September 2008

Resource Roundup 9/26

Comparison of Email Newsletter Tools - Updated for 2008 (ONE/Blog)
Update of ONE/ Northwest's terrific, detailed comparison (with matrix and all!) of a number of blast emailing tools.

Make a Comic (The Bamboo Project)
This is fun: it's a list of tools that can help you easily create a comic, using wizard-like tools. I've been thinking of comics as potential ways to communicate concepts myself.

Web Apps Failure: A Pain in the SaaS (Small Business Computing)
High level look at what you can do to protect yourself from hosted application downtime and failures - by asking the right questions up front.

Grating Expectations: Sending Constituents the Emails they Expect
(Beaconfire)
Thoughtful exploration of what supporters might expect when they join an email list, compared to what we send them - and how to make them match.

Measuring the Effects of Social Media Marketing (e.politics)
Great look at the difficulties and possibilities in measuring ROI of social media

New Metrics for Success: What I Learned from the Drudge Report (NTEN)
NTEN provides a thoughtful look at the online metrics they're using to measure their own efficacy

Salesforce 101: Fun with Campaigns and Workflows (A View from Judi Sohn)
Great case study of how the Colorectal Cancer Coalition is using campaigns in Salesforce to support less obvious processes - like event registration and memorial gifts

7 Ways To Stay Informed And Up-To-Date Online
(MakeUseOf.com)
Nice overview of tools that help you monitor what's being said about you or a topic online

From Zero to Sixty: What type of Project Management tool is appropriate?

It seems like every month or two, I happen across a forum thread about project management tools. What works? Can you do it with a wiki? Are they necessary at all? Often, there are a slew of recommendations (Basecamp, Central Desktop, MS Project) accompanied by some heartfelt recommendations to stay away from all of them. All of these recommendations are correct, and incorrect.

Project software naysayers make a very apt point: Tools won't plan a project for you. If you think that buying and setting up the tool is all that you need to do to successfully complete a complex project, you're probably doomed to fail. So what are the things that will truly facilitate a project-oriented approach, regardless of tools?
  • Healthy Communication. The team on the project has to be comfortably and consistently engaged in project status and decisions

  • Accountability. Team members need to know what their roles are, what deliverables they're accountable for and when, and deliver them.

  • Clarity, Oversight and Buy-In. Executives, Boards, Backers all have to be completely behind the project and the implementation team.
With that in place, Project Management tools can facilitate and streamline things, and the proper tools will be the ones that best address the complexity of the project, the make-up of the team, and the culture of the team and organization.

Traditional Project Management applications, exemplified by MS Project, tie your project schedule and resources together, applying resource percentages to timeline tasks. So, if your CEO is involved in promoting the plan and acting as a high level sponsor, then she will
be assigned, perhaps, as five percent of the project's total resources, and her five percent will be sub-allocated to the tasks that she is assigned to. They track dependencies, and allow you to shift a whole schedule based on the delay of one piece of the plan. If task 37 is
"order widget" and that order is delayed, then all actions that depend on deployment of the widget can be rescheduled with a drag and drop action. This is all very powerful, but there is a significant cost to defiing the plan, initially inputting it, and then maintaining the information. There's a simple rule of thumb to apply: If your project requires this level of
tracking, then it requires a full-time Project Manager to track it. If your budget doesn't support that, as is often the case, then you shouldn't even try to use a tool this complex. It will only waste your time.

Without a dedicated Project Manager, the goal is to find tools that will enhance communication; keep team members aware of deadlines and milestones; report clearly on project status; and provide graphical and summary reporting to stakeholders. If your team is spread out geographically, or comprised of people both inside and outside of your organization, such as consultants and vendors, all the better if the tool is web-based. Centralized plan, calendar, and contacts are a given. Online forums can be useful if your culture supports it. Most people aren't big on online discussions outside of email, so you shouldn't put up a forum if it won't be used by all members. The key is to provide a big schedule that drills down to task lists, and maintain a constant record of task status and potential impacts on the overall plan. Gantt Charts allow you to note key dependencies - actions that must be completed before other actions can begin -- and provide a visual reporting tool that is clear and readable for your constituents, from the project sponsors to the public. Basecamp, Central Desktop, and a slue of web-based options provide these components.

