Comms by the Coast 2015

A few weeks ago I hosted our annual students’ union communication people gathering in Brighton – Comms by the Coast.

I wish I had more time to write about the things I learned and the ideas it sparked for me but the run-up to new students arriving is more hectic than ever!

After everyone had grabbed a pastry Suki and Aisling from LSE SU and Arts SU talked about how they’ve used calls to action in their email marketing and reflected on their experience working between two different unions.

>> View Suki & Aisling’s presentation

Eleanor from Ofgem talked about how they’ve shared their ‘Be An Energy Shopper‘ campaign on a limited budget.

>> View Eleanor’s presentation

Jess and Heather from the Open University Students Association showed us how they’ve been engaging their 200,000 distance learners.

>> View Jess & Heather’s presentation

Christine from Musterpoint talked about engaging with the media and the public.

>> View Christine’s presentation

Chris from The Student Room showcased some of their insight into students.

>> View Chris’s presentation

After a sunny lunch, Tom from Bristol, Emil from UEA (now at Goldsmiths) and Lucy from Sussex talked about their rebranding projects. It was really interesting to hear about three different approaches and see their final looks.

>> View Tom’s presentation

>> View Emil’s presentation

>> View Lucy’s presentation

Finally, Jamie from Swansea talked about his experience of working for a students’ union and a university.

It was so nice to see everyone and pick their brains. The discussion session the afternoon before the main event was sooooo useful and I came away with loads of ideas.

A massive thank you to everyone who came along and to everyone who contributed.

You can see presentations from Comms by the Coast 2014  on my blog too.


August 21st, 2015|Communications|0 Comments|

Organising your marketing & communications

I spoke at the annual National Union of Students (NUS) conference for students’ union officers and managers. This year my topic was ‘organising your marketing and communications’. Not a particularly sexy title but maybe next year?

To be honest, this is currently a holding page for a longer post to come which talks a bit more about my thoughts on the topic plus more info about what other communications people told me about their views too. To get an email when I do put up some more info you can sign up to my mailing list.

For anyone who is just after the slides here you go:

You can also read more about my presentations from the 2014 conference on content marketing and cheap tools.

Quick & dirty ways to measure & test

I’m a massive data nerd. I love spreadsheets. I love experimenting. MASSIVE GEEK.

One of the aspects of digital that I enjoy is being able to see what is working (or not) and tweak things.

These are some of my quick and dirty ways to measure how things are going. Some are specific to particular tools, others apply across a variety of things.

1. Use different collectors in SurveyMonkey

We often use SurveyMonkey for surveys and I try to set up different collectors for different channels, e.g. social media, email to all students, our newsletter, website homepage, url on banner.

This means I can see which promotional channels are working well (so we can focus on those) and which are not (so we can abandon those or try to boost them).

2. Use custom campaigns in Google Analytics

Google Analytics allows you to add information to the end of urls so you can track them via Google Analytics. These are custom campaigns.

I’ve talked before about how I use information to help make decisions including examples of using custom campaigns to track our social media activity.

This works offline too. You can create a long link with the tracking information in it then use a link shortener like or your own tools to create shorter, more attractive links to put on printed materials.

3. Track links using tools like and other tools like Hootsuite’s shorten your links so they aren’t so long and rambly. They also allow you to track how many people have clicked them.

This is useful as it is, you can see how popular what you’re sharing is.

You can step it up a notch though and use it as a form of split-testing on social media. Try posting tweets on the same topic at different times of the day, with and without images, long and short text or any other combination of factors. If your aim is to get clickthroughs you can use to see which format(s) work best.

4. Make use of split-testing where available

If your tools allow for split-testing DO IT! I’ve used it a few times for our email newsletter to test sign-up forms, email bodies and subject lines.

Changing the subject line of our ‘vote now’ elections email resulted in twice as many votes at one point (though over time the gap between the two fell a little). You can see the tests I ran towards the end of my ‘data driven decision-making’ slide deck.


What else have I forgotten? What have you tried? Please let me know. Like I said, I’m a massive nerd for this sort of stuff


August 9th, 2014|Digital|0 Comments|

Students’ Unions 2014 – my communications sessions

I’m speaking at Students’ Unions 2014, a conference for students’ union staff and officers.

This year it is in glamorous Bolton and I’ll be talking about content marketing and communications tools.

My presentations are linked below but I plan to blog about the themes raised and tools suggested in more detail. To be notified when I update my blog with more details you can subscribe to my sporadic email updates.

Content marketing: let’s do it better

Content marketing presentation

Since going to the Content Marketing Show, run by my friend Kelvin Newman (who was recently voted as having had the most impact on the digital marketing industry over the past year!) a few years ago I’ve been learning more and more about content marketing.

It’s one of those things that is actually fairly obvious – people don’t like being ‘sold’ at so aim to be useful and friendly so they’ll come to you when they need you. My freshers newsletter campaign is an example of content marketing, offering people something useful – in this case information about our events and learning about being a student – in return for permission to communicate with them so you can build a relationship with them.

The point of my presentation is that it is often easier not to bother and just to spam people with messages focused around yourself. Instead, I think we should be focusing on what students want and how we can help with that.

I should point out that this presentation looks beautiful because I made it with Canva, my new favourite tool which makes it super easy to design amazing looking things.

>> View presentation

101ish free & cheap tools for communications people

101ish free or cheap tools for marketing and communications people presentationI initially pitched this session by plucking the number 101 from the air as it sounded more interesting than 74 and more impressive than 14 not expecting the session to be chosen. Turns out it was and that 101 is a lot of tools to find and list!

