Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

Custom Technology or Packaged Solution – which path should I take?

March 14th, 2021 by Heather Maloney

Contactpoint has always operated in the custom technology space, helping our clients with ideas for unique technology solutions to marketplace challenges, to make those ideas a reality. We are currently in the middle of building some significant pieces of custom tech, and we have just finished the complete re-build of a custom solution for Deaths and Funerals (we built the previous version of the solution many years ago, and the requirements had changed significantly).

However, not all of our work involves custom technology, and as much as possible we utilise pre-existing, proven technology and components to reduce the cost of custom development and ongoing maintenance. In addition, we are currently assisting several long term clients to move away from their own custom technology which we built for them, over to a packaged (aka ‘off-the-shelf’ solution). At the time when we built their original solution, that was the right option.

We recently discarded a custom technology that we had built for ourselves over many years in favour of a packaged solution – that technology is our project management software. On the other hand, we continue to support and enhance another custom technology solutionEnudge – which we built to service a very particular need in the marketplace, and of course we continue to use it for ourselves. You are probably reading this blog because we emailed you about it using Enudge.

All of the above begs the question: when should a business choose to develop a custom technology solution, and when should they choose a packaged solution?

To answer that question, I will take you through the advantages and disadvantages of custom technology.

Advantages of Custom Technology

Own the space
Creating your own custom technology, if successful, can allow you to be the dominant player in a particular market; that’s what I mean by owning the space. Your solution is unique to the particular problem you are solving, allowing you to do it better than your competitors, and therefore to stand out from your competitors. If you are using a packaged solution purpose built for your industry, then it will not be a factor in your market differentiation … you will have to look elsewhere for uniqueness.

Innovate
Most likely you will choose to build a custom solution because there’s nothing on the market that does exactly what you want – you want to innovate compared to what is already available because you have worked out a way to do it better, to achieve better business outcomes and better results for your customers.

Having control of the solution you are using gives you the opportunity to continue to innovate. Many of the packaged solutions that are available for your purchase were originally developed by a business who wanted to operate better, and then they realised that the solution they had made had widespread appeal for other businesses, so they pivoted (or spun off) into a software company instead of their original business.

Competitive Advantage
Innovating / improving the standard way things are done can give you a competitive advantage. Perhaps you can operate cheaper than your competitors, allowing you to perform the same service for a lower cost, and still achieve the same level of profit, or you can achieve a better / quicker result at the same price.

Where most businesses in a particular industry are using the same processes and technology solutions, then you can’t gain a competitive advantage from your technology.

A warning though: when your uniqueness in the marketplace is largely delivered through your software solution, you need to keep on your toes as many software solutions which just involve what is known in the industry as CRUD operations (create, read, update and delete) are relatively easy for a competitor to copy. In this situation, continually innovating will be essential to keep you ahead of your competitors.

Packaged solutions also continue to innovate, but every business using that solution will gain access to the same innovation at the same time. You might have the opportunity to pitch an innovation to the packaged software vendor, but they will have a very long list of planned features – whether your suggestion is ever implemented will be unknown. And if they do, all your competitors using the solution receive the advantage as well.

Agility in the Marketplace
The economic and legislative landscape in which you operate will change over time. Customer behaviour will change with fads and trends. If you control your technology, and if you have the funds, you can be the first to take advantage of a new opportunity that arises as the result of a new trend.

Reliability into the future
Finally, and something I expect businesses are thinking less and less about that the moment because of the largescale move to cloud technologies which force you to rely on the big tech companies, owning the technology, and having control over it’s future, gives you certainty for the future operation of your organisation.

I don’t expect the big tech companies to disappear anytime soon. However, what about the packaged solution you are using for, say, your project management. What would be the business impact of your organisation if that company decided to sell or close down? This is a factor you need to consider when choosing a packaged solution, and is largely resolved by building your own.

Disadvantages of Custom Technology

Expense
There’s no getting around it; building your own software, even if you hired a teams of designers and developers directly, will cost considerably more than buying a packaged solution.

Nearly all software runs on hardware and/or platforms that are built and managed by other businesses. That means that your custom built software solution will need to be continually maintained in order to ensure it will run on newer hardware, and will continue to operate correctly when the platform is updated including web browsers (where your software is run through a browser).

When you are the only organisation using your software you may not be able to achieve the economy of scale that a packaged solution can. Selling the one solution to a large number of companies, is a way to amortise the cost of the development and ongoing maintenance.

Organisations for whom we build custom software will often have the potential to apply their custom software to multiple businesses, or to a franchise, or are indeed intending to have a significant share of a large market.

An Ongoing Project

I’ve already touched on this under the topic of Expense, however, the other disadvantage of custom software is that you can’t just build it, and then enjoy using it. You have to be committed to the software over the long term. You have to be willing to dedicate time and effort to maintaining the solution to keep the benefits you have gained from your investment – this time and effort may be a distraction from your core business.

As a minimum, your software will need to be maintained to continue to work with new versions of the hardware and/or platforms upon which the software is running. You will need a good software partner (like us!) to continue to maintain and support your solution on an ongoing basis.

If you have moved into the business of delivering a software solution to other organisations, then you need to continue to innovate in order to stay at the top of the list of solutions. Similarly, if your technology solution is your competitive advantage, you will want to focus on ongoing improvements to keep your competitors at bay.

In conclusion …

By way of summary, the advantages are all about opportunity, and the disadvantages all relate to investment (time and money).

It is my view that you should embark on creating custom technology when both of the following are true:

  1. There is no well-supported packaged solution that fulfils all your most important requirements or complete ownership of the solution is vital for your competitive advantage, and
  2. You have the ability to fund not only the initial development, but also ongoing maintenance and enhancements. This might include revenue generated from the sale of the solution, if that’s part of your strategy, or it might be that your solution will reduce your costs, or enable you to expand into new markets without increasing your costs.

Where our clients are now moving away from their own custom technology to a packaged solution, it is because there is now available sufficiently robust solutions to meet their key requirements, and / or they no longer have a good enough reason to maintain their own solution. In addition their custom solution no longer provides a competitive advantage and is not their core differentiation in the marketplace. It may also be too expensive to maintain, or too distracting from their core business.

There is one other alternative that should also be considered for creating a custom technology solution: using a configurable platform, instead of building from scratch. A platform that enables you to combine components which, together with an underlying data store and workflow rules, creates your required technology. Often these platforms are low code or no code solutions, providing drag and drop user interfaces to create the system. There are a myriad models for such solutions. WordPress is a kind of this solution, whereby you can add plugins to your existing WordPress website to achieve additional functionality often without needing to write any code. Hosted form builders, including Microsoft’s Sharepoint combined with Power Automate and Power Apps, is another example applicable to organisations using Office365.

Cloud platforms such as AWS, Microsoft Azure, and Google Cloud Computing are also helping the development of custom software solutions more accessible to small business via the pre-built components they provide in their cloud platforms – we make use of these for many of our clients to reduce the cost of development of custom solutions.

