Category Archives: Blog

Your new website requires maintenance. Really.

If you’ve just launched your new website, you’re probably feeling pretty good. The content is up-to-date, you’re using the latest version of WordPress (your open-source Content Management System (CMS) of choice), and your domain name and web hosting are prepaid for the next twelve months. You may be happy to think that you don’t need to worry about the back-end aspects of your site for quite a while.

My clients are often surprised when I advise them that their site needs regular maintenance right from day one. This post explains why.

A true-life tale of internet smut

A few years back, Monkey Hill was involved in providing communications services to a large, high-profile health research project that was using its website as a key recruitment tool. Although their website was quite new, I noticed that the site had been hacked and was displaying pop-up ads for Romanian massage parlours and Viagra. Further, these phrases actually appeared in the Google search results for the organization. Not great for their reputation! After bringing this to their attention, the client hired us on the spot to fix the site’s vulnerabilities and add ongoing site monitoring and maintenance to our contract.

The fact is, while your website’s CMS may be up-to-date and secure at the time of launch, you can’t ignore the ongoing care that it requires. You can spend much more time and energy trying to recover from being hacked than by being prepared in the first place.

The internet is alive, so step lively!

tomatoesIf you visualize the web like an enormous garden, your website might be represented as a single tomato plant. If you want your plant to survive (or even better, thrive) you wouldn’t just stick it in the ground and walk away. You’d need to ensure your plant receives enough water, nutrients and sunlight while removing any weeds in the area. You’d also need to be on the lookout for threats to its survival, such as pests and disease. Your website requires the same type of care.

The WordPress platform itself is a complex program, continuously evolving and growing. New features are being added, bugs are being fixed, and security issues are being discovered and patched on an ongoing basis. This applies to WordPress plugins and themes too. It just isn’t possible to provide all the benefits of a powerful and user-friendly Content Management System without having some pretty complex functionality taking place under the hood.

An ounce of prevention

The best way to avoid problems with your website is to take the proper precautions. This includes ensuring the following:

  • WordPress’ core files are up-to-date.
  • Plugin and theme files are up-to-date.
  • Website doesn’t use any insecure plugins or themes – a knowledgeable WordPress developer will know or be able to find out which ones are to be avoided.
  • Hosting with a reliable, secure and responsive web host – you can take all the security precautions in the world, but if the server your website is hosted on is insecure, so is your website.
  • Create off-site backups of your website files and database at regular intervals. Some organizations can do this once a month while others require daily backups – it all depends on how often your website content changes.
  • Regular scans of the site for malware.
  • Monitoring the website for malicious activity – failed login attempts, password recovery attempts, SQL injection, database overflow attempts, etc.
  • Monitor your website’s uptime. Having your website crash or be unreachable on a regular basis is a sure sign something is wrong and may be the precursor to a major outage.
  • Passwords are strong, ideally containing a mix of uppercase and lowercase letters, numbers and symbols. (Having passwords like “password”, “pa55w0rd” or “abc123” are just asking for trouble!)

Getting set up

It’s not uncommon that the group who builds your website might not be the same ones who help you maintain it. Some developers are simply not in the maintenance business. Other times, clients don’t want a long-term service arrangement with a company that didn’t meet their expectations during the build.

Whether I’m the original developer of my clients’ websites or not, I always recommend site maintenance as an essential, ongoing component. Please feel free to contact me for a quote for ongoing WordPress website monitoring and maintenance. I can also provide hosting services through one of my partners (based in Canada or the US) if your current provider is not meeting your needs.

Photo courtesy of Regan76 under this Creative Commons license.

KT strategy: a lesson from Harry Potter

ollivandersI have kids, so I’ve seen and read A LOT of Harry Potter over the years. A favourite scene that sticks in my mind is in the first movie, when Harry visits Ollivander’s Wand Shop to buy his wand before the start of school.

Ollivander is a wise old fellow who has hundreds of boxes stacked up row upon row in all the nooks and crannies of his shop. Frankly, the place is a bit of a mess. But Ollivander knows where everything is and knows about the origins, characteristics and special powers of each wand. His job is to expertly size up the young witch or wizard and then choose a wand for them – the perfect tool that will allow them to fulfill their magical destiny. When he presents Harry with his special wand, the sparks really fly.

I’m no Ollivander, but I do see similarities between what he does and my role in Knowledge Translation. As a communicator who has worked in health care and health research for almost 20 years, I have a lot of “stuff” stacked in my brain. Media, stakeholder relations, messaging, speechwriting, video, social media, government relations, publications – it’s all in there. Sometimes, the place is a bit of a mess.

