaining a more comprehensive understanding of our focus area.

Another technical tip is to use title tags in our hyperlinks. Title tags in hyperlinks add a little more information about where a link will lead. They possess SEO value and can be helpful when adding internal links to our blog posts. They are very easy to add (especially when using blogging software like WordPress), so it won’t take much to go that extra step.

Comment on other blogs

Blogs are about conversation, and bloggers love it when someone new leaves a comment on their blog. They will definitely respond at the very least by checking out our own blog and possibly even leave comments on our site. That’s great from both the SEO and web traffic levels standpoints. Google also likes posts which have lots of on-going comments. We should aim to comment on other blogs at least two or three times a week in the first several months of launching our blog. The comments that we leave don’t need to be long, but they should show that we’ve read the post and have something to say. That ‘something’ can definitely be a well-worded thank you.

Get out there and tweet

In addition to leaving comments on the blogs of people writing on our areas of interest, it’s also helpful to make connections with people via Twitter. This can be done by following those who attention we wish to attract, or simply by retweeting some of their posts. Another helpful approach is to reply to their tweets with our own thoughts. That can be done via the 140 character limit in Twitter or by sharing a link to a web site or blog … perhaps even to our own blog posts on the topic.

Tell people about it!

Let’s not forget the value of straight-up self promotion. Don’t be afraid to email friends and colleagues about our blog, particularly if a specific post might be of interest to them. Ask some of them to share their thoughts and feedback as comments. Print business cards which include our blog address and share them with everyone. Add our blog address to our email signature.

In it for the long haul

I’ll conclude by suggesting that driving traffic to a website in an organic way – no advertising – takes a lot of effort and at least several months. The rewards of achieving sustainable traffic levels are certainly enjoyable, but they only come with effort.

Eight Simple Rules of Skype Etiquette

A short, detailed-list of etiquette rules for using Skype in the workplace.

Working for a mini-international, I use Skype daily to communicate with London, Chicago, Florida and beyond. For me, Skype is a valuable business communication tool. I’ve been using it since 2003 and am pleased to see that a growing number of colleagues and clients – in both the UK and the US – are making their way onto this VOIP software.

As its usage increases, I’ve noticed a certain lack of sophistication when it comes to Skype etiquette, especially from those new to the technology. Eager to encourage others to adapt this helpful web tool, I aim to share some ideas on how best to communicate with this amazing software and to engender discussion of the topic by other regular Skype users.

This article assumes a basic-user level knowledge of Skype.

1. Instant Messaging

In a sense, sending a colleague an instant message over Skype is like knocking on the door of our contact’s virtual office. It’s important to start the conversation with a polite greeting and friendly enquiry about our colleague’s openness to interruption. Something like a “Hello. Is now a good time for a question?” is a quick and demure way to get our colleague’s attention and to allow them to politely defer, if necessary.

2. Don’t Chat Cute

As a means of business communication, instant messaging via Skype is certainly less strict than email or by letter. A certain laxity for formal grammar guidelines, capitalization and the like is accepted. Typing rapidly occasionally includes minor errors, and these are often overlooked as ‘part of the territory,’ by Skype users. However, getting too cute with swapping numbers and abbreviations for real words is likely to be seen as childish and unprofessional.

3. Ending a Chat

Generally speaking, it’s a good idea to end an instant message chat by thanking our colleague for the time or help. Little phrases like “Thanks for that. Got a meeting in 10, so need to run. Cheers!” can go a long way to maintaining our relationships with our Skype colleagues.

There are times, however, when we get interrupted and don’t get a chance to properly end a chat. That’s okay. It happens. However, it’s polite to ping our colleague an instant message saying that we got interrupted when we next get a chance. This is especially important if we were the one to initiate the chat. We can do this even if our colleague is no longer online. They will get our message when they next sign onto Skype.

We’d also like to point out that if someone stops responding to our conversation in mid-chat, our first reaction should not be immediate anger or concern for the welfare of our colleague. That person might have been interrupted by the phone or some other important activity. Skype is generally accepted as a lower priority activity when people are forced to chose.

4. The Skype Call

When looking to call someone over Skype (in a Skype-to-Skype call), it’s polite to ask for permission to ring before calling. Our colleague might be on the telephone, in a public place or otherwise not in a position to take our Skype call. Since we have the capacity to instant message before we ring, failing to do so can be considered as rather rude.

Most critical for unplanned calls, this even applies in instances where you’ve scheduled the call in advance. Writing, “Hello. Is this still a good time for our call?” will only take a few seconds away from the planned call time and will avoid catching someone off-guard.

5. Skype Video

Skype’s video integration is a great way to increase the connectedness of the conversation. Many people are surprised at how much improved communication gets by adding the video element. Video also allows us to show objects, drawings and other visual elements to our colleague to enhance the discussion. However, be aware that many people are not used to using webcams and are reluctant to begin in a business setting. It is not considered standard to include video as part of a Skype call and we must be conscious that only closer contacts would be willing and prepared for video.

We also note that when preparing to engage in a Skype call with a colleague it is smart to think about your dress and surroundings before initiating or accepting a video call. Extremely casual dress, strange settings, colleagues walking by in the background, and close-up views of eating are just a few examples of how video can end up being more distracting than useful.

6. Skype File Transfers

Skype is a good way to quickly share relevant files with our colleagues, but many people do not realize that Skype does not notify the recipient of a pending file transfer in the same way it flags up a new message. Before sending any files over Skype, it is generally best to ask our colleague whether that would be okay, or if they would prefer us to email it to them.

7. Your Skype Profile

When you connect to others on Skype, they will be able to see certain profile information about you by default. Be aware what your Skype status, location, and other profile details are saying and ensure they are appropriate and accurate when using Skype for business.

8. Multitasking during Skype Calls

Perhaps one of the biggest advantages of Skype is that even when we are engaged in a Skype call, we can still read and send emails, surf the internet and perform other computer-related tasks. We can do so without interrupting our Skype call as long as we devote sufficient mental attention to that conversation. Be aware however, that depending on the placement of your computer’s microphone, the sound of your typing can be quite loud for the person you’re speaking to.

The Right Equipment

Just like in telephone conversations, the quality of the connection and the levels of background noise can greatly affect the quality of a Skype call. It’s helpful to keep an external microphone and headphones nearby for Skype calls, rather than just relying on the default computer hardware. While not always required, failing to have them handy when required can greatly reduce the ease of communication. Using even a cheap set of headphones can save our colleague the unpleasant experience of noise loops (when the speaker noise feeds back into the microphone). You may be surprised how much the quality if Skype calls increases when you incorporate headphones.

The ideas posted here are not only my own, but include those of other business professionals who rely on Skype to conduct business both locally and internationally. I invite others to join in the conversation by adding their comments, questions or feedback below.