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  • Open Letter to the SEO Industry

    Dear SEO Industry, How are you all doing? I’ve now been a member of the industry for, well, most of my professional life, and I feel it’s time I share some things with you. You see, I’ve been thinking a lot about our industry in the past few years, and I’ve come to an important realisation: I love being an SEO. And the reason I love being an SEO is because of you, the industry. And I feel I need to explain why. Because this industry of ours, it’s not like any other industry. It’s something special. And it’s important for me to try and describe why it’s special. Maybe I’m trying to describe the smell of clouds, or how the colour purple makes me feel, but I’ll do my best nonetheless. SEO is an amazing industry filled with amazing people, and I want to pay tribute to that somehow. So consider this my love letter to the SEO industry. I love the SEO industry because… It’s never boring. This is such a fast-moving discipline that there is no such thing as routine. The way we do things now will be different in six months, and considered obsolete in a year or two at most. What we do is make things easily findable. Our primary purpose is to ensure that search mechanisms such as web search engines show our clients’ content first. And because search mechanisms change so rapidly, we have to change too. But we’re not a reactive industry. Yes, most of what we do is done in response to what search engines want, but often we can outsmart search engines and come up with novel and interesting ways to make content rank. Search engines don’t always like it when we do this. But I love it. We’re valuable. It always baffles me that there are so many people in other industries, from developers to classic marketers, that proclaim SEO to be useless. Yet these same people will use Google several times a day to find what they are looking for, and never realise the irony of their proclamations. SEO is important because, regardless of what some say, content doesn’t rank on its own merits. Content needs our help. Without SEO, search engines would struggle to find and index most of the web. Without SEO, most websites would struggle to find an audience. Without SEO, the web would be a smaller place, with fewer websites that would dominate it all. Every time I see a business grow and prosper because they improved how people found them and interacted with their content, I feel a sense of pride. We matter because what other people do matters, and we help them do it better and on a larger scale. In the grand scheme of things, what we do amounts to a very modest contribution to the world, but it’s a positive one nonetheless. Be proud of it. We’re a family. This, probably more than anything else, is what I love about being an SEO. We care about one another, like one huge, world-wide, slightly dysfunctional but ultimately very supportive family. It’s that sense of shared values and community that makes the SEO industry such a special family. We want other SEOs to succeed, even when we compete with them. We care about what happens to members of our SEO family, and will come together to support them when needed. Not everyone who says they’re an SEO are actually part of this family. We all recognise these wannabe-SEOs when we see them – in fact, we can smell them a mile away. The slick salesman who tries to steal your clients. The fly-by-night outfit that was a social media marketing firm only a week ago but gets a whiff of SEO and suddenly ‘pivots’. The self-proclaimed ‘leading SEO agency’ that no one has ever heard of. The ‘experts’ that never attend a conference, never contribute any insights, never say who they work for. Yes, we have plenty of people who say they are SEOs – but we know they’re not. They are not a part of this family. They’re not a part of it because they haven’t earned it. We have to earn it. Being an SEO is not something you just do on a whim. Yes, there are plenty of folks out there who take on the title and think they’re one of us. But we know better. Becoming an SEO is not something you do overnight. It’s something that has to be earned. And the way you have to earn it is another reason I love this industry. You earn your stripes as an SEO by being very good at it, by sharing your knowledge and expertise generously, and by supporting and mentoring other SEOs. It’s that generosity of time and knowledge that makes SEO so special. Most other professions are intensely competitive, where people jealously guard their secrets and see every other practitioner as an enemy. Yet in the SEO industry, we share our expertise, often without asking for anything in return. We help other practitioners solve problems, we share our experiences in blogs and at conferences, and we provide guidance and assistance as a matter of course. And often we do this for other SEOs that compete with us for the same client contracts or work in the same niche. Because they’re part of our family. And we support our family, no matter what. I didn’t choose SEO, it chose me. I never planned to become an SEO, it just sort of happened. But now that I’m a part of it, I can’t imagine working in any other industry. I’m proud to be an SEO, proud to be part of this family. And, from the bottom of my heart, thank you all for being so awesome. I love you, SEO industry. All the best, Barry

  • NI Digital Expert interview: Mary McKenna

