Darryl, the man behind dotmailer’s Custom Technical Solutions team

Why did you decide to come to dotmailer?

I first got to know dotmailer when the company was just a bunch of young enthusiastic web developers called Ellipsis Media back in 1999. I was introduced by one of my suppliers and we decided to bring them on board to build a recruitment website for one of our clients. That client was Amnesty International and the job role was Secretary General. Not bad for a Croydon company whose biggest client before that was Scobles the plumber’s merchants. So, I was probably dotmailer’s first ever corporate client! After that, I used dotmailer at each company I worked for and then one day they approached a colleague and me and asked us if we wanted to work for them. That was 2013.  We grabbed the opportunity with both hands and haven’t looked back since.

Tell us a bit about your role

I’m the Global Head of Technical Solutions which actually gives me responsibility for 2 teams. First, Custom Technical Solutions (CTS), who build bespoke applications and tools for customers that allow them to integrate more closely with dotmailer and make life easier. Second, Technical Pre-sales, which spans our 3 territories (EMEA, US and APAC) and works with prospective and existing clients to figure out the best solution and fit within dotmailer.

What accomplishments are you most proud of from your dotmailer time so far?

I would say so far it has to be helping to turn the CTS team from just 2 people into a group of 7 highly skilled and dedicated men and women who have become an intrinsic and valued part of the dotmailer organization. Also I really enjoy being part of the Senior Technical Management team. Here we have the ability to influence the direction and structure of the platform on a daily basis.

Meet Darryl Clark – the cheese and peanut butter sandwich lover

Can you speak a bit about your background and that of your team? What experience and expertise is required to join this team?

My background is quite diverse from a stint in the Army, through design college, web development, business analysis to heading up my current teams. I would say the most valuable skill that I have is being highly analytical. I love nothing more than listening to a client’s requirements and digging deep to work out how we can answer these if not exceed them.

As a team, we love nothing more than brainstorming our ideas. Every member has a valid input and we listen. Everyone has the opportunity to influence what we do and our motto is “there is no such thing as a stupid question.”

To work in my teams you have to be analytical but open minded to the fact that other people may have a better answer than you. Embrace other people’s input and use it to give our clients the best possible solution. We are hugely detail conscious, but have to be acutely aware that we need to tailor what we say to our audience so being able to talk to anyone at any level is hugely valuable.

How much of the dotmailer platform is easily customizable and when does it cross over into something that requires your team’s expertise? How much time is spent on these custom solutions one-time or ongoing?

I’ll let you in on a little secret here. We don’t actually do anything that our customers can’t do with dotmailer given the right knowledge and resources. This is because we build all of our solutions using the dotmailer public API. The API has hundreds of methods in both SOAP and REST versions, which allows you to do a huge amount with the dotmailer platform. We do have a vast amount of experience and knowledge in the team so we may well be able to build a solution quicker than our customers. We are more than happy to help them and their development teams build a solution using us on a consultancy basis to lessen the steepness of the learning curve.

Our aim when building a solution for a customer is that it runs silently in the background and does what it should without any fuss.

What are your plans for the Custom Tech Solutions team going forward?

The great thing about Custom Technical Solutions is you never know what is around the corner as our customers have very diverse needs. What we are concentrating on at the moment is refining our processes to ensure that they are as streamlined as possible and allow us to give as much information to the customer as we can. We are also always looking at the technology and coding approaches that we use to make sure that we build the most innovative and robust solutions.

We are also looking at our external marketing and sharing our knowledge through blogs so keep an eye on the website for our insights.

What are the most common questions that you get when speaking to a prospective customer?

Most questions seem to revolve around reassurance such as “Have you done this before?”, “How safe is my data?”, “What about security?”, “Can you talk to my developers?”, “Do I need to do anything?”.  In most instances, we are the ones asking the questions as we need to find out information as soon as possible so that we can analyse it to ensure that we have the right detail to provide the right solution.

Can you tell us about the dotmailer differentiators you highlight when speaking to prospective customers that seem to really resonate?

We talk a lot about working with best of breed so for example a customer can use our Channel Extensions in automation programs to fire out an SMS to a contact using their existing provider. We don’t force customers down one route, we like to let them decide for themselves.