My original session time was halved to 30 minutes which gave me a good excuse to aim for 50 tools instead as well as an opportunity to crowdsource an extra 50 to hit my original target.

If you have any other tools I should add to my list please let me know – – or leave a comment below.

>> View presentation

If you go, I’d love to hear your thoughts on Students’ Unions 2014. I’m always happy to publish guest posts so feel free to send over something to add to my blog



July 2nd, 2014|Speaking|2 Comments|

The value of good writing

I was recently asked to write a column for Spotlight, a magazine produced by the National Union of Students which is distributed to students’ union staff and officers. I chose to write about the value of good writing.

The theme of the issue is ‘Crafting your message’ and it is cool to see communications as a focus for an issue. It’s also cool that this issue is being put together by Demon Media, the student media team at De Montfort Students’ Union.

I chose ‘good writing’ as my topic as it is something important that I think is often overlooked in our rush to publish and share. Ironically it nearly went to print with a typo but let’s pretend that was intentional.

The power of words

The power of words fascinates me. The Government Digital Service found, for example, that changing the wording on one button increased clickthroughs by 600%. Seriously, their choice of word made a concrete, tangible difference. A word! In our cash and time-strapped worlds, knowing things like that can make such a difference and make our content work harder.

The data nerd in me loves things like that. It’s why I love doing things like split-testing email sign-up forms for our freshers newsletter. It demonstrates what a difference words can make.

Content design

I’ve found the approach of the Government Digital Service (yes, I talk about them a lot. I love them and my Feedly collection is quite GDS heavy) insightful. They refer to ‘content design’ which highlights the importance of layout and thinking about how best to present and communicate information rather than just slapping it onto a page. Sarah Richards, GDS Head of Content Design, talks on her blog about the need for editors to design.


May 22nd, 2014|Content|0 Comments|

Creating user stories

I’m determined that our digital projects, starting with our new website, are user-focused. One new tool I’ve been learning about is the user story.

For us at Sussex Students’ Union our users primarily fall into two broad categories: students and our staff/officers/volunteers.

One of the aspects of agile management that has stuck with me is the idea of ‘user stories’.

What is a user story?

A user story are concise summaries of what users need/want from something such as a piece of software or website.

They are generally structured as ‘<someone> wants <something> so that <something else>’ or more technically, ‘<a user> wants <a feature> so that <value/benefit/result>.

These are created by working with the people familiar with the service you’re developing, commonly with decidedly low-tech index cards. They aim to get at the heart of what users need and why so everyone involved can prioritise these needs and understand what the problems are rather than racing straight to solutions.

Example user stories for a students’ union website

I played around with user stories today to get a feel for how we could use them for our website project.

I went old school to begin with by digging around in the stationery cupboard for index cards – who says digital people can only use computers?!

I started by looking at the most commonly viewed pages on our website as those are the aspects I plan to prioritise in our redevelopment. These are some of the examples I came up with:

  • Students want to vote in our elections because democracy (yeah still need to pin down the exact reason but ‘because democracy’ felt like an acceptable placeholder for now)
  • Potential employees want to apply for jobs so they can be considered as an employee
  • Students want to find out who their Student Rep is so they can contact them
  • Students who run clubs & societies want to book resources so they can run their sessions

One challenge is not squeezing too much into one story, I think we’ll need to do some editing to tease out the individual components of user needs and motivations.

I found coming up with the first two chunks of information (who and what) fairly easy. Being forced to think about different types of users was useful as it is tempting to  always just say ‘students’ whereas different students have different needs and goals.

Thinking about why people want to do things was interesting as previously I’ve rushed straight to ‘oh well it needs to have a membership system’ but thinking about why has useful implications for usability and content.

Next steps

Now I’m more familiar with creating user stories I’m planning to use them as part of my meetings with colleagues as part of the process to gather user needs.

That’s likely to come up with a fairly hefty list as I’ll be encouraging everyone to think ambitiously and innovatively rather than feeling constrained by what our website currently does. That means there’ll be  a lot of sifting, looking for similarities and overlaps in functionality and choosing priorities.

I’ll blog once I’ve tried creating user stories with my colleagues to let you know how it goes.

Useful links

What is the purpose of a website?

When starting any project I like to make sure everyone agrees what its purpose is. That might sound a bit obvious but very often I find we’re charging off towards a solution without actually all agreeing what the problem is. This is particularly tempting with digital things when you’ve seen some cool app or website and you want to play with it.

When planning our website redesign then I turned to my research partner, the internet, and went Googling for some wise words on what your website’s purpose could be. Turns out – nothing spectacularly useful for me in the first few search result pages.

There was loads of stuff about B2B websites and lead generation but nothing over-arching. That meant I actually had to think for myself, *eye-roll*. Actually I love this sort of thing but my inner lazy teenager was cross I couldn’t at least get a head start from the internet!

Four purposes for a website

Anyway, I think a website’s purpose can be some or all of the following:

  • Transactional –  people  want to do stuff online: buy things, join things, subscribe to things
  • Informational (not sure if that is grammatically correct but it fits my ‘-al’ format and I’m a sucker for consistency however forced in this context!) – people want to know something: opening times, what features you offer, who to contact
  • Conversational – people want to interact with you/other people, largely through user-generated content: post a review, comment on an article, post feedback
  • Promotional – this one is less user-focused and it’s when you want to publicise information about something: the great things you’ve done, why your product is better than everyone else’s,

What have I missed? Let me know in the comments, on Twitter or via

Next, the questions are what should the balance be? Which of these are (or could be) push or pull factors? How do these categories fit with internal expectations about what should be on the internet?