About Jo

I work for the University of Sussex Students’ Union where I’m responsible for our communications and digital channels. I also do freelance work for charities and students' unions, helping them communicate better

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?


Showing my workings

I’m a self-critical perfectionist.

I have loads of ideas about things but often struggle to get started on them unless I’m sure I’ve got everything covered and it will be the best it can be.

For my blog, this means I spend ages thinking about cool posts I could write or things I think would be useful to share but they stay in my head until I’m confident they’ll be completely comprehensive. This means I don’t post very often.

‘The perfect is the enemy of good’ is one of my favourite quotes (attributed to Voltaire) and I often think of it when I’m stalling on getting started with something. Obviously this doesn’t mean you settle for mediocre. Perfect is definitely something to strive for but not when it gets in the way of doing anything at all.

I loved maths at school and showing your workings is an important part of solving maths problems. You used to get marks for heading in the right direction even if your final answer wasn’t right. It also meant if you went off track you could back up and retrace your footsteps to try to find and correct your error.

Given that one of the goals of my blog is to share what I’m working on so other people can build on it for their own projects and help me with mine I am trying to be more confident about showing my workings even if it means they’re not fully formed.

I’ll be trying to look at my blog as showing my workings so I and my readers can see the processes I use in my work and retrace my steps if necessary.

April 17th, 2014|Me|0 Comments|

Things I’ve been reading recently

In an attempt to get some of the things I find interesting out of my head and into my blog I’m sharing links to stuff I’ve stumbled on this week that has made me think…

There is too much talk and not enough action in the charity sector – Simon Burne, The Guardian Voluntary Sector Network

Simon talks about a culture of risk-aversion, looking inwards and being afraid of innovation within charity fundraising:

“We should learn from the fast-moving consumer goods (products that are sold quickly and at relatively low cost) sector. Those companies expect up to 90% of product tests to fail, but they make a mint on the other 10%. I know of few charities that are even happy with a 10% failure rate. Low failure rates tend to lead to low success rates.”

This article chimes with my experience of students’ unions sometimes. Within the sector (I refuse to call it ‘the student movement’ (or worse just ‘the movement’) as it sounds too much like bowel movements) there are definitely cool innovative things going on and people prepared to try new things but I feel there is also a great amount of fear of breaking away from the traditional model of students’ unions and the things they’ve always done.

I’ve been mulling over this topic for a while and mentally drafting a blog post on it so hopefully I’ll get it out of my head and onto my blog at some point…

My year at a standing desk and why I’ll never go back – Cia Bernales, Fast Company

I’ve long been considering trying a standing desk at work. I spent 99.9% of my day (approximately) sitting down which isn’t good for you but the palaver of getting the right set-up and not wanting to give my colleagues more reasons to mock me (we’re a very friendly bunch who are very comfortable with winding each other up!) means I’ve never got round to it.

We recently rearranged the furniture in our office so now I have a little more flexibility to adapt my desk for working standing up sometimes. My current plan is to wangle flexible monitor arms and something to put my mouse and keyboard on and give it a try. I’m not quite hardcore enough for a treadmill desk (yet) though!

Why Custom Audience targeting proves that email has won the internet – Parry Malm, Econsultancy

An overview of how you can upload email lists to platforms such as Twitter and Facebook to target your advertising. The article opens by comparing an email address to a passport which gives you access to other online services. This is something I’ve found missing from ‘omg email is dead’ discussions – most of the services pointed to as replacing email still require an email address to sign up. I appreciate this doesn’t mean people check their email accounts or use them to send/emails but email addresses at least are still at the heart of many chunks of the internet.

Handling prison visit requests: the inside story – Leigh Money, MOJ Digital blog

A great case study of switching to a digital process in the prison service. I’m going to be talking to all of my colleagues soon about the exciting prospects and tangible benefits that digital can bring and this is a great example to refer to. This post outlines the benefits of switching to a digital system as well as the importance of a successful transition.

Oops! 7 Awkward (But Common) Grammar Mistakes – Lisa Toner, HubSpot’s Inbound Marketing blog

Yes I love good grammar. Love it.