Making the right choice of platform on which to build your custom technology solution, or choosing the right packaged solution, is a very important decision. Making the wrong decision can be very costly, either in opportunity and position in the marketplace, or in dollar terms. If you would like to discuss your idea for custom technology, don’t hesitate to get in touch. We are invested in your success, whether that’s pointing you to a packaged solution or helping you create the technology to underpin your invention.

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The Winds of Change Howling around Big Tech

January 26th, 2021 by Heather Maloney

Big Tech – namely Google, Apple, Amazon and Facebook – are increasingly under pressure due to their vast impact on our lives. The way they exercise their impact and influence is coming under pressure in many ways, including the following:

  1. Privacy concerns surrounding the sale or misuse of personal data.
  2. Monopolistic concerns, including their control over digital advertising and the digital landscape, and their control over retail.
  3. Free speech and dissemination of information, particularly with regard to the influence of social media, censorship and algorithms that fuel division rather than understanding and unity.

The above points may sound negative or alarmist, however, it is important to see that all change provides opportunity, so let’s look at each of the above and the potential opportunities they present to Australian businesses.

Privacy Concerns

The GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) is a prime example of strong pushback against the use of private data by the big tech companies. Prior to the GDPR coming in across Europe, Facebook and Google seemed unabashed in their use of data they had captured from people using their platforms to specifically tailor ads and recommend content.

The pressure they are being put under with regard to privacy, and their various breaches of privacy for which they are being sued, has made the general public more aware of concerns about privacy. This can only be a good thing, particularly for the younger generations who embraced social media and other apps in which they shared their personal information seemingly without concern for how their personal information could be used.

The outcome of the use of browsing behaviour by Facebook algorithms to continue to feed people with more and more sensational articles that agree with their perceived view, has caused greater polarisation of viewpoints between two sides of an argument, less empathy between opposing sides, and provided the opportunity for digital terrorism in the form of de-stablisation of western democratic countries by nations who stand to benefit. Interference in elections, using stolen electoral information, is of particular concern.

Opportunities:

  • Peer to peer solutions that allow individuals to benefit from the collaborative nature of cloud technology, at the same time as keeping their data away from big tech.
  • Providing alternate digital solutions that keep data firmly in Australia, away from the big tech companies. This is a strategy that we have employed for Enudge – our in-house built email and SMS marketing platform.
  • Alternate platforms for groups that wish to deliberately avoid using big tech platforms and any potential control they may have in future over their data.
  • Anti-cybercrime solutions.
  • Online voting solutions that can be relied upon!
  • Online community that brings people of different views together to develop empathy rather than division, and to take positive steps forward to improve the lives of all.

Monopolistic Concerns

As the world has become increasingly reliant on the internet to find products and answers to questions, Google in particular has gained a huge percentage of the market share of advertising budgets across the globe. Competition between advertisers has naturally driven up the cost of advertising on digital platforms. With such a monopoly, it is easy to see how Google could significantly increase it’s revenue by a small change in pricing. Advertisers may feel that they have no real alternative to be found online.

In 2019, research confirmed that out of every $100 spent on digital advertising by Australian businesses, $53 went to Google, $28 to Facebook and $19 to all other websites and ad tech. Last year, Google made $4.3bn in advertising revenue in Australia, and Facebook made $0.7bn.

With a monopoly situation, malicious actors can have a much faster and more detrimental impact on an organisation. There are many publicised cases of businesses being the recipient of fake, nasty Google Reviews – presumably by competitors – even for businesses that have not yet launched. Google isn’t always very fast in taking down even the really obvious fake reviews. The damage on businesses can be significant, and requires better responsibility to be taken by the platform to support the reputation of businesses.

Aside from professionally, and accurately, responding to all reviews, a way to reduce the impact of malicious negative reviews is to ensure that you have a large number of reviews from happy customers, so that one or two bad ones will be diluted by the good.

Even within the USA there are concerns with regard to the monopoly held by each of the 4 big tech companies. Most states of America want to see Facebook split off Whats App and Instagram to reduce their monopoly.

Multiple lawsuits have recently been commenced in the USA against Google in relation to anti-trust – basically anti-competitive behaviour, misusing it’s stronghold on search advertising and other online advertising to retain it’s stranglehold on the market share. An interesting article in Business Insider describes the impact of a similar court case against Microsoft 22 years ago, which Bill Gates has given for the reason that the Windows phone did not succeed, and he ultimately stepped down as CEO.

In 2020, Apple was forced to payout millions of dollars to iPhone customers due to slowing down older phones via software updates, without telling customers that is what their updates were going to do, which resulted in many customers purchasing newer phones.

In August 2020, litigation against Apple was commenced for antitrust violations and anti-competitive behaviour in relation to removing the game Fortnight from their app stores. Apple took this action when Epic Games launched a new version of their game app which processed payments for in-app purchases on their own platform, rather than using Apple in-app purchasing, in contravention of Apple’s terms and conditions. Epic Games has been pushing back against the 30% cut of sales that Google and Apple take from purchases made through the app stores. Apple has since announced a reduction of the commission to 20% for small businesses.

Amazon is under fire for the way it allows harmful products to be sold through it’s marketplace, and then claims that they are a mere facilitator of a sale, despite the fact that they promote the product, warehouse the product, take the order, and deliver it to the customer. Though perhaps Amazon isn’t too concerned given the significant increase in revenue they achieved on the back of the pandemic.

Opportunities:

  • Make sure that you capture information about your contacts, such as their phone number and email address, so that you can market to your audience outside of social media and Google remarketing – thus controlling your message and reducing your advertising spend.
  • Stand out by advertising in lesser known digital locations to reduce your dependence on Google, which will also reduce the monopoly of Google.
  • Keep a close watch on your Google and Facebook PPC configuration and level of spend, to ensure you are getting the best ROI.
  • Stand out by advertising your products and services is non-digital ways – consider local radio and billboards – these may also be cheaper forms of advertising right now with the reduced number of commuters on our roads.
  • Build a local, physical community around your products and services, focusing again on grass roots and communities, rather than the masses.
  • Build an application that provides an alternate to the USA hosted big tech solutions, for a niche market.
  • Ensure that the way you describe your products and services makes it clear where they are made, what they are made from, who its sales are supporting etc.

Free Speech and Accurate Reporting

Newspapers have all but been replaced by digital versions. Media organisations around the world are under continual pressure to retain their place in society, with everyone having a voice in social media, and “social influencers” having potentially more sway than the voice of soundly researched news.

The more recent censorship of Donald Trump by social media giants should send fear into the hearts of any advocate of free speech and democracy. This was perhaps a result of the July 2020 boycott of Facebook by many large advertisers as a protest against hate speech and misinformation published on the platform. The boycott by mostly very large advertisers only reduced Facebook’s revenue by around 12% for that month, and the linked article mentions that many of those who boycotted will be back at the same level of advertising after July because they are so reliant on the traffic it brings them.

Amazon is also involved in the furore, having terminated the web hosting services provided to Parler, an alternative social media platform also around the events leading up to the inauguration of Joe Biden.