    After a short hiatus it’s time to pick up my ongoing NI Digital Experts interview series. This week I’ve put my questions to Mary McKenna, a renowned Northern Irish technology entrepreneur and angel investor. Everyone who’s anyone in the NI digital scene will know of Mary. She’s one of our wee country’s biggest tech success stories, and always willing to share her experience and expertise with new startups and scale-ups. I’ve met Mary many times and love her spark and personality. I’ve a huge admiration for what she’s accomplished. When it comes to the local startup scene, she is by far the most knowledgeable person I know, clued in to all the comings & goings and with a keen eye for spotting potential successes – and failures. Additionally, Mary and I share a trait in that we both express our opinions strongly and passionately. The story of her journey in to technology entrepreneurship is definitely worth reading, so grab a cuppa and settle in: Tell us about yourself and your journey in to the digital industry: how did you discover digital and tech and become so involved in it? Before I start I’d like to say thank you Barry for the opportunity to be featured in your very interesting blog series. Like many people I didn’t have a traditional route into digital. I suppose my first “tech” job was working as part of the then very small British Telecom Mobile Communications team within BT back in 1987 where I was the proud owner of one of the first car phones (the battery filled the entire boot of the car and pretty much every phone conversation I had started with “You’ll never guess where I’m ringing you from…”). That team eventually went on to become Cellnet and then O2 of course. After that I spent the next 12 years in London, clambering my way up the greasy corporate career pole & by the year 2000 I was a reasonably successful Finance Director. At the age of 39 I got itchy feet & when the headhunter called, I was more than ready to leave the safe, comfortable job that I could do in my sleep to move to Belfast to join a high tech startup which was a spin-out from Queens University Belfast. That company was Amphion Semiconductor and we created semiconductor IP – the code that makes chips in just about everything work. At the time Amphion’s engineering team was immersed in the JPEG & MPEG technology around enabling text & photo messaging on mobile phones for a Japanese client. We used to chuckle daily in our Belfast office at the idea that anyone would ever use their phones to send photos to their friends. 3 weeks after joining I found myself catapulted into the heart of Silicon Valley and all the madness of the Valley in the early 2000’s. The learning curve (both about what we did & what my part in that was) was nearly vertical but luckily I learned quickly and I was bitten by the technology bug. I guess my point here is that you don’t have to be a coder to work in the tech industry. Understanding the value and business benefits of tech and being able to explain that to others is a very useful skill to have. Bryan Keating was Amphion’s chairman and I was very lucky to spend the best part of 3 years learning a lot from him. He’s one of Northern Ireland’s most inspirational and wise business leaders and of course he’s Learning Pool’s chairman today. You’ve got a degree in Business Economics, which doesn’t have much to do with technology. If you could go back, would you choose to study the same at university, pick a different topic, or skip university altogether? I like the quote from Alexander Graham Bell that goes “When one door closes another opens; but we often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the one which has opened for us.” Because I’m an open door looker the past isn’t somewhere I visit too often so this question has really made me think. I’ve sometimes joke that if I had my time over again, I’d be a tax accountant and by this point would be a long time retired. I believe that nothing you ever learn is wasted. I temped for 2 years in my mid 20’s and did some terrible jobs (complaints desk for a large US oil company, processing industrial injury claims for a trade union) but it’s remarkable how many times I use something I learned back then today. University at best formalised my natural curiosity tendencies and it set me on the path for lifelong learning. When I was 17 I turned down a place at the London School of Economics choosing instead to study at a regional university in NW England. I was the first person in my family to attend university and the day I went to the LSE for my interview was the first time I’d ever been to London. At 17 I couldn’t figure out how to move to and get established in London and there was no-one who could help me so I chose the easier option. If I’m honest, I partied more at university than I attended lectures and that is something that I did used to regret when I was starting out in the world of work at the age of 21 with a 3rd class degree. These days I can see that all those parties I went to was the start of collecting people and building my network and in truth, my network is what’s been useful to me over the years. I’ve only ever applied for a job formally once in my life. As everybody knows, everything in life and business is about people. In the course of what I do today I encounter a large number of young people who skipped university choosing instead to go straight into a startup. They’ve missed university and the solid foundation that goes along with working for a few years in a more traditional organisation. They’re now onto failing startup No 3 and at the age of 22 or 23 find themselves more or less unemployable and their lack of a wider education is very evident when they get up to speak. I’m generalising of course but for most people university