Also, I really like to emphasize the fact that there is always more than one way to do something within the dotmailer platform. This means we can usually find a way to do something that works for a client within the platform. If not, then we call in CTS to work out if there is a way that we can build something that will — whether this is automating uploads for a small client or mass sending from thousands of child accounts for an enterprise level one.

What do you see as the future of marketing automation technology?  Will one size ever fit all? Or more customization going forward?

The 64 million dollar question. One size will never fit all. Companies and their systems are too organic for that. There isn’t one car that suits every driver or one racquet that suits every sport. Working with a top drawer partner network and building our system to be as open as possible from an integration perspective means that our customers can make dotmailer mold to their business and not the other way round…and adding to that the fact that we are building lots of features in the platform that will blow your socks off.

Tell us a bit about yourself – favorite sports team, favorite food, guilty pleasure, favorite band, favorite vacation spot?

I’m a dyed in the wool Gooner (aka Arsenal Football Club fan) thanks to my Grandfather leading me down the right path as a child. If you are still reading this after that bombshell, then food-wise I pretty much like everything apart from coriander which as far as I’m concerned is the Devils own spawn. I don’t really have a favorite band, but am partial to a bit of Level 42 and Kings of Leon and you will also find me listening to 90s drum and bass and proper old school hip hop. My favorite holiday destination is any decent villa that I can relax in and spend time with my family and I went to Paris recently and loved that. Guilty pleasure – well that probably has to be confessing to liking Coldplay or the fact that my favorite sandwich is peanut butter, cheese and salad cream. Go on try it, you’ll love it.

Want to meet more of the dotmailer team? Say hi to Darren Hockley, Global Head of Support, and Dan Morris, EVP for North America.

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From Editorial Calendars to SEO: Setting Yourself Up to Create Fabulous Content

Posted by Isla_McKetta

Quick note: This article is meant to apply to teams of all sizes, from the sole proprietor who spends all night writing their copy (because they’re doing business during the day) to the copy team who occupies an entire floor and produces thousands of pieces of content per week. So if you run into a section that you feel requires more resources than you can devote just now, that’s okay. Bookmark it and revisit when you can, or scale the step down to a more appropriate size for your team. We believe all the information here is important, but that does not mean you have to do everything right now.

If you thought ideation was fun, get ready for content creation. Sure, we’ve all written some things before, but the creation phase of content marketing is where you get to watch that beloved idea start to take shape.

Before you start creating, though, you want to get (at least a little) organized, and an editorial calendar is the perfect first step.

Editorial calendars

Creativity and organization are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they can feed each other. A solid schedule gives you and your writers the time and space to be wild and creative. If you’re just starting out, this document may be sparse, but it’s no less important. Starting early with your editorial calendar also saves you from creating content willy-nilly and then finding out months later that no one ever finished that pesky (but crucial) “About” page.

There’s no wrong way to set up your editorial calendar, as long as it’s meeting your needs. Remember that an editorial calendar is a living document, and it will need to change as a hot topic comes up or an author drops out.

There are a lot of different types of documents that pass for editorial calendars. You get to pick the one that’s right for your team. The simplest version is a straight-up calendar with post titles written out on each day. You could even use a wall calendar and a Sharpie.

Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday
Title
The Five Colors of Oscar Fashion 12 Fabrics We’re Watching for Fall Is Charmeuse the New Corduroy? Hot Right Now: Matching Your Handbag to Your Hatpin Tea-length and Other Fab Vocab You Need to Know
Author Ellie James Marta Laila Alex

Teams who are balancing content for different brands at agencies or other more complex content environments will want to add categories, author information, content type, social promo, and more to their calendars.

Truly complex editorial calendars are more like hybrid content creation/editorial calendars, where each of the steps to create and publish the content are indicated and someone has planned for how long all of that takes. These can be very helpful if the content you’re responsible for crosses a lot of teams and can take a long time to complete. It doesn’t matter if you’re using Excel or a Google Doc, as long as the people who need the calendar can easily access it. Gantt charts can be excellent for this. Here’s a favorite template for creating a Gantt chart in Google Docs (and they only get more sophisticated).