The Australian government is seeking to force Google and Facebook to negotiate a fair payment with news organisations for using their content in Facebook’s newsfeed and Google’s search, rather than just benefiting from these news sources and using them as a free service. The Treasury Laws Amendment (News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code) Bill 2020 was tabled by the treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, in the last sitting week of 2020. It is hoped that the required payment from Google and Facebook for using the news, will help the media companies make up for their dramatic loss of income from the sale of ads, which has moved largely over to Google and Facebook, and sure up the ongoing provision of quality local news. France and the UK have similar changes underway. You can read more about the code that is seeking to give Australian News Media Companies a framework within which to negotiate with the tech giants via this article: Australia is making Google and Facebook pay for News – what difference will the code make?

Opportunities:

  • Niche community building tools that don’t require Facebook membership to operate.
  • Build relationships with local media and journalists to make it easier for your news to reach the world through traditional media channels.
  • A potential backlash against Google and Facebook advertising may see a return to Australians consuming more online news, and therefore more likely to see your ads within their publications.
  • Don’t be afraid to advertise in lesser known platforms – these may give you more cut through of your message, and give you access to new audiences.

A replacement internet?

As this article in the India Times states, Tim Berners-Lee (father of the internet) has expressed his distaste at how major corporations have taken what was supposed to be a free environment and placed restrictions on it. He doesn’t like how groups like Facebook, Google, and Amazon have effectively centralized the Internet, nor how they control people’s data. So he’s instead working on a new platform and startup that’s declaring war on Big Tech. The new platform is called Inrupt, and is based on people who use it controlling all their own data via a pod rather than having your data harvested and controlled by the big tech companies.

Berners-Lee is making the platform open source and isn’t looking to make money out of it. He plans to tour across the globe over the next few months, tutoring developers on how to build their own decentralized apps using Inrupt. So here’s another opportunity waiting for startups!

Where else do you see opportunity arising from the pressures being applied to big tech?

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Business Changes that will remain post pandemic

December 8th, 2020 by Heather Maloney

I have been thinking about all the changes business has experienced this year due to the pandemic, and which changes I expect to stay with us, impacting business in the years to come. These are my thoughts – I look forward to hearing yours as well, so please add your comments below.

Ecommerce

Ecommerce has not just increased in volume, out of necessity, it has reached many new categories and people who weren’t comfortable with it before, are now buying online as their default method. I expect that we will still revert to preferring physical shopping for some things – clothing, for example (at least until you know your size in a particular brand), and when we want to have the “experience” of shopping. Bustling in amongst all the goodies, playing with potential gifts, admiring beautiful Christmas windows, and stopping for a coffee and something sweet in a cafe just can’t be replaced by online. Well, not yet anyway!

As a stop gap measure while international travel is nearly non-existent, some tourist destinations have ramped up their use of virtual reality to promote the destination and/or promote the safety of travel to their location, to would-be travellers. Of course, you need to own a VR headset in order to watch e.g. an Oculus Rift headset and HTC VIVE are popular. You can read more about tourism’s use of VR in this article: Coronavirus: Is virtual reality tourism about to take off?. I am not expecting everyone to rush out and start enjoying virtual reality, regardless of the pandemic [the surge in sales over the last year has been mostly driven by the release of a VR game, rather than the general public seeking out the technology]. I expect to see ecommerce websites will be seeking to bring as much of a feeling of having an “experience” into their online stores as they possibly can, to bring back the shopper again and again. This is particularly key for online stores with large numbers of items for sale.

Consolidation of brands (due to smaller businesses closing down as a result of the pandemic), and the move of consumers to online stores selling a wide range of products (e.g. Amazon) is being discussed as an outcome of the pandemic, particularly in America. However, that means your more tailored, unique, one-of-a-kind products will stand out much more than before.

The increase in ecommerce will also drive greater activity in all areas of digital marketingemail marketing, pay-per-click (PPC) ads, social media events and advertising. PPC was already increasing in price, I don’t expect that to change anytime soon. It will be important to continue to innovate in your use of digital marketing. Whether that’s introducing video into your ads to stand out from your competitors, looking for smaller keyword niches, targeting your ad spend more carefully…

Postal / Courier Delivery

The use of postal and courier services has also escalated alongside the rise in ecommerce, and we have become much more used to concepts such as click and collect, and ring and collect, options. Having parcels dropped at your home without signature is also very convenient. Unfortunately I expect that we will keep being impacted by slow mail deliveries for awhile to come, so we need to be more organised, planning further ahead for the things we need, if we don’t intend to go to the store.

Businesses will need to focus even more on delivery of their product, not just attracting buyers and getting the sale. Speedy delivery will stand out.

Shopping locally, as in really local, has gained more importance and people are more connected to the shops that are close to their homes, and wanting to support them. I expect people will continue to source staples as close to home as possible and support local traders.

How we Meet and Work

The rapid uptake of video conferencing for business meetings has been well documented, as is how sick people have become of being on yet another Zoom meeting. Whilst it is better to have video conferencing, rather than just a phone call, I expect that as soon as we can get back to physical meetings, we will. I believe that the long lasting effect of the pandemic is a greater acceptance of being able to meeting using video, rather than needing to fly to meet with someone. Travel bills for organisations should stay much lower than pre-pandemic levels. More people will be able to present over video, rather than in person at events. We will just accept video as a viable alternative.

Along similar lines, I expect to see greater support for employees who want to work from home, but most likely a hybrid model will operate, where all employees are at least a few days per week in the office. Whilst there are benefits to be enjoyed by working from home, I believe that the ideal for both work-life balance, and for productivity, is for everyone to be together in the one place. Gaining hours back in your day by avoiding a long commute is the most obvious benefit of working from home; I expect we will see a trend to choosing to live closer to work.

Prevailing Kindness

I have always tried to be kind and compassionate in business, and have from time to time been shocked into reality when others have operated in a very different way. However, I have noticed since the pandemic, a much greater dose of kindness and consideration in dealings with other businesses. People have been forced to take stock of what is really important in their lives, and relationships and their loved ones, and just looking out for one another, have come up trumps.

Of course, I want kindness and compassion to continue after the pandemic, and I definitely don’t want anyone to try and manufacture this into their DNA as part of a shallow marketing strategy. However, I do expect that organisations will do well when they operate with kindness, real feeling, treating people as people who might be having a difficult time of it …

I expect that relationships between people in businesses will again be given more importance when deciding who you want to work with as a client or as an employee.

Scrappiness – doing things with more speed, heart, and a little less professional finish – has become much more acceptable, even welcomed, by people both in B2C as well as B2B environments. Scrappiness enables businesses to be faster to market, and is often cheaper to execute.

Hygiene

I expect it will eventually wear off, but for the next 6 to 12 months (timeline depending on how long we continue to see big spikes in covid cases) people will continue to be mindful of hygiene – not touching anything and everything; regularly sanitising their hands when they enter stores; no handshakes / kisses on the cheek. Businesses will continue to build a good reputation by supporting people’s focus on hygiene – keep it top of mind and be considerate, provide the opportunity to use sanitiser at business entrance, lift wells and in toilets. Practice elbow bumps in favour of handshakes.