If this is still overkill - the project isn't that complex, or the team is too small and constricted to learn and manage the tools, then scale down even further. Make good use of the task list and calendar functions that your email system provides, and put up a wiki to facilitate project-related communication.

What makes this topic so popular is that there is no such thing as a one size fits all answer, and the quick answer ("Use Project") can be deadly for all but the most complex projects. Understand your goals, understand your team, and choose tools that support them.

SaaS vs. Open Source

SaaS (Software as a Service) is, most likely, one of the biggest changes over the few years in the way that nonprofits implement software solutions. Of course SaaS has been around quite a while, primarily in the CRM/Fundraising space, with products like eTapestry, Convio, Kintera, and, most recently, Salesforce.com and Common Ground (Convio's fundraising application built upon Salesforce.com).

In the most recent version of the NOSI primer, we added a SaaS column in our software choice worksheet. So how does SaaS relate to Open Source, and, if you are choosing software to implement, how do you weigh the open source vs. SaaS options?

When you implement a SaaS solution, you are, first and foremost, not buying or obtaining software. You are purchasing a service. You are incurring a monthly service fee (sometimes there is a setup fee, sometimes not.) At one level, whether or not the software underneath the SaaS is open source is not really relevant. You are not obtaining the software, and whether or not you can see the code, or modify it, is really not the key issue here. There is a post up on my blog explaining why this is actually more complex than it seems.

Because SaaS is a service, there is nothing to install, and nothing to maintain. There will be, of course, migration of data, customization and configuration, and all of those sorts of things. But you won't have to deal with doing upgrades, or installing security patches, or maintaining the server - these are things that can be a real benefit to nonprofits without many technology resources.

Advantages of SaaS over Open Source:

  • Support is generally included in the monthly fee
  • No installation
  • No server to maintain
  • No upgrades to deal with

Advantages of Open Source over SaaS:

  • You keep your own data and have complete control over it
  • There are no ongoing monthly costs for the software itself
  • You can modify the software
  • You control software upgrades
  • There is an active developer community to contribute to and tap
Users and developers of Salesforce.com will likely beg to differ on a number of issues here. Salesforce.com is more of a PaaS (Platform as a Service) rather than a SaaS per se.

Of course, in making software decisions, features and such are key, but these are some important components of the decision process.

Online Seminar about Online Seminars Tools

Interested in conducting online conferences or seminars - for team meetings, or training? What better way to learn about the tools and techniques involved than through an online seminar?

Our first iteration of our Getting Started with Online Conference and Seminar Tools sold out so far in advance that we scheduled another one - and it's on for tomorrow, Wednesday, from 1:00 - 2:30 Eastern Time. The topic is a little meta, but and interesting one - what features might be useful to you in an online conferencing tool? What tools are available? And I'll talk a little bit about some of the differences between these webinars and in-person seminars that I've picked up after doing dozens (yikes!) of these online seminars.

It's $40 per person - you can register online. We cap the registration at 22 people - so there will be lots of opportunity to get your specific questions answered. Or we also have a's also recording of the last time we conducted the seminar, for $20.

Social Media: Revolution or Evolution?

Of late, I've been giving a lot of thought into how social media can and should fit into nonprofits' marketing and internet strategies. Like the research geek I am, part of my process has been to read a whole lot of the information that's already out there (and there's a *lot* of it).

There's a ton of information, but surprisingly little about how social media tools and tactics fit into any other marketing activity. In fact, many of the info out there seems to imply (or to assert outright) that social media is a revolution in communications that makes all other marketing obsolete. Certainly in nearly everything there's an implication that social media is a different type of thing, which requires a different mindset and priorities.

I have to say, I just don't find this idea that social media is a whole new thing to be helpful. First off, it just doesn't make much conceptual sense to me. The ideas of guerrilla marketing and savvy branding - which have been with us for decades now - focus on crafting a compelling story that supporters will pass on. Familiar, huh? And to me, a really useful base on which to build the case for social media.