But just like Ollivander would never reach for the same wand for every student who wanders into the shop, the selection of tools for a KT project should never be automatic (oh hi, social media!). Before you do anything, you really need to size up the witch or wizard before you.

KT strategy is about really understanding your stakeholders and then acting upon that knowledge by engaging with them on their terms. It means developing messages that speak to their needs, not yours. It’s about making the effort to connect with them in a way that works in their world. This could mean providing a lay-friendly orientation package for a new member of your advisory group, a by-the-book briefing note to a government stakeholder, or a short video that captures the emotional impact of a patient story. If you know that your stakeholders are on social media, it could even mean developing a targeted and sustainable SM strategy.

You need to think before you do. If you’re not bringing strategy to the table, you’re a lot less likely to find the magical outcomes that come from selecting appropriate, audience-specific tools. Instead, you may find yourself simply waving around a crappy brown stick that will never produce sparks.

Photo courtesy of Dave Goodman.

KT communication: making the most of media

rubber ducks in a rowI admit it. With close to 20 years of experience doing media relations, I’ve become a bit of a cynic when it comes to the bottom-line usefulness of using the press to advance many health communications and knowledge translation (KT) initiatives. I’ve observed that for the amount of effort that goes into developing a media outreach, the actual measurable outcomes can be pretty lackluster. Too often, even when there’s been a positive media response, it’s questionable whether the exposure has directly resulted in raising awareness, shaping opinion or prompting action among key stakeholders.

Mainstream media’s great strength – the ability to reach many people in one fell swoop – is also its weakness in terms of impact. It’s like a massive drift net floating along, entangling masses of marine life in the hopes of capturing just a few specific fish. And let’s be honest: very few KT projects need to engage the population as a whole.

Media relations work is very resource-intensive and should never be seen as an easy way to free publicity. It takes a ton of prep work before you ever pick up the phone to call a reporter – not only in figuring out your pitch and lining up spokespeople, but also in ensuring that everyone is on board with the plan, including partners, host organizations, community and government stakeholders. And there’s always the distinct possibility that the resulting coverage will be negative, inaccurate or just not what you were hoping for.

In terms of bang for your buck, there may be a whole host of other, less “sexy” approaches that will reap better rewards.

However, media does have certain uses. For KT projects with a large public engagement component, a comprehensive, well-planned media campaign can be very productive. For instance, we employed media very successfully to jump-start a multi-year recruitment drive to encourage all British Columbians aged 35-69 to join the BC Generations Project, the largest cancer prevention study ever conducted in BC.

You may have other reasons for doing media outreach. Positive stories can lend a third-party credibility to your program or your research. Media can provide an avenue for you to publicly acknowledge the contributions of partners and collaborators. It may also provide a springboard for approaching and engaging new stakeholders.

The bottom line is that media doesn’t work well as a standalone endeavour. You absolutely need to have your other KT ducks in a row to support it. This includes having a deep understanding of your target audiences’ demographic and psychographic attributes and clear, consistent messaging that aligns with their knowledge, their beliefs and their motivations. It also requires you to have a range of more targeted communications tools working in concert with your media outreach. These are the tools that will help you effectively deliver those key messages even after the media spotlight has faded.

News stories have a very short shelf life, but an integrated approach will help you get as much mileage as possible from any media exposure. Here are some of my ideas for making use of everything you’ve got to amplify the impact of your media outreach:

  •  If possible, plan your media outreach to coincide with a relevant health promotion week/month. This may increase the news value of your pitch. Health Canada maintains a comprehensive list:
  •  Make sure your website is ready to support your media relations efforts. This may mean creating a purpose-built site for your KT project, or it could mean staking out your space on a larger organizational site:
    • Ensure that your web content is written for a lay audience.
    • Encourage interested readers/viewers to learn more about the KT project by providing further information on a separate page on your website. This allows you to track the response from your media efforts.
    • Make sure to provide the reporter with the web address for further information – either your home page or a landing page with a simple URL. Remember that a reporter won’t bother including your website information in the story unless it offers something useful to readers/viewers.
    • Provide online sharing tools so people can disseminate the information to their networks.
  •  As soon as the story comes out, promote it on your home page and provide a link to the article or video.
  •  Share the story with your partner organizations and collaborators and ask them to promote it through their communication vehicles.
  •  Promote the story to people and organizations using your social media channels – Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn – and ask them to share. Track the shares.
  •  If your media relations efforts fall short and don’t result in media coverage, don’t despair. Develop your own news article (or recycle your news release), post the story on your website and promote it through your social media channels. Again, make sure you track the traffic to the page.