Focus on Innovation / Comfort with Change

As the saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention. Businesses who pivoted during the pandemic will now be even more agile into the future, and more willing to implement significant change, quickly. Responding to the pandemic has helped business leaders and employees to build resilience and cope with change. The pandemic has also made it very clear how unexpected events, and government / societal response to them, can affect your ability to trade.

I expect that business leaders and employees alike will be more focused on innovation, and more willing to try something new and radical.

What else do you expect to remain as a result of the pandemic? Please add your thoughts via the comment form below.

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Cloud Middleware for APIs Supporting Multiple Goals

October 23rd, 2020 by Heather Maloney

There’s no getting around it – businesses are increasingly using many different apps to handle specific tasks. Accounting, marketing, order fulfillment, sales, project management, the list goes on. Each application chosen by a business performs important tasks very well, but adds to the complexity of the business operations, particularly when information needs to be shared between the applications. Manually moving data between the applications takes precious time and is mundane work, and therefore runs the risk of not being done or being done poorly (with errors) or late.

cloud-based middleware for integrating applications

For many years, we have assisted our clients to solve these problems by implementing integrations between their websites / web applications / SaaS products and other business applications. The upfront cost of the integration has paid for itself many times over in time saving for the business, however, when the 3rd party application changes functionality or changes the API exposed to the public to allow the integration, then the integration can break and requiring rework.

Enudge email and SMS marketing app, designed and built by Contactpoint in 2006, has been enhanced to integrate with many different applications over the years. Enudge is presently integrated with Pipedrive (a deal management app), Gmail, Outlook, Xero and Salesforce, making it easy for people using these apps to send contact data to and from their Enudge account. These integrations can be costly to build and maintain, and there is always another app on our list, waiting for our team to integrate with!

We are always looking for ways to help our clients grow using technology, and doing that in ways that are cost effective, robust, secure and scalable.

A better solution to Integration.
The maturity of cloud-based middleware services that support application integration has led us to recently explore how these can be employed for our clients, to solve the problems I’ve described and support the following 3 Use Cases / business goals:

  1. Automating routine business tasks to save time e.g. creating an invoice in your online accounting system whenever a sale is made in your online store, adding a new customer of your online store into your email marketing platform.
  2. Ensuring integrations keep running, and are easy to maintain.
  3. Enabling other applications to integrate with your application in a cost-effective way, providing greater marketing reach for your application, and making it easier for your customers to use your solution.

Cloud-based middleware services, such as Zapier and Automate.io, act like the glue between applications or a marketplace where any app can connect with any app.

For the 1st goal – automating routine tasks – the ability to shift data around is significantly easier when your apps are supported by a middleware service. As a very simple example, you can set up the task of adding a new customer (in your online store) into your marketing platform, which then sends out a welcome email and ensures future email campaigns are sent to that new customer as well, all without you needing to do anything.

For the 2nd goal – easy to maintain integrations – the applications who enabled the middleware platform to integrate with their application are motivated to ensure the integration keeps running, and will ensure that it does, or give you plenty of warning that you need to update your integration.

For the 3rd goal – making it easy for others to integrate with your application, and all the advantages that brings – the middleware solves the huge problem of how to have enough resources (time & money) to enable integration with the vast array of applications that logically have a need to integrate with your application. Enudge, for example, should logically integrate with every CRM and ecommerce platform, as well as every lead generation solution. Using a middleware means that the effort to implement the integration can be carried out once, and support potentially thousands of applications. In addition, there will be automations required by our clients that can be supported by the middleware service, that we would never have thought of and therefore never supported. For example, what if an Enudge user needs to print name tags for every customer who indicated they would attend an event by clicking on the “I will attend” link in their Enudge Action Responder email campaign, and that name tag is created by a special name tag app? If the name tag app is available in the middleware service, receiving contact names, and Enudge has a trigger of “Clicked Yes” exposed in the middleware service, then suddenly integrating the two applications is available, without either application needing to know about the other.

It is perhaps the “marketplace” nature of the cloud-based middleware that is the most exciting aspect. It gives you the ability to quickly integrate two or more apps together to mimic your workflow, saving you time and money, and freeing up your time to get on with your core business.

So what is the downside; there’s always a catch, right?
Well, you need to have and pay for the account with the middleware service. The cost usually depends on the number of integrations you have in place, and how many times these are used on a monthly basis. These services aren’t prohibitively expensive compared to building and maintaining individual integrations yourself. It is not hard to calculate the return on investment provided by a service, based on the time it saves you.

The other issue you need to address is whether the business apps you have selected are available on your choice of middleware service.

Ideas worth Exploring?
If there are aspects of your business operations that are impacting on your time, feel free to get in touch so that we can explore together how they might be cost effectively solved using integrations.

If you are using Enudge and would like to integrate your account with another application, please get in touch. We are currently building integrations into the Zapier platform for Enudge, preparing for public launch, and would love to talk with you about being part of the beta testing phase.

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Embracing Serverless Cloud Technology

July 23rd, 2020 by Pavithra Kameswaran

In this article I will describe how serverless cloud architecture for a modern digital application provides Contactpoint clients with the opportunity for quicker time to market, less dependence of a particular technology and lower hosting costs.

When we say that a software application is running in the cloud, we mean that all the resources and services that the application utilises are hosted on the Internet. The internet is a mass combination of connected computing servers processing some 98,038Gb worth of traffic per second (at the time of writing!).

Accessing an application, and data it creates, which is hosted in the cloud simply requires a device (PC, tablet, mobile phone …) that a browser runs on, and a connection to the internet. As an example, all of the business software that Contactpoint use is running in the cloud, so that we no longer need to have those applications stored on physical servers in our office. This has meant that moving to everyone working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic has been relatively easy. We simply took our devices home, and continued to have access to all the resources we need, including our telephone system.

So what’s the big deal about serverless cloud?

The term ‘serverless’ cloud refers to technology architecture where the developers of a software application do not need to concern themselves with the underlying servers upon which the technology is operating. It is yet a further level of abstraction, compared to provisioning private servers in the cloud, or virtual private servers that are then allocated to particular applications and maintained with regard to software versions, security updates, disk space, performance and physical hardware that needs to be replaced over time.

Our most recent serverless technology implementation for a client’s SaaS product (soon to be launched) comprises a back-end using AWS Amplify, AWS Appsync, AWS DynamoDB and AWS Lambda – more about these components in a moment. As stated by AWS (Amazon Web Services; one of the most popular and comprehensive cloud computing platforms) using a serverless architecture allows you to “build and run applications and services without thinking about servers. It eliminates infrastructure management tasks such as server or cluster provisioning, patching, operating system maintenance, and capacity provisioning … everything required to run and scale your application with high availability is handled for you.”

It is still vital that as developers we plan, architect and provision resources appropriate for the application being developed, but the serverless architecture reduces much of the issues and workload (both upfront and long-term) associated with managing servers in the cloud. Even more importantly for our clients, serverless architecture allows you to only pay for those services that are used by your application and only when those services are actually used. Depending on the payment option selected by you, payment can be down to the millisecond of processing power used by your application.