gets you off to a good start if you use your time there wisely. I didn’t but university opened my eyes to a lot of possibilities. With the benefit of hindsight I guess the right thing to have done would be to have been braver and take the place at the LSE but it’s too tricky to call. I’ve always loved those time travel sci-fi stories where someone goes back in time and changes one tiny event and this leads to far flung never imagined consequences. I’m pretty happy with my life and my career so far so I suppose I wouldn’t change a thing. My advice to young people starting out today though is pay attention to the changes in work that are coming fast down the pipe and choose something that’s going to be useful in the new world of work. If you do decide to go to university and can afford it, choose a course that encourages problem solving and fosters a questioning outlook. It’s about more than just getting a degree. Keep your options open. A lot of today’s steady and well paid jobs will be gone sooner than we think. I saw a statistic just last week that said 65% of children starting primary school now will leave school to do jobs that don’t even exist today. I’m not sure if I believe that (it could be 90%!) but there’s no doubt that the world is changing fast. You’re most well-known in Northern Ireland as the co-founder of Learning Pool and a startup investor and mentor. What are some of the most valuable lessons you learned from your Learning Pool experience? This is something that I’ve thought about a lot and written about from time to time on my blog. It’s hard to distil it down into something that’s easy to read so I’m going to focus on what I believe are my own key learnings. My first point isn’t really a lesson. It’s more of a statement of fact and it’s about the importance and value of prior experience. Learning Pool was the 5th startup I’d been part of. The first 2 startups I worked in were founded by other people and both were successful in their own way. Both were acquired by much bigger fish, one after I’d left and one when I was working there as CFO. The next two were businesses that I started. The first was a business turnaround service and the second was a boutique management consultancy business, Agility Consulting, with Paul McElvaney who went on to be my Learning Pool co-founder. I made plenty of money in both of those companies but they were lifestyle businesses and not in any way scale able. Paul & I used to talk a lot in 2005 & 2006 about making money while you sleep and Learning Pool was our solution.  Having plenty and varied prior experience makes it so much easier because a startup CEO needs to know quite a lot on a wide number of topics in order to scale a business fast. It’s a perfect occupation for a jack-of-all-trades who’s also able to focus! My advice is that it’s a lot cheaper to acquire that knowledge and experience on someone else’s time and money so if you want to start a business, go and work in a few startups first. A number of our early days Learning Pool employees eventually left us to start up on their own & I was always happy to see people do that. It’s how the ecosystem works. As long as you’ve had decent value from them in the time they’ve been with you wish them luck & let them go in a positive way and with good grace. I was 47 with a solid background in finance, four startups behind me and a wide network when we started Learning Pool. You’ll find that successful startups with young or inexperienced entrepreneurs as founders usually have someone like me lurking very close by in the background. We bought Learning Pool as a failing business. It started life as an expensive project carried out badly by one of my government clients when I was running my business turnaround service. A lot of people obsess about having an idea but really that isn’t important at all. It’s never about the idea. It’s always about having a clear plan and you and your team’s ability to execute against it. My next point is the biggest lesson I learned. I completely underestimated the incredible toll that starting and growing a successful business takes upon the founder or founding team and their close family, especially in those first 3 years you are trading. For the founder there’s a mental, physical and probably spiritual toll to pay that’s very real and shouldn’t be underestimated. It’s all encompassing. Once you’ve thrown the dice & got started there’s no easy or good way to turn back. That pressure lasts until you are stable and profitable and the company has moved through all those early pivots and found its purpose. It will take much longer than you think it will. I’m lucky to have a very supportive other half and I have to mention my sister here too. She did a lot of heavy lifting for me in the early days when I was working 7 days a week. My mum used to say that in the first 2 years of Learning Pool she saw less of me than she’d done when I lived in London – and Learning Pool was 10 miles away from her home in Donegal. I had a conversation with one of my mentees about this very thing the other day. She asked me if it was normal to be thinking about her startup when she takes her teenager to his sports matches on a Saturday. I just laughed and said – Oh yeah – that’s completely normal. That facade of going through the social motions on the outside whilst on the inside you’re planning your next marketing campaign or going through your sales pipeline. I know in my heart I was a nicer person on 1 August 2006 when we started Learning Pool than I was 7 years later when I decided to exit. In the 3 years that have passed since