Webinar 24/04/14: Leading the digital business revolution – Brilliant Noise

This webinar will focus on “what it takes to be a customer-first, digital business, the barriers that prevent organisations from changing, and what role you can play in leading the digital business revolution” aka ‘loads of the things I’m interested in at the moment’. I won’t be able to follow this as I’ll be at BrightonSEO but I’m hoping to be able to catch up afterwards.

April 13th, 2014|Lots of links|0 Comments|

Things I’ve been reading recently

In an attempt to get some of the things I find interesting out of my head and into my blog I thought I’d share some links on a semi-regular basis.

I’d love to see what you’ve been reading and pondering so feel free to leave some suggestions in the comments or tweet them to me – @jowalters.

These links come largely from my Feedly saved items. You can read more about some of the blogs I subscribe to in my earlier post and see more of the things I’m bookmarking at

What’s a Playbook and why do I need one? – Kim Townend, Government Design Service Social Media blog

The team have released an alpha version of their guide outlining how and why they use various social media channels with lots of useful tools and insights.

Seven useful tips to help with your mobile copywriting – David Moth, Econsultancy

Most of these tips actually apply to writing on the web regardless of platform but show that writing mobile requires special consideration. As I’m going to be running training on writing for the web again soon I’ll be making sure I’m covering these points.

Inside a service manager’s head – Giles Turnbull, Government Digital Service blog

Yes it’s another GDS post but a) I love them, and b) I subscribed to even more of their feeds last week so I’m catching up on things! This post talks about moving to digital from paper, working within guidelines and various other things that I’ll be doing at work in my new role as Digital Engagement Manager so it is interesting to see how other organisations handle it.

Five simple ideas for free content curation on Twitter – Ben Davis, Econsultancy

Ideas for content sources including Spotify playlists which I’ve found these work well, both sharing existing playlists and asking for contributions to themed collaborative lists.

This column will change your life: interestingness v truth – Oliver Burkeman, The Guardian

“A theorist is considered great, not because his theories are true, but because they are interesting.” Even in the world of academia, most people aren’t motivated by the truth. What they want, above all, is not to be bored.”

This article – from a regular column I find interesting (and hopefully truthful) – reminds me of one of my favourite quotes from ‘Made to Stick: Why some ideas take hold and others come unstuck‘; “An accurate but useless idea is still useless”. I’m not advocating misinformation or inaccuracy but sometimes we lose the human factor which makes something interesting in the pursuit of complete (and sometimes boring) accuracy.

Vintage sexism: 20 things men don’t like about women in the office – Maya, Feministing


On that note I’m off to offer some impudent criticism and ask impertinent questions!


Preparing for a new website

I’m looking forward to overhauling the Sussex Students’ Union website so I’ve been gathering some useful links and resources to help prepare for this exciting project.

I thought I’d collate them here and ask the good people of the internet if they have any suggestions.

These are the things I’ve come across most recently but please do add your own suggestions in the comments or tweet them to me – @jowalters.

Oxfam’s radical approach to content for the Oxfam GB website

At a recent CharityComms event, Gez Russell, Editor of, talked about how they radically slimmed down and refocused their online content.

[slideshare id=30382948&doc=gezrussellv3-140124051731-phpapp02]


I really liked how they went back to basics rather than just trying to import their old content into a new layout.

8 Excellent Reasons to Redesign Your Website

This article, from HubSpot, is useful to check to see if you should redesign your website and use these key points as reminders of things your new site should do.

Start with why

A good point in this short piece by Euan Semple. stuff

I basically love everything the Government Digital Service (GDS) do. Like, want to print it out and staple it everywhere so everyone can see it, love it.

Their site has loooooads of inspiring and useful stuff like their design manualDigital by Default Service Standard, design principles and content guide.

They share information about how they created and continue to develop such as how they explored user needs.

Don’t Make Me Think

I’ve got next week off work and, so I’ve treated myself to a new book (as that is genuinely the sort thing I like to spend my spare time on). I’ve ordered Don’t Make Me Think: A common sense approach to web usability [affiliate link] following a recommendation from Matt Collins.


What else should I read or learn about?

Original image from

February 27th, 2014|Website redesign|0 Comments|