The competition between the main cloud providers – AWS, Microsoft Azure and Google Cloud – is fierce as they are vying for share of market, and our clients are often able to secure generous incentives to build on a particular platform such as free services for a year.

It is important to note that a serverless application has a very different architecture compared to a traditional application, in order to take advantage of the benefits of serverless. As developers we need to give much more weight to considering how often each function within an application will be invoked, how long the process will run for, and how much data will be transferred, as these will all have an effect on the costs of running the serverless application as it scales, as well as the performance of the application. Serverless application development also requires the use of components provided by the cloud provider in order to achieve the ability for the application to scale – underneath the covers these components take care of provisioning more physical servers and computing power to meet the demand of the application.

For our client’s SaaS product, choosing serverless architecture is the right choice as their app is destined for use by millions of people across the globe, but will start small. Using serverless means that they will only pay for the small amount of usage upfront, but the application will automatically scale as demand grows.

A brief summary of the main components used for the backend of our client’s application are as follows:

AWS Amplify is a framework and toolset within which mobile apps and web apps can be built. It facilitates the development of UI-driven, highly scalable applications and provides access to a large number of AWS cloud services.

AWS Appsync allows us to write GraphQL APIs in the cloud. GraphQL is a trending, flexible and a fast API query language. The choice between a REST API and GraphQL API, their respective advantages and trade-offs, is a topic for another blog! With directives such as @auth and @model, Appsync generates queries, mutations and resolvers for us, which we can then customise to the application requirements. It also provisions tables in the DynamoDB automatically, and both these put together, provides significant time saving in the app development. It helps developers focus more on core functionality of the app, business logic and front end.

AWS DynamoDB is a NOSQL database which continuously backs up the data, and automatically scales as required. Being a NOSQL database provides great performance for fast return of data.

AWS Lambda provides us with a platform to write microservices that will compute as required and only incur costs per computation. With the right usage, Lambda is very effective due to its nature of continuous scalability and zero administration required.

When should I choose serverless architecture for my application?

The general factors to consider when choosing serverless architecture are:

  1. Quick and continuous scalability – auto-scaling is an important attribute of serverless architecture. If your app is targeting a large user base e.g. the general public, then the number of your users, and their demands for resources, can grow very quickly. For example, a new online health magazine could grow to a million readers, but might start very small. If you were to allocate resources and services to cater for a million users right at the beginning, you would have lots of idle resources and need to maintain those as well as cover the cost until the readership grew. Using architecture that isn’t auto-scaling would involve much effort by the hardware, software and security teams to keep us as you grow. Auto-scaling solves these problems.
  2. Effective Cost Management – as mentioned above, building and provisioning resources with a million readers in mind right from the beginning could incur huge costs until the app makes it to a million readers. Instead, by developing serverless we will use resources and services as needed by the n number of users currently, and will scale up as the number of readers grow to a million (or more). Thereby, we will incur costs for the infrastructure only as it is used and presumably paid for by the users.
  3. High Availability – AWS components like Amplify and Appsync provide offline data access and conflict resolved synchronisation when back online. The databases and storage also tout high availability of data since distribution of servers in the cloud has facilitated almost zero downtime and 24/7 availability. This is why many organisations are migrating legacy applications to the cloud, and converting them to serverless applications.
  4. Low Maintenance – AWS databases such as DynamoDB and storage systems such as AWS S3 are so low in maintenance that we can almost term them as zero maintenance. AWS claims that DynamoDB requires absolutely no maintenance at all. Once setup properly, it can keep operating continually, scaling as required, and performing as designed and intended. Even the relational databases provided by AWS, such AWS Aurora, require very less maintenance (updates and patching) when compared to other non-serverless databases.
  5. Performance – last but not least, one of the most important factors for all applications is performance. We can have an online health magazine app that has the content and potential to become the most popular app ever, but if it cannot deliver content quickly for a million or more readers, it is bound to fail. By performance, we are referring to the speed of data retrieval, data submission, loading of the user interface (where that is part of the server-side application) and the speed of functions that process the data and business rules / programming logic of the application.

What languages does serverless architecture support?

When building an app within a serverless infrastructure such as the AWS platform described above, you still need to choose the programming language within which you will write the application that lives on the device of your end user, or is accessed via the cloud by the end user. This programming language then needs to be able to interact with the components above. AWS provides many options in this regard including NodeJS, Java, Go, PowerShell, JavaScript, C# and .Net framework, C++, Ruby and Python.

For our most recent application we chose NodeJS for the backend code, and ReactNative combined with NativeBase for the mobile apps. This choice allows for similar languages to be used across the frontend and backend of the SaaS product, providing for a simpler implementation, and easier application maintenance over time. However, some components of the AWS environment support Javascript, and Javascript libraries and frameworks better than others – like all cloud platforms, they are ever expanding and improving the functionality that they make available to developers to speed up development. We needed to switch choices of libraries several times to resolve unexpected issues with parts of our app due to less support for ReactNative compared to native mobile application languages (Java for Android and Swift for Apple).

Depending on the way your application is constructed, the serverless architecture also makes it easier for you to mix code implemented in different languages, allowing you to use best of breed for each function within your application.

Should I move my legacy or web application to serverless?

As I mentioned above, many organisations are moving their applications which were built and deployed on a dedicated server (either on-premise or in the cloud) to serverless architecture to gain one or more of the benefits. Before deciding to move an application to the cloud, you will need to consider the effort involved – you will only achieve some of the available benefits if you simply “lift and shift” your existing application. To fully benefit from the move, your application will need to be re-built in the new architecture. For this reason, organisations often put off a transition until their application is sufficiently in need of a re-build before making the move.

As a developer, I look forward to working on applications which help our clients grow, through the amazing scale possible via serverless cloud architecture.

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COVID-19 – Contactpoint are Ready to Help

March 13th, 2020 by Heather Maloney

Below is the content of a special Corona Virus Contactpoint News sent to our clients and associates on 18/03/2020:

Coronavirus Update

We want to assure you that Contactpoint is open and ready to assist your business during this difficult time. Being a technology company we have all our systems in the cloud and are well placed to respond quickly to the increased requests for support from our clients.

We have also been brainstorming how we can best help each and every one of our clients to respond, and are at the ready to step in as quickly and cost effectively as possible if you would like to:

  • distribute bulk communications (sms or email) to your customers and team.
  • create a landing page / special offer to your customers which addresses a new need arising from the present situation.
  • add an online store or service delivery to your website to provide your services or products remotely.
  • brainstorm how to best use your marketing dollar to reach people through digital marketing, given that searching for products, will now be carried out almost exclusively using technology.
  • or if there is some other way we can assist!

I am heartened to hear many of our clients are using this time to think strategically and pivot their business to make the best of this situation. Small business is the life blood of the nation, and it is very important that we keep our businesses running, and supporting one another. “Melbourne passes $10m stimulus package aimed at small business” hit the news this morning, and I suspect there will be more initiatives such as this.