And the idea that nonprofits need social media to save them from a broadcast-only marketing strategy, and that otherwise they don't listen to anyone... this is nonsense. Nonprofits have always been particularly good at engaging constituents and listening. Community meetings, pledge-a-thons, house parties, bake sales, volunteers canvassing door to door to spread your message.... all great tactics to engage and listen, all conceptually similar to social media techniques. You don't need online tools to listen to people or to engage them (though they can help, no question).

Not to mention that it's clear that nonprofits need to do more than simply listen. They do have messages that they do want to put out into the world. Social media doesn't replace the need for a very solid website and email strategy. I don't think any credible authority would say differently, but when there's so little focus on how social media fits into these established methods, and so much on how social media is a wholly different thing, we give nonprofits the impression that they should focus their time accordingly: lots on social media, little on websites and email.

And lastly, the social media "revolution" that folks identify links suspiciously to shiny and nifty new tools. Why is creating an online video and posting it on YouTube one of the hallmarks of social marketing, while creating a terrific report which is widely discussed and promoted an old school method? Why do we talk a ton about FaceBook groups as important online communities, and hardly at all about email discussion lists (which often reach a much wider audience)? I don't see any fundamental paradigm shift between these things - the tactics and strategies at work are very similar, it's only the tools that change.

Don't get me wrong. There's no question to me that social media - and the shiny new tools - can provide compelling benefits for many nonprofits. And they engage different audiences than more traditional techniques, which is useful in of itself.

Isn't it more useful, though, to help nonprofits understand how these new tools and tactics fit in, how they're similar, how they can build on what they're already doing, rather than to focus on how *different* social media is from everything else?

Managing Documents on Your Macintosh

It's taken me two years to convert, but now I love my Macintosh. Many of the nonprofits I work with do too. However there is no getting around the fact that there is only a limited set of options for business software that runs on a Macintosh. While I would love to have all my nonprofit friends upgrade to the fancy new Mac laptops that will run Windows too, the cost and performance is still prohibitive.

I wanted to share one struggle of mine to find appropriate business software that runs on Macintosh systems. Recently I was challenged to look for a document management solution for a Mac based office. They have approximately 250,000 documents currently being imaged to PDF format. The main criteria are:

(1) $2000 budget
(2) 6 users
(3) Must handle about 8GB of PDF documents without crashing
(4) Can store some basic document descriptive information - such as Title, Author, Category.
(5) Should provide some kind of preview feature when browsing documents

Focusing on hosted solutions - I looked at freely available online systems such as Magnolia CMS (magnolia.info) and Alfresco (alfresco.com) - they could definitely do it, but I needed a brilliant and horribly underpaid software engineer to build it for me within budget. I looked as some online file storage solutions, such as Box.net, Xythos (xythos.com) and DocumenTree (documentree.com), but these focused on storing files in folders and provided very limited ability to store basic document descriptive information.

Eventually I turned to locally installed systems. FileMaker was out - the license costs + server software alone would break the budget. I found a raft of locally installed systems recommended by various companies who do document scanning, but all of these were PC only and most were quite expensive.

Do I just need to admit that my requirements are unrealistic, or are there more options I am missing?

So far I have found a few options that come close, but I am still looking for other leads. The best match so far is DEVONthink (devon-technologies.com). These are the same folks that built EasyFind - a very cool Macintosh OSX file search tool. DEVONthink can handle the larger amount of files, offers a preview function, and some basic document description data and a promise to do more on this point. I should be able to pick up licenses for about $900. Another possibility was Papers (mekentosj.com/papers/) - this is more for researchers who are gathering articles and other publications from online resources, but does has features that come close to what I am looking for.

One Good Voter Registration Widget

In America right now it's impossible to get away from news about the upcoming election.

There are lots of reasons for that, but everyone agrees that it is a really big deal. And it's gotten me to thinking about democratic participation and voter registration. We all know the old saw "If you didn't vote, you can't gripe" (or words to that effect) and although its not enforceable, I tend to subscribe to the theory. A quick peek at recent government data shows about 1/3 of citizens aren't registered to vote. That's a lot of people, and some of them may be your supporters.