then I’ve worked hard to repair a lot of that damage and I’m a happier person today as a result. My last key set of lessons is around building your team. Building a team and creating the right sort of culture for your organisation is the hardest bit about starting any business and it’s one of the most important jobs of the startup CEO; it should never be abdicated to someone else. I’ve interviewed thousands of people and I can still get appointments wrong because recruitment is a dark art. Be clear at the outset what sort of company culture you are going to create and as founders really live that yourselves and show a good example. In the early days it’s easiest to go fast with people you already know and have worked with before. As your company grows and that intense startup pressure lessens, seek to diversify your team as that will take you further. When recruiting, satisfy yourself in the first 5 minutes that the candidate really wants to work in your organisation for the right reasons and has a clear view of where and how they can add value. Reject all show-offs, clowns and mavericks, no matter how interesting or compelling they seem. Believe me – all they will bring to you is a huge time sink and disharmony in your team. Occasionally take a flyer on a wildcard. My best recruits over the years have always been those people that I’ve been a little uncertain about but have taken a chance with. Having said all of that there’s no getting away from the fact that it’s incredibly difficult to recruit decent tech talent into a small business or startup and this was something we really struggled with in the early days. As well as all the negatives I’ve mentioned there are lots and lots of positive takeaways too. Building a startup allows you to understand the limits of what is possible for you and it was a pleasant surprise for me to discover I am far more resilient and was able to achieve more than I thought I was capable of beforehand. For some people pushing yourself to the absolute limit is a challenge but I enjoyed it in some weird sort of way. Providing 80 other people with a challenging and satisfying career is very personally rewarding and at the end of the day, being master of your own destiny is very liberating after years of working for other people. I could talk on this topic all day but I’ll finish by saying surround yourself with people who are better than you; learn from them and listen to their advice. Have a co-founder. If you’re serious about scaling there’s far too much for one person to do. Keep your ego in check, be nice and pay it forward whenever you can – karma is an amazing thing and people will do a lot for someone that they genuinely like. Do you feel Northern Ireland has the right environment for technology startups? What can we do better here to encourage technology entrepreneurship? If you want to start a tech business in a place where free money is easily and readily available and where an established friendly and helpful tech community already exists then Northern Ireland offers a great environment. There’s a lot of help available to get you started; maybe too much and that leads to a large number of unsuitable people having a go – although perhaps that’s okay too in the overall scheme of things. A quick fix would be to restructure the grants available away from startups and more towards scale-ups. The best startups of course don’t wait for grants… instead they get to revenue at lightning speed. I think plenty of encouragement exists and I salute the work done by Young Enterprise NI & Catalyst Inc, especially through Generation Innovation and Springboard. Northern Ireland is still very Belfast-centric however and let’s face it, Belfast is still a long way (geographically and metaphorically) from the Bay Area, London or even Dublin. It’s hard to start a tech startup in a quiet backwater. I know that because we started Learning Pool in Derry; far away from our early customer base and impossible to recruit any job-ready talent. So it’s possible to do, but it’s much harder. You weigh up the pros & cons and you make your choice. Northern Ireland is a long way behind our nearest neighbour in terms of the effort put into nurturing startups but the Republic of Ireland faces the same challenges of being Dublin or Cork-centric (try starting a tech business in rural Donegal and see what help you’ll get!) and they’re finding it tricky to scale the majority of their High Potential Start Ups beyond the magic 1m euro turnover figure. I suppose nowhere is ideal outside of the top 3 tech startup ecosystems (IMHO Silicon Valley, London & Tel Aviv dependent on what you’re doing) for all the reasons we all know but Northern Ireland is as good a place as any to get started – just as long as the founder appreciates that the day will come a couple of years down the line when he or she is more than likely going to have to relocate to get the next growth phase moving. It’s so important that we focus on the generations following us and from an education perspective Northern Ireland could be so much better than it is. Our schools and colleges continue to churn out young people better suited to a world that’s gone or fast disappearing and our Administration seems to be woefully incapable of turning this situation around quickly enough. As an investor and mentor you see a lot of new startup ideas. Is there any new startup here in NI that really excites you at the moment? I was very lucky this year to be matched as a mentor for new startup Elemental Software through the Propel programme run on behalf of Invest Northern Ireland by the brilliant