Feb 21

You’re Only as Good as Your Data

Obtaining valid data for your integrated marketing campaigns seems like it should be a straight forward step in scoping out a project. But assuming that the information you have is dependable can be a very risky mistake to make. I’ve seen a number of projects over the years get derailed by incomplete, or inaccurate data. There are a few basic steps that you and your clients can take to avoid this potential pitfall.

Start with a reputable source
The best source of data is usually obtained internally. If you have a solid Customer Relationship Management (CRM) solution in place such as Salesforce.com you already have a great tool for analytics and data mining at your disposal. But if you don’t have access to quality CRM, your next best bet is to farm out your data needs to a company that specializes in it.

Validate your lists
Once you’ve obtained your data a little more work up front can save you a lot of time, and costly development re-work. For example: if you’re doing a direct mail campaign, use the postal services validation NCOA (National Change of Address) software to validate that the addresses you’re sending to are valid.
If you’re sending an email blast, validating your data will allow you to save money on the number of bounced messages you get back (read: less waste).

Use Common Sense
I know this should go without saying, but make sure that the data you have on hand will work for the application you have in mind.  If you’re trying to market to a specific demographic, make sure that the data you have is relevant to that target. And more importantly, check to make sure that the data you have is complete. Blank or incomplete records are just as bad as wrong information.

Please just keep in mind that the best marketing ideas can be brought down by small details. If you have bad data, no amount of analytics or implementation can resolve that. The old saying holds true in the digital age, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Jan 25

Accountability: Personal Leadership in Action

Accountability isn’t just an important notion, it’s also one of the core values of  the company that I work for. But most of the time when you hear this word, you’re probably thinking about how other people need to be more accountable for their actions; which in many cases is true. Let’s face it, it’s human nature to be more comfortable holding others to the standards they should live by, than to turn that critical eye on one’s self.

I’d like to take a different view on this concept though. Yes, we all need to be accountable to others, it fundamentally shapes how people see you, and your reputation is arguably the most important possession that you have. But accountability to yourself is just as important.

If you think about it, the obligations you make to yourself are a kind of leadership. Instead of being a force for change in others lives though, this personal leadership is more of a catalyst for change in your own life. I know it sounds cliché but having a 5 year plan is really a good exercise to undertake. It allows you to think strategically about your goals, and put those goals into motion. It’s what most successful people have in common, they had a plan and a means of executing on that plan.

The point that I’m trying to make is this. You have a responsibility to yourself as well as your direct reports. No one else is going to try and craft a vision for who the future person you will be. Only you can determine that. The difference between accountability to others, and personal accountability is that when you fail at former you are letting others down, when you fail at the latter you are letting down yourself.

Jul 06

Delegation: The First Challenge of Transitioning to Leadership

Leadership and Delegation

Delegating work is part of being a good leader.

One of the things that nobody ever told me while going to college (in either degree program) was how important it is to learn how to delegate responsibilities. This seems like common sense, but I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen colleagues who are new to a leadership role, continue to try and do everything themselves.

Part of this is a reflection of the admirable traits they displayed in the past which helped net them their promotion. (taking ownership of their work, and being proactive). However, the ugly flip side to those traits can be the inability to let others take on those responsibilities when it’s time to move on.

This is one of the first challenges that a new leader will face when making the transition from a “heads down” production role, to one of management. Trying to continue to do everything can be an ownership issue. People can become so invested in their work that they are unwilling or unable to let someone else “touch their baby”. This mentality is only going to hurt you and your direct reports in the long term.

Allowing people to make mistakes:
If you never hand over the reigns of what you are used to doing, it will have a two fold effect. First it will hinder your own professional growth. You’ll wind being so busy covering your old responsibilities that you won’t have the bandwidth to learn your new tasks. Secondly (and perhaps more importantly) it will stifle your people. They have to be allowed to make mistakes. Ultimately, learning from their mistakes is one of the most effective ways for an individual to improve their skill sets.

It’s not about avoiding work:
If you think that delegating is just a synonym for avoiding real work. There’s a chance you’ve never worked for a good boss. Recognizing that you can’t do everything yourself, and that you have people in your team that should be better / faster at doing a task than you are (and who honestly enjoy doing those tasks), is a fundamental trait of being a good leader.

A minute saved isn’t always a minute saved:
There will come times that you’re going to be approached to do something you’ve done in your previous role. At first glance you will be tempted to just do that task yourself, because you know you can get it done quicker than handing it off to someone else. This goes back to what I was talking about with giving your people the opportunities they need to grow as professionals. As a leader you have to change your mentality about your involvement in certain tasks. While it may save a little time, in the short term for you to put on your old hat; this will crate a net loss for your team in the long run.