Complex calendars can encompass everything from ideation through writing, legal review, and publishing. You might even add content localization if your empire spans more than one continent to make sure you have the currency, date formatting, and even slang right.

Content governance

Governance outlines who is taking responsibility for your content. Who evaluates your content performance? What about freshness? Who decides to update (or kill) an older post? Who designs and optimizes workflows for your team or chooses and manages your CMS?

All these individual concerns fall into two overarching components to governance: daily maintenance and overall strategy. In the long run it helps if one person has oversight of the whole process, but the smaller steps can easily be split among many team members. Read this to take your governance to the next level.

Finding authors

The scale of your writing enterprise doesn’t have to be limited to the number of authors you have on your team. It’s also important to consider the possibility of working with freelancers and guest authors. Here’s a look at the pros and cons of outsourced versus in-house talent.

In-house authors

Guest authors and freelancers

Responsible to

You

Themselves

Paid by

You (as part of their salary)

You (on a per-piece basis)

Subject matter expertise

Broad but shallow

Deep but narrow

Capacity for extra work

As you wish

Show me the Benjamins

Turnaround time

On a dime

Varies

Communication investment

Less

More

Devoted audience

Smaller

Potentially huge

From that table, it might look like in-house authors have a lot more advantages. That’s somewhat true, but do not underestimate the value of occasionally working with a true industry expert who has name recognition and a huge following. Whichever route you take (and there are plenty of hybrid options), it’s always okay to ask that the writers you are working with be professional about communication, payment, and deadlines. In some industries, guest writers will write for links. Consider yourself lucky if that’s true. Remember, though, that the final paycheck can be great leverage for getting a writer to do exactly what you need them to (such as making their deadlines).

Tools to help with content creation

So those are some things you need to have in place before you create content. Now’s the fun part: getting started. One of the beautiful things about the Internet is that new and exciting tools crop up every day to help make our jobs easier and more efficient. Here are a few of our favorites.

Calendars

You can always use Excel or a Google Doc to set up your editorial calendar, but we really like Trello for the ability to gather a lot of information in one card and then drag and drop it into place. Once there are actual dates attached to your content, you might be happier with something like a Google Calendar.

Ideation and research

If you need a quick fix for ideation, turn your keywords into wacky ideas with Portent’s Title Maker. You probably won’t want to write to the exact title you’re given (although “True Facts about Justin Bieber’s Love of Pickles” does sound pretty fascinating…), but it’s a good way to get loose and look at your topic from a new angle.

Once you’ve got that idea solidified, find out what your audience thinks about it by gathering information with Survey Monkey or your favorite survey tool. Or, use Storify to listen to what people are saying about your topic across a wide variety of platforms. You can also use Storify to save those references and turn them into a piece of content or an illustration for one. Don’t forget that a simple social ask can also do wonders.

Format

Content doesn’t have to be all about the words. Screencasts, Google+ Hangouts, and presentations are all interesting ways to approach content. Remember that not everyone’s a reader. Some of your audience will be more interested in visual or interactive content. Make something for everyone.

Illustration

Don’t forget to make your content pretty. It’s not that hard to find free stock images online (just make sure you aren’t violating someone’s copyright). We like Morgue File, Free Images, and Flickr’s Creative Commons. If you aren’t into stock images and don’t have access to in-house graphic design, it’s still relatively easy to add images to your content. Pull a screenshot with Skitch or dress up an existing image with Pixlr. You can also use something like Canva to create custom graphics.

Don’t stop with static graphics, though. There are so many tools out there to help you create gifs, quizzes and polls, maps, and even interactive timelines. Dream it, then search for it. Chances are whatever you’re thinking of is doable.

Quality, not quantity

Mediocre content will hurt your cause

Less is more. That’s not an excuse to pare your blog down to one post per month (check out our publishing cadence experiment), but it is an important reminder that if you’re writing “How to Properly Install a Toilet Seat” two days after publishing “Toilet Seat Installation for Dummies,” you might want to rethink your strategy.