Diane Roberts. Started by co-founders Leeann Monk-Ozgul & Jennifer Neff (both from Derry), Elemental provides an innovative digital signposting tool to make it easy for GPs and other healthcare professionals to implement social prescribing. I like the founding team and the product is first to market in a growing, interesting and valuable space. Tell us a bit about your hobbies outside of work; what do you enjoy in your life outside of the office? Ha! I’m a great believer in the theory that if you love what you do you’ll never work another day in your life. My work hasn’t felt like work for the past 20 years. I’m a trustee of 4 charities and one of those is the Millennium Forum theatre in Derry. That’s been a great source of enjoyment for me over the years. I swim a mile most days. Swimming is like meditation and it’s impossible to make calls from the pool. I read a lot and I’m interested in art. I’d like to write a book. I’m toying with the idea of another startup. It’s maybe a bit corny to say this but I’ve been happy recently to spend a bit of time travelling and hanging out with my husband, making up for lost time. I still go to a lot of parties! These days I go home a bit earlier… Lastly, give us one website or app that you feel is vastly underrated and deserves a wider audience. Rather than a website or an app I’d like to recommend to readers two very different but incredibly useful communities that I’m involved with. The first is the Centre for Acceleration of Social Technology (CAST). CAST is running the UK’s first charity accelerator (called FUSE) & also the CAST Fellowship for charity CEOs & leaders. An invaluable set of resources exists within CAST for any charities, social enterprises or not for profits who want to get more comfortable with digital and understand better what it can do for them. The second is the Irish International Business Network (IIBN) for any Northern Irish businesses or entrepreneurs wanting to build or improve their network outside of NI. IIBN has chapters in London, Dublin & NYC and one in Sydney on the way. I’ve been a member for the past 5 years or so & have found it to be money well spent as well as a great source of new and interesting friends. Finally I’d like to give my own blog at a quick plug. I write a lot about startups on there. About Mary McKenna

  • UK Search Awards Wins for Polemic Digital

    The UK Search Awards are a special event. In the digital and marketing industries, awards are a dime a dozen; almost every month some awards event is held somewhere. While some of these are legitimate awards that recognise real success, many others are shambolic affairs where judges and winners overlap and behind-the-scenes shenanigans determine who wins and who loses. Since its inception, the UK Search Awards have been different. There’s a very rigorous judging process and judges are not allowed to enter the awards themselves. The judges are, without exception, the best and brightest minds in search marketing, and for them the integrity of the process is paramount as they attach their reputations to the quality of these awards. Hence why the UK Search Awards is one of the very few award occasions Polemic Digital chooses to enter. When we learned in October that we’d been shortlisted for three UK Search Awards, we were absolutely ecstatic. To be listed among so many great agencies and successful projects was a true honour. Just to make it to the shortlist is an accomplishment in and of itself – especially in such competitive categories – and in all honesty, that’s where we expected it to end this year. We attended the awards event, held in the Bloomsbury Big Top in London, with perhaps a little hope but certainly no expectation beyond having a good time. This year the UK Search Awards were bigger than ever, hosted by comedian Jason Manford with over 650 people attending from all over the country. We were looking forward to catching up with many of our industry friends and to celebrate the search industry in the UK. So when Polemic Digital was called out as the winner for not one, but two of these highly coveted awards, we couldn’t really believe it. In fact, right now, looking at the awards on my desk, it’s still hard to believe that we won. Out of the three nominations, we won two: Best Low Budget Campaign for our work for Super Saver Oil, and Best Small SEO Agency. This latter award is an especially proud moment for us, as we’ve only been going since 2014. It’s amazing to see how far we’ve already come in such a short time. When anyone achieves success, it’s never just a single person’s efforts that make it possible. Polemic Digital is a two-person agency, with me as the SEO guy and my wife Alison as the business person. She shares as much in Polemic Digital’s success as I do. Many thanks to our families as well, and to all the people around us who have helped over the years with their advice, friendship, support and love. We couldn’t have done it without you. We love being part of the SEO industry, and we love being part of the Northern Irish digital scene – both communities are full of amazing people doing great things on a daily basis. And most of all thanks to our clients who put their trust in us to deliver results, and make all of this possible. It’s a privilege to work with so many inspiring businesses and to be able to contribute, however modestly, to their success. These national award wins so early in Polemic Digital’s journey certainly set the bar high for future achievements. We hope to live up to the expectation and continue to deliver award-winning SEO services. Onwards and upwards!