And if you need cheering up, please check out: Coronavirus and animals: Shuttered Chicago aquarium takes penguins on a field trip.

Please do not hesitate to call myself or the team to discuss your response to the Coronavirus.

Best wishes,
Heather Maloney
and the team at Contactpoint

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When to Use a WordPress Multisite

February 3rd, 2020 by Pavithra Kameswaran

WordPress Multisites might sound a bit scary when you think of the potential issues that can occur with multiple websites being handled under a single umbrella with regard to setup, migration, updates, etc. But in reality, multisites are not that difficult to deal with once you understand the underlying mechanisms.

Often, it is assumed that a multisite is required when an organisation has multiple websites, or sites with similar design patterns, or multiple sites that differ only in content, etc. While it is true that for such scenarios we might use a multisite, it is not a mandatory choice. Such scenarios may be better served by individual single sites. In this article we will discuss when we should, and when we should not, utilise a WordPress Multisite.

So what is a WordPress Multisite?

A multisite is a collection of websites, with one primary website and the others being subsites, within a single instance of WordPress. Enabling the multisite structure within your WordPress website requires a small amount of configuration in order for it to be available, so you won’t see the option in a standard WordPress install.

With a multisite, you can allow the certain users to create subsites. It is up to the network administrator to configure which users can create websites, what themes and plugins are available across each newly created website, and how much control is given to each user.

The fact that a multisite means that the primary and all the subsites underneath it share the same WordPress codebase, allows the system administrator to update and maintain the site codebase in a single operation.

In general, a WordPress Multisite:

  • Has single point of top control.
  • Has a primary site.
  • All other sites are subsites of the primary site.
  • Has a super admin user (network admin) which will have control over all the sites.
  • Has a single instance of WordPress shared by all sites, thereby sharing plugins, themes and content.
  • Each site will have its own media content.
  • All subsites will share a common database, but will have their own tables as well within the database to contain their content.
  • The subsites can be setup as subdomains (e.g. subsite.mymaindomain.com) or sub-directories of the primary site, which can be mapped to another URL using a special Multisite plugin for this purpose.
  • All websites within the multisite will share the same IP address.
  • Registered users are shared across all sites (though not necessarily all having permissions for each site).

When to use a Multisite:

The following are common reasons to use a multisite.

  • In a logical sense, if your websites fall under a single umbrella, then it is best to setup as a multisite. For example, if your business has several locations or branches and each location needs to have its own subdomain or folder off your main domain, display different content but still pertain to the business overall theme and pattern, a multisite will be an efficient option.
  • Similarly, where an organisation requires separate websites per product, but wants to retain control of each of those websites in the one environment and set of users.
  • Having an organisation wide intranet, where individual divisions can setup their own intranet.
  • Having development and test sites within the one network, thus ensuring that the environment for both are identical.
  • For personal sites, where you want to have multiple personal sites within the one hosting and codebase.
  • You want to allow other users to create websites in your network.

Advantages

One advantage of a multisite is that all your websites are contained within the one web hosting account, saving you cost. However, a multisite will likely require more bandwidth and disk space than a single website, and therefore depending on your traffic and content, the hosting cost may not be too different from a collection of individual hosting plans. Shared hosting is not recommended for WordPress Multisites, and in fact some shared hosting platforms will not allow a multisite setup.

Another advantage is that once your WordPress theme is stable, it is easy to let another person create a new website employing that theme.

I believe the most important advantage of a multisite is that maintenance, upgrades, security, performance monitoring, etc. can be performed for several sites from a single point of access in one step, rather than needing to carry out these tasks over and over for each website.

When NOT to use a multisite:

  • If managing websites is the only concern, there are other automated tools such as Manage WP. You do not need a multisite for this reason, and in fact it could lead to issues.
  • If the sites are totally unrelated to each other, even though they share the same design, it is better to keep them as separate websites to allow flexibility with regard to the functionality available for each site, and to reduce the impact of any change across unrelated sites.
  • When each site needs to have its own IP address, you cannot use a multisite.
  • If the super admin is not comfortable dealing with the monitoring, configuration and maintenance of a multisite, which can get a little complex when you have several sites under the hood, a collection of individual websites will be easier for the admin to handle.

Disadvantages

One disadvantage of a multisite is that if the primary site is down for some reason, usually the other websites are down as well, and will need to wait for the primary site to be up and running again.


Deciding on whether a multisite is right for your purposes needs to take all the factors mentioned above into account. At Contactpoint we are happy to assist you in making that decision, and also helping you to maintain your WordPress Multisite. Please call or email to discuss your requirements.

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Your First 2 Hours

January 28th, 2020 by Heather Maloney

productivity at workOver the New Year break I try to read at least one physical book. Usually the book is in some way connected to business, with the aim of helping me during the business close down period to refresh and reframe my views of business, and start the year with appropriate, positive changes. It’s a great time to reflect and take a step back.

I don’t make New Years Resolutions though! [We all know how successful they aren’t].

I was delighted this Christmas & New Year to read the book “The First 2 Hours – make better use of your most valuable time” by Donna McGeorge (a gift from Lynne Cazally, a long-term business colleague). The book was actually a quick read; I got through it over the course of about 3 days. Despite the quick read, it contains some profound insights into how to work more productively, in sync with your body’s natural rhythms, instead of trying to fight them. Importantly, the book is supported by much research.

Since being back in the office on the 6th January, I have been applying the strategies suggested in “The First 2 Hours” in my day to day work, and also encouraging members of our team to embrace the recommendations. I can thankfully say it’s made a huge difference to my productivity. And when I am productive, I feel much better about each day!

I won’t attempt to paraphrase the book in this blog post, but the changes that I am personally making include:

  • Only skimming through emails at the start of the day to look for anything super urgent, and leaving the task of addressing my inbox fully until after lunch.
  • Spending my first 2 hours working on the most difficult task for the day, or the one that requires my greatest level of concentration.
  • Using the next 2 hours to focus on the needs of the team, and supporting them in the decisions that need to be made so that they can accomplish their work. Meetings with clients are now more likely to be scheduled in this timeslot, when I’m still firing on all cylinders.
  • I consciously delay or ignore the myriad insignificant but energy consuming tasks until midday, in order to save myself from experiencing ‘decision fatigue’ earlier on in the day.
  • In the post-lunch slump, I will deal with admin tasks or routine tasks that need to be done, but don’t need me to be at my best.
  • Ensuring that at the end of the day, I plan for the next day and know exactly what I am going to be working on during that critical time of the day.

As a team we have had to make adjustments to accommodate the changes I described above, including moving our weekly team meeting from Monday at 10:00 AM to Monday at 11:30 AM. I now feel confident that I can accomplish important work on Mondays too! I meet with our project co-ordinator at 10:00 AM each day to review workload across the development team by which time I would have already knocked off the toughest part of my day’s tasks and would be feeling charged to take on the day ahead.

With all the team on board with this new way of working, we are respectful of each other’s time in a new way, and are helping one another to utilise our most productive time well, interrupting each other less, and thinking about the way in which questions of one another can be grouped and asked at the right time of the day. It’s been a great start to the new year.