This isn’t to say that you should never get involved in helping your team out during peak load times. Being able to lend a hand, and demonstrating participatory leadership is still important to keep the respect of your people. However, being able to recognize these situations for the learning opportunities they are is just as important.

Mar 09

The Importance of Revision Control

SubversionOver the years, I’ve worked with a lot of people in various roles that haven’t understood the importance of version control when developing software; whether that is an enterprise application, a landing page, email blasts, or web-to-print. Keeping a repository of your digital assets is critical.

When our group first started out about 10 years ago, we had no version / source control solution in place. If we wanted to create iterations of our files, we simply put a suffix or prefix on the name of it. There are several reasons why doing this can be dangerous.

First off, you run the risk of not having a disaster recovery plan in place.If your hard drive fails. You’ll be looking at either re-creating those digital assets from scratch, or paying costly lab fees to take your hard drive apart and retrieve the data manually. With a source control system (such as Subversion) you have the benefit of it being on a network with redundancies in place to protect you against such problems.

Using the renaming method to version your files has other downsides to it. If you want to share your files with others, you have to manually load them to an FTP site, email, public network share or some other such effort.  With a network based version control system, your whole development team has access to the same repository. Whenever someone makes a change and commits it, everyone in the group has immediate access to those changes. Additionally, you can enforce commenting at the point of commitment, so that your developers have to elaborate on what it was that they did to the file.

Perhaps most importantly though, version control allows you the ability to see the history of a file. If you want to see what other people have done in the past, it’s just a mouse click away. And if what that person did was a mistake, you can go back to the version before that change to undo it. This is where the power of version control really comes into play. It’s like an undo button for your entire workflow.

I can’t tell you how many times I have had clients come back to me, and ask if I have the digital assets from a project we’ve done for them in the past. (No, really I can’t tell you because of the non-disclosure agreements I’ve signed LOL). Because version control is part of our best practices, I know that I can always accommodate these types of requests. That is a value add which your customers will take notice of, trust me on that.

What boggles my mind is why other industries don’t take more advantage of this technology. Look at Subversion for instance, it is an open source solution that costs nothing to obtain. All you have to do is put the hardware in place to create redundancy in case of a disk failure, and you have one a world class way of protecting you (and your client’s) data.


Mar 06

Pro Bono – The Real Value of Free Work

One of the biggest mistakes I see designer’s make who are starting out, is to lean too heavily on their academic portfolio. While it is nice to see the thought process students go through when completing their studies, that also tends to lead to a lot of the same thing (homework in a portfolio case). When someone asks me for advice on how to get into this field, the first thing I tell them is to avoid for profit private colleges (*cough* University of Phoenix *cough*). The second bit of wisdom I offer is to pick up some pro bono work.

Donating your design skills to a non-profit or charity gives you two invaluable things you won’t get at a university. First, you will have a lot more creative latitude when you are working for free. The people that you donate your time to understand that you’re doing this out of the goodness of your heart, and they’ll be more likely to allow you to do what you want because of that. And because pro bono work isn’t as high pressure as commercial work, you’ll be able to take chances aesthetically which you wouldn’t take doing regular commercial design.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, it gives you a living, breathing client. Someone who has a specific need, and the ability to voice whether or not you are meeting that need adequately. Sure, a professor will tell you what they think you are doing wrong from a technical perspective; but they can’t possibly begin to emulate all the experiences you’ll have dealing with real clients. Doing pro bono work will allow you to start building the soft skills that college can’t.

Also, potential employers love seeing that you donate time to worthy causes. You’ll get a nice piece to add to your body of work, along with a great story behind how it took shape.

If you’re considering donating your time to a charitable organization, one of the best places you can start is the United Way website.

Mar 01

Defining Behavior: the Often Overlooked Detail of Requirements Gathering for VDP

Time after time the number one problem that I see from clients attempting to make the transition from traditional print, to variable data print (VDP) is that they don’t think about how they want a product to behave. They see one record’s worth of output in a sample, and assume because it looks good that all the other iterations of that document will come out just as nice. But there are a million things you can do in a static print workflow that just don’t translate well into web-to-print.