The thing is, and I’m going to use another cliché here to drive home the point, you never get a second chance to make a first impression. Potential customers are roving the Internet right now looking for exactly what you’re selling. And if what they find is an only somewhat informative article stuffed with keywords and awful spelling and grammar mistakes… well, you don’t want that. Oh, and search engines think it’s spammy too…

A word about copyright

We’re not copyright lawyers, so we can’t give you the ins and outs on all the technicalities. What we can tell you (and you already know this) is that it’s not okay to steal someone else’s work. You wouldn’t want them to do it to you. This includes images. So whenever you can, make your own images or find images that you can either purchase the rights to (stock imagery) or license under Creative Commons.

It’s usually okay to quote short portions of text, as long as you attribute the original source (and a link is nice). In general, titles and ideas can’t be copyrighted (though they might be trademarked or patented). When in doubt, asking for permission is smart.

That said, part of the fun of the Internet is the remixing culture which includes using things like memes and gifs. Just know that if you go that route, there is a certain amount of risk involved.

Editing

Your content needs to go through at least one editing cycle by someone other than the original author. There are two types of editing, developmental (which looks at the underlying structure of a piece that happens earlier in the writing cycle) and copy editing (which makes sure all the words are there and spelled right in the final draft).

If you have a very small team or are in a rush (and are working with writers that have some skill), you can often skip the developmental editing phase. But know that an investment in that close read of an early draft is often beneficial to the piece and to the writer’s overall growth.

Many content teams peer-edit work, which can be great. Other organizations prefer to run their work by a dedicated editor. There’s no wrong answer, as long as the work gets edited.

Ensuring proper basic SEO

The good news is that search engines are doing their best to get closer and closer to understanding and processing natural language. So good writing (including the natural use of synonyms rather than repeating those keywords over and over and…) will take you a long way towards SEO mastery.

For that reason (and because it’s easy to get trapped in keyword thinking and veer into keyword stuffing), it’s often nice to think of your SEO check as a further edit of the post rather than something you should think about as you’re writing.

But there are still a few things you can do to help cover those SEO bets. Once you have that draft, do a pass for SEO to make sure you’ve covered the following:

  • Use your keyword in your title
  • Use your keyword (or long-tail keyword phrase) in an H2
  • Make sure the keyword appears at least once (though not more than four times, especially if it’s a phrase) in the body of the post
  • Use image alt text (including the keyword when appropriate)

Finding time to write when you don’t have any

Writing (assuming you’re the one doing the writing) can require a lot of energy—especially if you want to do it well. The best way to find time to write is to break each project down into little tasks. For example, writing a blog post actually breaks down into these steps (though not always in this order):

  • Research
  • Outline
  • Fill in outline
  • Rewrite and finish post
  • Write headline
  • SEO check
  • Final edit
  • Select hero image (optional)

So if you only have random chunks of time, set aside 15-30 minutes one day (when your research is complete) to write a really great outline. Then find an hour the next to fill that outline in. After an additional hour the following day, (unless you’re dealing with a research-heavy post) you should have a solid draft by the end of day three.

The magic of working this way is that you engage your brain and then give it time to work in the background while you accomplish other tasks. Hemingway used to stop mid-sentence at the end of his writing days for the same reason.

Once you have that draft nailed, the rest of the steps are relatively easy (even the headline, which often takes longer to write than any other sentence, is easier after you’ve immersed yourself in the post over a few days).

Working with design/development

Every designer and developer is a little different, so we can’t give you any blanket cure-alls for inter-departmental workarounds (aka “smashing silos”). But here are some suggestions to help you convey your vision while capitalizing on the expertise of your coworkers to make your content truly excellent.

Ask for feedback

From the initial brainstorm to general questions about how to work together, asking your team members what they think and prefer can go a long way. Communicate all the details you have (especially the unspoken expectations) and then listen.

If your designer tells you up front that your color scheme is years out of date, you’re saving time. And if your developer tells you that the interactive version of that timeline will require four times the resources, you have the info you need to fight for more budget (or reassess the project).

Check in

Things change in the design and development process. If you have interim check-ins already set up with everyone who’s working on the project, you’ll avoid the potential for nasty surprises at the end. Like finding out that no one has experience working with that hot new coding language you just read about and they’re trying to do a workaround that isn’t working.