Do you have any other ideas for making the most of media? Let’s discuss!

Photo courtesy of John Morgan.

Geek speak: Mobile web design explained

One of the most important recent trends in online communications is the focus on mobile or mobile-friendly web design. But what does it really mean, and why should you care?

people using smartphonesHave you ever been frustrated by trying view a website on your smartphone? Either you can only see a tiny fraction of the page, or you can see the entire page but everything is so small it’s impossible to read or use. Yes, you can pinch-and-zoom, then scroll from side-to-side so you can read the website’s content, but the experience is like trying to read a magazine through a keyhole – not exactly ideal.

Today, an increasing number of people are using a mobile device to visit websites, such as a smartphone (like the iPhone) or a tablet (like the iPad and iPad mini). The statistics clearly reflect this trend to tinier technology: By 2012, up to 70% of Canadians were using mobile devices1, and 69% of all Internet users did so through a mobile device.2

Many sites that were originally designed for the desktop computer monitor really don’t work well on a 4-inch smartphone screen, leaving mobile users frustrated and disengaged. That’s where mobile web design comes in.

Simply put, mobile web design – also known in the developer world as responsive web design, adaptive design or mobile-optimized web design – is about building websites so that they look good and work properly for visitors no matter what device they’re using. In fact, some developers take a “mobile-first” approach, believing that if you can create a great web experience specifically for a smartphone screen first, it’s easier to adapt that for larger screens rather than the other way around.

Mobile web design makes a huge difference to the website user’s experience. If a site is mobile-friendly, it will look good in both portrait and landscape orientations on a smartphone or a tablet, it will be easy to read, and the navigation will be simple to use. The experience should be just as satisfying as it would be if you were using a larger device.

For one example of how mobile web design works, you can take a look at our Monkey Hill website. Look at it on your smartphone, or, if you’re viewing a site on your desktop or laptop computer, try minimizing or resizing your browser window. As you shrink the viewing area, you should see the layout automatically adapt. (Unfortunately, if you’re using an outdated or non standards-compliant browser such as an old version of Internet Explorer, you won’t notice any difference. If you’re stuck using IE8 or earlier due to IT department restrictions, I’ll blog about a solution shortly.)

If you’re looking to bring your own website into the world of mobile, your first step will be to get an assessment from an experienced developer about what’s involved. A great deal depends on how your existing site was developed. In a best-case scenario, going mobile-friendly will simply require changing a few rules in your website’s stylesheet without having to touch any of the underlying code. At the other extreme, you may be looking at a complete overhaul: migrating to a different Content Management System (CMS), completely rewriting your HTML, reprocessing all your graphics, etc.

Either way, you can’t ignore what your key stakeholders are doing. If you want to engage with your audience, you need to be where they are, and increasingly, that’s on mobile.


Photo courtesy of Phil Campbell

Moving the dial

dialWhat does it take to build a health system where quality and improvement are embedded into everything we do?

That’s the meaty question asked – and answered – in a newly-released Progress Report from the BC Patient Safety & Quality Council. The Council has a provincial role in facilitating efforts and leading initiatives to enhance patient safety, reduce errors, promote transparency and identify best practices to improve patient care.

The Council approached me to help them write this 50+ page document, which synthesizes 18 months of steady progress in key strategic areas. It was a great experience to work again with this fantastic team. Read What Does it Take? A report to our partners.

A few things were particularly interesting to me as a “voyeur” into the Council’s activities: first, I was struck by how much building this organization has already done – the relationships, the programs, the workshops, the collaborations – with stakeholders across BC and beyond. This is one focused and busy organization!

From a broader perspective, it reminded me that big change really does take time to build momentum and gain traction, and that sustainable progress can’t be driven by a single organization. The Council is quick to point out that it isn’t “in charge” of health quality – instead, its role is to offer the support, resources and provincial leadership that its stakeholders say they need to advance local efforts to improve health quality. Clearly, this collaborative approach takes longer, but it just seems like such a sensible way to go about it!

I’ve also witnessed how the Council has jumped head-first into digital communications to engage a diverse range of stakeholders. Beyond its recently-redesigned website, the Council uses a host of online tools including Twitter, an e-newsletter, an electronic community of practice, Youtube, Vimeo, SlideShare, Flickr and Storify. These tools can overcome geographic barriers and they offer a vast on-demand catalogue of health quality resources for anyone who wants them. They also help to build ongoing conversations and knowledge exchange. This is a great example of an organization selectively using online communications to support its strategic goals.

Photo courtesy of Pete