One great example of this is aspect ratio. When a client has a collection of logos that they want to use on a VDP piece that they are re-purposing from their legacy static print assets, they often fail to take into consideration that those logos were not designed to function well together in a dynamic layout. What can wind up happening is that once the developers start getting their hands dirty, they discover that because the aspect ratio of those logos varies so wildly, in order for them all to fit within a given space; some of those logos aren’t going to look the way the client has become accustomed to seeing them.  Things have to be scaled, and unless you scale them disproportionately  (which no-one likes to do) you wind up with some logos coming out looking fine (because they just happen to be roughly the same aspect ratio as the proof of concept ) and some that look ridiculously small (because the aspect ratio differs so much from “the norm”). I’ve found my team in the unenviable position of trying to make files like these work together in one dynamic layout, and then trying to explain to a client why things don’t look the way they expected.

There is a definite learning curve to this technology. Not only from a developer’s perspective, but also from a consumer’s. We as VDP professionals have a responsibility to help guide our clients through that decision making process. Defining the behavior of a product during the requirements gathering phase often means helping them understand what it is they want. If you’re not diligent in that step of the process, you can run into a dangerous trap of giving your client exactly what they asked for, but it’s not what they want.

Feb 28

Insurance Firm’s Missed Advertising Opportunity

For a long time now I’ve been seeing advertisements from most of the major insurance companies, claiming they can save you money by switching to them. The most popular call to action seems to be, “15 minutes could save you 15% or more”. Every time I see one of these ads I can’t help but think, “No! You’re going about this all wrong”.

Here is what I mean by that. I work with marketing people, graphics folks, and web developers to create personalized 1-to-1 communications for some big clients. The flaw that I’ve always seen with these ads that say to give the insurance firm a call, is that it puts all of the burden on the consumer. You’re asking people to make the first step and pick up a phone, that to be frank they probably don’t have the time nor inclination to do. All of that to take a chance, that maybe they could save some money.

Here’s the solution. Instead of telling me, how much I might be able to save. Tell me what I will save. All of the data that these companies need to throw together a quote for a policy is already out there. I see other companies leveraging this type of data mining all the time. Here’s an example. Recently I just purchased a car, and I’ve been getting ads trying to sell me extended warranties for my make and model on a daily basis. But I’ve not seen one postcard, or email about insuring that vehicle. If I got a communication saying that company X would insure my car for a specific dollar amount, and that figure was lower than what I was paying. I would be on the phone with them in a heartbeat. This is a missed opportunity that insurance companies have been failing to leverage for a long time. Eventually we’ll see a savvy marketing firm do this for an insurer; to be frank I am just surprised I haven’t seen it yet.

Jun 22

Managing File Names in a List

Have you ever had to take a large number of files in a directory, and put them in a list? Copying each file name and pasting individually can be a pain, but there is a better way. Here’s a trick I learned a few years back while managing a database for a client.

  1. Copy the file path that you have placed the files in.
  2. Open a DOS shell by going to Start / Run and type in CMD, then hit ok.
  3. In the command prompt, type in dir “filepath” (don’t forget the quotation marks, you can paste by right clicking), then hit enter.
  4. It will display the names of the files in text format.
  5. Drag your cursor over the names, and right click to copy them.
  6. From there you can paste the names into whatever application you want.

Note: you may need to right click in the title bar of the DOS shell and under options turn on Quick Edit Mode and Insert Mode.

Jan 22

The PDF Diet

Do you deal a lot with PDF files at your job? If so you’ve probably run across files that are gigantic in size. This can be a real pain, especially if your exchange server account has a small storage limit. 1 or 2 high resolution PDF’s can max out your inbox in short order.

Most people don’t know that there is a very easy way to reduce the file size of a PDF, if you have Acrobat Professional.  Just go to the advanced menu, and click on PDF Optimizer. This will bring up a dialog box, listing image settings. Here you can reduce the resolution of images in PDF’s (which more often than not, are the culprit behind why the file size is gigantic). If you don’t intend to print the pdf, but just have someone look at it on screen, you can reduce the resolution of all images down to 72 dpi. (in some cases I stick with 120 dpi if the PDF dimensions are small, as Acrobat has a habit of zooming in on small documents). Go ahead and leave all the other settings on their default, then hit OK. Acrobat will prompt you to save the new file you’re about to create, I usually just tack on “-optimized” to the end of the name, just in case I need the hi-res file later on.

I’ve shared this technique with my team, and it’s been given the loving nickname of the “PDF Diet”.  It’s not uncommon for 10 mb files to be reduced to a few 100k, it works wonders and you won’t have to worry about getting the stink eye from your co-workers next time for maxing out their in-box. : )