Proofread

Your job isn’t done when you hand over the copy to your designer or developer. Not only might they need help rewriting some of your text so that it fits in certain areas, they will also need you to proofread the final version. Accidents happen in the copy-and-paste process and there’s nothing sadder than a really beautiful (and expensive) piece of content that wraps up with a typo:

Know when to fight for an idea

Conflict isn’t fun, but sometimes it’s necessary. The more people involved in your content, the more watered down the original idea can get and the more roadblocks and conflicting ideas you’ll run into. Some of that is very useful. But sometimes you’ll get pulled off track. Always remember who owns the final product (this may not be you) and be ready to stand up for the idea if it’s starting to get off track.

We’re confident this list will set you on the right path to creating some really awesome content, but is there more you’d like to know? Ask us your questions in the comments.

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Eliminate Duplicate Content in Faceted Navigation with Ajax/JSON/JQuery

Posted by EricEnge

One of the classic problems in SEO is that while complex navigation schemes may be useful to users, they create problems for search engines. Many publishers rely on tags such as rel=canonical, or the parameters settings in Webmaster Tools to try and solve these types of issues. However, each of the potential solutions has limitations. In today’s post, I am going to outline how you can use JavaScript solutions to more completely eliminate the problem altogether.

Note that I am not going to provide code examples in this post, but I am going to outline how it works on a conceptual level. If you are interested in learning more about Ajax/JSON/jQuery here are some resources you can check out:

  1. Ajax Tutorial
  2. Learning Ajax/jQuery

Defining the problem with faceted navigation

Having a page of products and then allowing users to sort those products the way they want (sorted from highest to lowest price), or to use a filter to pick a subset of the products (only those over $60) makes good sense for users. We typically refer to these types of navigation options as “faceted navigation.”

However, faceted navigation can cause problems for search engines because they don’t want to crawl and index all of your different sort orders or all your different filtered versions of your pages. They would end up with many different variants of your pages that are not significantly different from a search engine user experience perspective.

Solutions such as rel=canonical tags and parameters settings in Webmaster Tools have some limitations. For example, rel=canonical tags are considered “hints” by the search engines, and they may not choose to accept them, and even if they are accepted, they do not necessarily keep the search engines from continuing to crawl those pages.

A better solution might be to use JSON and jQuery to implement your faceted navigation so that a new page is not created when a user picks a filter or a sort order. Let’s take a look at how it works.

Using JSON and jQuery to filter on the client side

The main benefit of the implementation discussed below is that a new URL is not created when a user is on a page of yours and applies a filter or sort order. When you use JSON and jQuery, the entire process happens on the client device without involving your web server at all.

When a user initially requests one of the product pages on your web site, the interaction looks like this:

using json on faceted navigation

This transfers the page to the browser the user used to request the page. Now when a user picks a sort order (or filter) on that page, here is what happens:

jquery and faceted navigation diagram

When the user picks one of those options, a jQuery request is made to the JSON data object. Translation: the entire interaction happens within the client’s browser and the sort or filter is applied there. Simply put, the smarts to handle that sort or filter resides entirely within the code on the client device that was transferred with the initial request for the page.

As a result, there is no new page created and no new URL for Google or Bing to crawl. Any concerns about crawl budget or inefficient use of PageRank are completely eliminated. This is great stuff! However, there remain limitations in this implementation.

Specifically, if your list of products spans multiple pages on your site, the sorting and filtering will only be applied to the data set already transferred to the user’s browser with the initial request. In short, you may only be sorting the first page of products, and not across the entire set of products. It’s possible to have the initial JSON data object contain the full set of pages, but this may not be a good idea if the page size ends up being large. In that event, we will need to do a bit more.

What Ajax does for you

Now we are going to dig in slightly deeper and outline how Ajax will allow us to handle sorting, filtering, AND pagination. Warning: There is some tech talk in this section, but I will try to follow each technical explanation with a layman’s explanation about what’s happening.

The conceptual Ajax implementation looks like this:

ajax and faceted navigation diagram

In this structure, we are using an Ajax layer to manage the communications with the web server. Imagine that we have a set of 10 pages, the user has gotten the first page of those 10 on their device and then requests a change to the sort order. The Ajax requests a fresh set of data from the web server for your site, similar to a normal HTML transaction, except that it runs asynchronously in a separate thread.