No matter what side of the issues you support or whether or not your organization does advocacy, I believe that supporting voter registration online can be a great opportunity for any organization. Thanks to the high stakes this year, youth engagement and some sweet technology, voter registration is even kind of sexy. Think of it as fresh timely content, a chance to engage your supporters in a new way or just a way to provide a helpful tool for site visitors, who will leave you their name and emails as a thank you.

If you are saying, that all sounds great but we're too busy, we don't have high-end tech staff or what will it cost me? I have good news.

Years ago I worked on the design and development of an online voter registration widget for Rock the Vote - and I have to say I thought it was pretty neat. So I took a look around the web to see what's available these days. It quickly became obvious that in this election year RTV/Credo (used to be Working Assets) has gone all out and is the now indisputable king of all voter registration widgets. And that's ok, because the widget is free, easy and brand-able to boot.

What it is - a piece of code you can add to your site to allow voters in any state to fill out their registration form, print it and mail it in. Right on your site. And you get to ask your own questions and collect contact information. Read more about how it works in a great summary at e.politics.

Sign up and grab a widget here: http://registertovoteonline.org/site/signup/

You don't have to spend a lot of time setting it up (I did one in 10 minutes including sign up, custom logo and custom questions). And if you can copy and paste and have access to your HTML you are ready to go. The admin includes some nice tracking info (for list building and thank you's) and options to make this play nice with any web site.

Adding the widget link on your site doesn't have to mean starting a major voter registration campaign - although it could if that fits with what you do. More like a quick and easy home page sidebar feature showing your awareness and good citizenship as an American based organization.

One last thought - Are all the US citizens on your staff registered? Might be a good time to find out and maybe even kick-start your widget with some familiar names.

Smartphone Follies

If you man the support desk, or are the accidental techie for an org of ten or more people, chances are that you get a lot of questions about smartphones. And these generally aren't the "what should I get?" questions as often as they're the "how do I get my email and schedule on my new [Blackberry/Iphone/Treo/Razr/MotoQ/Sidekick/Android Dream]?". If the state of computing technology were akin to smartphones, you'd have Commodore, Leading Edge, IBM, and Apple computers, along with IBM Selectric typewriters to support, all running different operating systems and different applications. It's somewhat insane.

So how can you politely impose some sanity on the smartphone madness? People love THEIR devices; the choice of an Iphone vs a Blackberry is as heated as any political debate. But there are some commons sense arguments that IT can make for a modicum of standardization, without totally denying your users some choice.

It all boils down to email. While smartphones feature a range of operating systems, email platforms tend to support cross-smartphone access. So what's your email system?

Microsoft Exchange includes ActiveSync. If you run an Exchange server, ActiveSync-capable smartphones can connect directly and wirelessly to it, providing contact, calendar, email and (on some phones) task synchronization. Any Windows Mobile phone includes Activesync, as well as Palm Treos and the newest iPhones (version 2 and above). Exchange 2007 also includes handy features like remote device wipes and access to network shares.

Google Apps/GMailGoogle makes a GMail for Mobile application that works on most smartphones capable of running java applications, which includes all of the major variants (Windows Mobile, Blackberry, iPhone and Palm).

If you don't use GMail or have an Exchange server (you either run Outlook or Outlook Express without your own server, or you use a different system), Blackberries offer the ubiquitous solution. RIM, the company that makes them, runs their own server that can act as a gateway for your email service and forward the mail to your phone. Before Microsoft figured out how to support mobiles, this was a sweet, revolutionary offering, but my take is that, compared to Exchange/Activesync, it's now a bit of a kludge. If you use Blackberries with Exchange, you can increase functionality by buying their Exchange add-in server, but that's a significant investment that you're not likely to make without a large fleet of phones. In the meantime, though, here's a tip: when you set up that Blackberry to access Exchange, pick Outlook WebAccess, not Outlook (assuming you also run Webaccess). The integration through Webaccess updates the server when you read messages on the phone; the vanilla Outlook integration doesn't. Outlook should be chosen when you don't offer WebAccess with Exchange.