How has your new year started? Have you read anything helpful over the break?

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How we Support Women in IT @ Contactpoint

November 28th, 2019 by Heather Maloney

I believe that it’s important to lead by example, which is why I am writing this blog post about women in IT at Contactpoint.

The fact that I’m the founder and sole director of an IT company (male dominated industry) some would say is enough. And it would be relatively easy to leave it at that, because anyone who operates a business knows that doing so is very challenging, particularly a small business. However, that isn’t enough for me; I want to do my small bit to ensure that the females who work for us, and any other females that I come across in my industry, are given a fair go. That’s Australian after all.

Please note that I said a fair go. This isn’t about “jobs for the girls”, or giving anyone who doesn’t deserve it an easy ride. It is about acknowledging the diligence, hard work, brilliance, and support from the women in IT around me, who may need to break some cultural norms in order to be noticed and get the opportunities they deserve.

What do we do differently at Contactpoint for women in IT?

  1. When hiring:
    • Our job ads include words that research shows attract more females because we want to have a diverse team. A diverse team provides a richer source of knowledge and ideas for our clients, and a richer work experience for the whole team.
    • During interviews we acknowledge the (generalised) different styles of men and women when presenting themselves and their achievements. We have both males and females from our team involved in the interview to provide balance for the process and comfort for both male and female candidates.
  2. Work ethic:
    • Same for all. Women are socialised to be the ones who “pick up after everybody else [read ‘men’]”. I expect all my team to work hard (and smart); to do an honest day’s work.
    • Both men and women may need to do basic, perhaps you might say “menial” tasks from time to time … I expect both genders to roll their sleeves up and get it done.
    • When it comes to time off to care for children who are staying home because they are sick, I expect that either parent in the household might need to stay home to fulfil this caring role.
  3. Salary:
    • Same for all. We reward our staff with a salary commensurate with 1/ their level of education, 2/ their years of experience, 3/ their effectiveness in their role, and 4/ their work ethic. Males are often more likely to request a pay rise without any qualms (not always, it can depend on cultural background), whilst women are more likely to rely on their manager valuing their skills and efforts without fanfare, and will be less inclined to ask for the raise. This can leave females less likely to receive increases or a lower increase, as they are perceived to be happy. I am careful to assess pay rises evenly across the board, regardless of requests for raises or not.
    • Maternity leave doesn’t mean you miss out on pay rises – why should a woman’s salary effectively decrease due to time out of the workplace? I am careful to ensure that any CPI type increase is applied to the female upon return to work so that her earnings is not disadvantaged.
  4. Career:
    • Opportunity for all. As an employer I have had (mostly women) say things to me like “don’t hire young women, they won’t be with you for long before they head off on maternity leave”. Regardless, I believe that it is important to provide both males and females with the same opportunities to learn and grow their career, in any role they choose. Cultural norms can also lead to men being given more opportunity to progress and develop than women [you’d think that men were innately smarter the way some people behave]. Without that bias, I believe that I am better equipped to recognise talent.
    • Training for all. Each member of staff who has been with us for more than 1 year has the same funding for additional training, regardless of gender or role.
  5. Maternity Leave:
    • Pregnancy is obviously a uniquely female circumstance. The pregnancy also takes a significant toll on the female’s body and physical ability to work and do seemingly simple things like get on a crowded train and travel with morning sickness.
    • After the birth, the female can experience anxiety with regard to conflicting desires to both return to their career, as well as stay at home to nurture their young one. Cultural pressures from family or social circle can add to the internal conflict.
    • Helping a female return to work after her maternity leave requires flexibility; I try to provide this flexibility and empathise with the pressures that are unique to females who have a young one at home.
  6. Mentoring:
    • Whilst I’m very busy, I have made myself available over the last couple of years particularly to mentor females who are undertaking studies in technology and related fields – providing encouragement and insights to help them understand what their career might be like in the field, and ensure that whilst it is still very male dominated, that they understand the upside of working in the industry and can see examples of females being successful in this field.

The above might not sound earth shattering; actually it seems pretty obvious and like it should be the norm everywhere. Sadly that’s not been my experience, and from what I hear from others, not their’s either. This blog post seeks to put it out there, help to bring attention to the problem in a very practical way, and keep myself accountable as well.

What have I missed from the above? Feel free to contribute!

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An Update on Search Engine Marketing (Pay Per Click)

July 22nd, 2019 by Heather Maloney

It’s been nearly a year since we blogged about pay-per-click advertising in the search engines (‘PPC’ e.g. Google Ads / Bing Ads). A lot has changed over that short time including a new name and a completely new user interface for Google Ads; this blog is intended as an update for business owners and marketing managers to help you keep abreast of what is possible, and the best way to approach search engine marketing.

search engine marketing changes in 2019

Most of the change is around the use of AI applied to the smart delivery of targeted ads, making the customisation of ads for mobile phones much easier to encourage more advertisers to display their ads on mobile, and additional control by Google to ensure positive customer experience.

Quality Scores
I’ve been involved in search engine optimisation (‘SEO’ – the art of achieving high ranks in the search engines for relevant, popular keyword searches) since the mid 1990s and organic traffic (people finding you through searchable content) has always been the #1 priority, and PPC ads the more costly way to get immediate website traffic while your SEO efforts grow your ranks over time. Naturally, the search engines, who only make money from paid ads, don’t see it that way.

Google changes the appearance of ads on a regular basis, and gives preference to the display of ads, all in the attempt to make money at the same time as delivering valid results for searchers. It is in Google’s best interest to ensure that not only are organic search results highly relevant to the searcher, but also the ads. Google want people to be just as willing to click on an ad as they are willing to click on a ‘normal’ search result. To that end, even if you want to pay over the odds to Google for your ad in relation to particular search terms, you may find that your ad isn’t being displayed. That’s because the destination of the ad – the landing page, or web page where the searcher ends up when they click – is now also assessed by Google in determining who to show your ad to. This is referred to as the ‘quality score’. If your ad is about treating back pain, and takes you to a web page that talks about exercise without reference to back pain for example, Google is likely to give your ad a low quality score and be less inclined to present the ad to searchers, and when your ad is presented the click cost will be higher (ouch).

What this means is that you must have high quality landing pages / ad destination pages which richly develop the intent of the ad, and the ads must include appropriate keywords that are reflecting in the landing pages, which brings us to dynamic ads.

Landing pages that are congruent with your ads have been important for a long time and has driven the trend of having your landing pages not only disconnected from your main website navigation, but also omitting your site navigation in order to focus the attention of the visitor only on the action you want them to take. This latest evolution is driving the use of 3rd party platforms which make it easier for digital marketers to setup dynamic landing pages, including sophisticated analytics around visitor behaviour.