If you don’t know what that means, the benefit is that the rest of the page can load completely while the process to capture the data that the Ajax will display is running in parallel. This will be things like your main menu, your footer links to related products, and other page elements. This can improve the perceived performance of the page.

When a user selects a different sort order, the code registers an event handler for a given object (e.g. HTML Element or other DOM objects) and then executes an action. The browser will perform the action in a different thread to trigger the event in the main thread when appropriate. This happens without needing to execute a full page refresh, only the content controlled by the Ajax refreshes.

To translate this for the non-technical reader, it just means that we can update the sort order of the page, without needing to redraw the entire page, or change the URL, even in the case of a paginated sequence of pages. This is a benefit because it can be faster than reloading the entire page, and it should make it clear to search engines that you are not trying to get some new page into their index.

Effectively, it does this within the existing Document Object Model (DOM), which you can think of as the basic structure of the documents and a spec for the way the document is accessed and manipulated.

How will Google handle this type of implementation?

For those of you who read Adam Audette’s excellent recent post on the tests his team performed on how Google reads Javascript, you may be wondering if Google will still load all these page variants on the same URL anyway, and if they will not like it.

I had the same question, so I reached out to Google’s Gary Illyes to get an answer. Here is the dialog that transpired:

Eric Enge: I’d like to ask you about using JSON and jQuery to render different sort orders and filters within the same URL. I.e. the user selects a sort order or a filter, and the content is reordered and redrawn on the page on the client site. Hence no new URL would be created. It’s effectively a way of canonicalizing the content, since each variant is a strict subset.

Then there is a second level consideration with this approach, which involves doing the same thing with pagination. I.e. you have 10 pages of products, and users still have sorting and filtering options. In order to support sorting and filtering across the entire 10 page set, you use an Ajax solution, so all of that still renders on one URL.

So, if you are on page 1, and a user executes a sort, they get that all back in that one page. However, to do this right, going to page 2 would also render on the same URL. Effectively, you are taking the 10 page set and rendering it all within one URL. This allows sorting, filtering, and pagination without needing to use canonical, noindex, prev/next, or robots.txt.

If this was not problematic for Google, the only downside is that it makes the pagination not visible to Google. Does that make sense, or is it a bad idea?

Gary Illyes
: If you have one URL only, and people have to click on stuff to see different sort orders or filters for the exact same content under that URL, then typically we would only see the default content.

If you don’t have pagination information, that’s not a problem, except we might not see the content on the other pages that are not contained in the HTML within the initial page load. The meaning of rel-prev/next is to funnel the signals from child pages (page 2, 3, 4, etc.) to the group of pages as a collection, or to the view-all page if you have one. If you simply choose to render those paginated versions on a single URL, that will have the same impact from a signals point of view, meaning that all signals will go to a single entity, rather than distributed to several URLs.

Summary

Keep in mind, the reason why Google implemented tags like rel=canonical, NoIndex, rel=prev/next, and others is to reduce their crawling burden and overall page bloat and to help focus signals to incoming pages in the best way possible. The use of Ajax/JSON/jQuery as outlined above does this simply and elegantly.

On most e-commerce sites, there are many different “facets” of how a user might want to sort and filter a list of products. With the Ajax-style implementation, this can be done without creating new pages. The end users get the control they are looking for, the search engines don’t have to deal with excess pages they don’t want to see, and signals in to the site (such as links) are focused on the main pages where they should be.

The one downside is that Google may not see all the content when it is paginated. A site that has lots of very similar products in a paginated list does not have to worry too much about Google seeing all the additional content, so this isn’t much of a concern if your incremental pages contain more of what’s on the first page. Sites that have content that is materially different on the additional pages, however, might not want to use this approach.

These solutions do require Javascript coding expertise but are not really that complex. If you have the ability to consider a path like this, you can free yourself from trying to understand the various tags, their limitations, and whether or not they truly accomplish what you are looking for.

Credit: Thanks for Clark Lefavour for providing a review of the above for technical correctness.

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