At my job, we have Exchange and a smartphone policy that states that we support Activesync, as opposed to any particular device. We recommend that our users get Treos or iPhones, because we like them, but don't complain if they get Wings or MotoQ's or whatever, because Activesync works the same way on any Windows Mobile device. The staff appreciates the guidance and flexibility; we enjoy the reduced time figuring every new phone out.

New articles: Purchasing Major Systems, and Page Layout Tools

We've got two articles up (yikes! it's a flurry of activity this week)!

First up, Peter Campbell has written a great, detailed guide to Evaluating and Purchasing Major Software Systems. It's the tactical, nuts and bolts stuff that can be so hard to wade through on your own - should you write an RFP? What should go in it? How do you compare? What do you ask a vendor to show you in a demo? What should you look for in a contract?

But if instead, you're thinking about a new method to design your print newsletters, event invitations, or that next annual report, you're going to need software - enter A Few Good Page Layout Tools. We round up the advice from a bunch of graphic design experts on what inexpensive and more robust tools can be useful, and how they differ.

website software dilemmas

Is it just me, or is everyone redoing their web site all of a sudden? This summer, we had a rash of requests to talk about web site options. I am writing this after a neighbor who has never previously talked tech with me literally stopped me in the street about her organization’s site.

Here’s the problem. A redesign today isn’t that different than it was five years ago. The process is about the same. The time commitment, designer hours, and cost is about the same. Many people still think that’s what they need. Liven up the design, get new content up, and show you have a pulse.

OK, everyone today also wants easier changes to their site. Nonprofits held captive to board members or the founder’s niece for every little change is so 1990s. If you redo your site with Adobe Dreamweaver, at least get set up for easy page maintenance with companion product Contribute. Inexpensive (from TechSoup), easy to learn, and no web designer needed for adding content and keeping up to date.

But these days, it’s really a makeover plus. Once you get talking, most folks want more.

You soon cross a threshold where the choice to just update the site conflicts with the things you really want to do, if not now, then soon. Better cataloging of material; “members only” special content; commenting, tags, ratings, news feeds, tell-a-friend, printer friendly pages, and all the rest to make your site easy to use.

And it’s not just click- to-donate anymore. It is event registration; Analytics; blogging; internal planning, discussion and organizing; community calendar; newsletter signup and on.

If you are not doing a lot interactive yet, you can definitely tackle a couple of new things as add-on services for now. There’s lots of great, free or inexpensive pay-as-you go a la carte services for blogging, events, calendars and more. A la carte often means different visual looks and no shared contact information.

Much better to move to a content management system, such as the big Open Source ones frequently mentioned here--Drupal (our favorite), Joomla and sometimes Plone, as well as the pricey commercial ones like Kintera and Convio, and the many lesser commercial ones discussed on idealware and techsoup. Yet the leap to a full installation of one of the content management/web development systems, including a strong visual design “theme,” and all your content, will cost substantially costly than just updating the site in Dreamweaver.

It is truly worth it because you will now be on a modern platform that can and will continue to evolve as your needs evolve. What’s tough and unexpected for many small organizations is justifying the additional cost to get there, if you haven’t planned on it. These are hard choices for folks with small budgets.

When I have these conversations and it looks like it’s going to go in the direction of a traditional Dreamweaver facelift, I find myself musing on Rick’s words to Ilsa in the final scene in Casablanca. I think to myself, if your new web site takes flight in 2008 or 09, and it’s not on a CMS, then “you’ll regret it, maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon, and for the rest of your life.” Well, maybe not the rest of your life, but Bogart’s Rick is a lot tougher than me.

It’s hard telling people they should wait. There’s certainly lots to do to prepare for a full blown web upgrade. Focus on your email newsletter so you know your constituents; see how hard or easy its going to be to get new stories on your home page regularly; start a linked blog; study your Analytics; focus on evaluating your contact management.

And there are ways to experiment. Google Sites, Wordpress, wikis and Ning all come up for us as alternative to full blown CMS-driven systems. These are easy, lively, even fun. And they can be done with not just less budget, but less planning time from organizations than building a full Drupal or Joomla site. They may suffice or they could be experimental before committing to bigger project. There’s no universal truth on this matter, and it’s a great time to move forward.