Responsive Ads [and dynamic landing pages]
The latest overhaul of the Google Ad’s platform provides seriously sophisticated functionality for creating responsive ads – that is, ads whose content programmatically incorporates the search term entered by the searcher, from a set of search terms which you specify, and configures itself to the available space. A combination of 15 alternate headlines and 4 descriptions is possible. Using our back pain example, the responsive ad functionality allows you to create an ad which might have a headline of ‘Suffering from back pain’ or ‘Suffering from a sore back’ or ‘Suffering from a back injury’ all with the one ad i.e. you don’t need to create 3 ads to achieve this. Then, if the searcher types in ‘help with back pain’ your ad will appear as “Suffering from back pain”, or if they type in ‘recovering from a back injury’, your ad will appear as “Suffering from a back injury”. The descriptions in the content of the ads can similarly be filled on the fly to match the searcher’s intent as determined by AI.

To take this one step further, specialised landing pages can be configured to receive the search terms entered by the searcher, and then display those words in the appropriate place. Obviously you need to be careful when doing this to ensure that the dynamic content makes sense in all cases, particularly if you decide to add more keywords a few month’s later. But the end result is a much more relevant landing page, a higher quality score, and additional traffic to your site at a lower cost.

The ability to create responsive ads and content takes a bit of effort to setup, but means that you can create a lot more ads for less effort over the longer term, and achieve greater ad impressions, therefore more clicks, at a lower cost. It doesn’t however take away the need for greater copywriters, creative ideas and overall campaign strategy.

Ad Format
The available ad formats continue to evolve, and now includes:

  • Basic text-only ads.
  • Responsive ads – can insert text from a set of specified options matching the searcher’s search term, transform into text or image ads and automatically adjust size, appearance and format to fit space.
  • Image ads – static or interactive graphics, animated ads.
  • Image carousel ads.
  • Instream video ads – including vertical format ads specifically for people on mobile (you may need two versions), standalone video ads or inserted in streaming video content.
  • Product shopping ads – product photo, title, price, store name+ more details.
  • Showcase shopping ads – image and description that expands when clicked to show several related products and store information.
  • App Promotion Ads – drive app downloads and engagement with app promotion ads.

The ad formats available depends on your campaign type (search network, display network, search + display networks) and campaign sub-type (e.g. standard or all features).

Targeting
How we ensure ads are seen by the right people is continuing to evolve. In the Google Display Network (where websites show Google Ads, rather than ads as a result of customer searching) the placement of ads is much more a result of prior browsing activity and demographics (by users signed into Google) and less about their search terms.

Google’s “Exact Match” setting is no longer really exact … instead it works out intent using AI (read more about the dismantling of exact match over the years). This is a little annoying as taking that control away means that we are relying on the accuracy of the AI and ultimately Google wants you to spend more. It also means that the thorough use of negative keywords (preventing your ads from displaying when particular search terms are used) is even more important. We constantly review the search terms used to display ads, and extend the negative keywords list to prevent waste of our client’s ad budgets.

With Google’s significant improvement in targeting by audiences – whereby you load your known audience (customer database) up into Google and it then targets exactly those people with your ads, or builds matching audiences of similar people – due to it’s use of artificial intelligence, using this feature to target the right customers for your ads has become more useful. You can make the best use of this feature when you have a larger customer database, and when you know where each person or segment are in their buying journey, allowing you to present appropriate ads for each person. New demographics have been appearing in the audience settings including marital status, home ownership and the like, so we expect this area to continue to expand. Although the recent $5Bn fine against Facebook could slow things down in this area?

Many businesses use Google Ads primarily for top-of-funnel (prospects at the very start of a customer purchase journey) and then use other means to communicate with the new prospect such as email nurture programs. Not surprisingly, Google wants businesses to use Google ads all the way through the process. The use of Google re-marketing – presenting a similar ad to a person who has previously clicked on your ads and visited your website – is another cost-effective way to re-enforce your message with prospects, as these ads have significantly cheaper cost per click.

Bing have launched their own audience building feature this year, which is also AI powered across data collected from Bing searches, Skype, MSN and LinkedIn usage, and is not to be ignored for highly targeted campaigns.

Configuration
Setting up ad campaigns for mobile searches (more than half of all searches are carried out on a mobile phone) was previously cumbersome, requiring advertisers to create another set of ads just for mobiles. That’s changed with the new ad platform allowing the one ad, including ad extensions, to be customised within the one place for desktop and mobile.

Goal based campaigns allows the choice of the results you want to achieve – such as increased leads, greater brand awareness or higher conversions – and then Google will provide recommendations for campaign types that will perform best for you and your budget, and provides numerous automatic bid and placement optimisations. Again this is a result of their deepening use of artificial intelligence.

Whilst Google is giving us far more recommendations to use as we configure and optimise ads, sometimes these recommendations conflict; we don’t just follow these without careful consideration to ensure that they fit with your objectives.

Ad Extensions allow extra information to be shown as part of your ads. New ad extensions include Promotion Extension – the ability to include a price or special offer – thus enticing a visitor to click your ad instead of another.

Controls
Google is much more active in the assessment and banning of ads for all manner of legal and ethical reasons. We create ads with the best intentions in mind, include images, and then may need edit after Google has reviewed.

If you are using Click to Call style ads, the business name in your ads must now really be your business name, and mentioned in your IVR or by the person answering (sounds obvious, right … you would be surprised at how less-than-honest marketers have exploited this in the past). Interestingly, with the increase use of mobiles for search, Google removed the extra charge it originally levied on advertisers using click to call ads to provide metrics and reporting such as length of call (now a customisable setting to attribute as a conversion which previously not been tracked).

Summary
Due to the complexity of the ad platforms, increasing competition for organic search ranks, priority of the search companies to drive revenue through search, and the importance of the configuration on the cost of your pay-per-click ad campaigns, it is really important to keep a close eye on your pay-per-click ad campaigns. We work with our clients with pay-per-click campaigns in a variety of models, from strategic advice all the way through to full responsibility for creation and execution of ads. We can pick up your existing campaigns from where they currently are and improve them over time, or work with you to create your first ever pay-per-click ads.

We look forward to having a conversation.

But Wait! There’s More
We haven’t touched on You Tube ads in this article (also owned by Google). With the viewing of You Tube video continuing to grow, presenting video ads within You Tube is an option more organisations need to utilise.

Google does not stand still – it tends to roll out a major update to its ad platform every 6 months. Google has already announced the many new features coming to their ad platform which will likely be rolled out during the rest of this year. Many of these relate to search on mobile phones. Here’s a short list:

  1. A new type of ad – Discovery Ads – to appear in the new Google Discovery Feed app that mobile users are likely using on their phones. Discovery Ads, because they are interrupting people in a similar way to ads inside your Facebook Feed, will have strict quality constraints around them e.g. the requirement for unique (not stock) high quality images.
  2. Images inside search ads, but only on mobile, and only in the first place – this will be called a Gallery Ad.
  3. AI will be used to create interesting 6 second videos from original, up to 90 seconds in length.
  4. Deep links from ads to inside apps.
  5. Advanced bid strategies will allow you to exclude data considered by artificial intelligence when determining when to place ads e.g. particular spikes due to out-of-the-ordinary activities.
  6. Location based ads will start appearing in Google Maps search suggestions and while a user is use getting directions.

We look forward to exploring the use of these changes and more in the Google ads platform.

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