  • NI Digital Expert interview: Jason Bell

    Time for another instalment of my NI Digital Experts interview series. This week we’re featuring one of the Northern Irish technology scene’s more colourful and enduring figures: Jason Bell. I first got speaking to Jason via Twitter and then we met at a few networking events. We quickly realised we shared an overtly cynical attitude to the vacuous tripe that emerges from Silicon Valley’s startup culture, and want to resist the adoption of that culture in the Northern Ireland tech scene. When it comes to big data and machine learning, I know no one more qualified than Jason. He wrote a book about machine learning which has helped me immensely in coming to grips with the topic, even though I can’t even begin to understand the mathematics behind it all. Like myself, Jason is not native to Northern Ireland, but he’s been here so long he might as well be part of the furniture. A much-loved and widely respected figure, Jason’s views and opinions are always worth listening to. And he’s also a pretty damn good bass player. So let’s hear it from Jason and his career in digital: Tell us a bit about yourself and your journey in to the digital industry. My journey started early, I was nine years old and the headteacher at Fishergate Primary School in York, Mr Male, had this brand new Sinclair ZX81 hooked up to a television. The programming book looked huge to me at the time but I found more interest and challenge in getting numbers to add and subtract than playing games on it. A year later my parents bought me a Spectrum and I taught myself programming. At secondary school during breaks and lunches a friend and I were usually hacking away on a Research Machines Z80, huge thing it was. In 1988 the last words of my computer studies teacher was “you’ll never get a job in computing”…. Leaving school at sixteen I went straight into what was considered cutting edge, it was called an ITeC (Information Technology Centre) in York. I managed to do the entrance exam though I didn’t have the required GCSE requirements to get in. So the ITeC did the BTeC NVQ III one day a week and the rest of the time I was out on work placement, one of the first to do it this way back in 1988. I was offered a job while I was studying at the ITeC, being the only person interested in hardware and not COBOL programming. I’m still very good friends with the very first customer I supported back in 1989. The nineties were a mix of jobs in support, retail and supply chain where I learned a lot about business and customer support. I also learned a lot about stock pattern prediction while working in a record shop (called 4Play, I kid ye not). In 1997 I landed a job at the Press Association working on the Sporting Life website and that opened my eyes to web things and backend data stuff. My boss, Colin, taught me Perl on the back of a KitKat wrapper. Since then I’ve worked with various companies, some established and some startups. You learn a lot along the way, what to do well and what to avoid, that’s not just about the programming but people, customers and everything that goes with it. I had a go at the startup thing myself with uVoucher which is a customer loyalty system for retailers, it’s still there waiting for the right day plus I’ve added the machine learning and AI stuff in now. It’s fairly common knowledge that I love Dunn Humby and the Tesco Clubcard, I worked for a customer loyalty mining company in 2002 in Harrogate, not for long mind, but that really woke me up on the power of data. I’ve stuck with data ever since and am more than delighted that I’m with Mastodon C who are a big data company in London. Quite simply I’ve learned that your journey is really down to your attitude and your network. My BTeC isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on, it’s 26 years old and it’s safe to assume the industry has gone through 52 six-monthly iterations in that time. I’ve been fortunate enough to learn plenty from various positions that has brought me to the place where I am now. Still don’t, and probably never will, have a degree. You’re known throughout NI as a ‘big data’ expert, but also as a mean bass guitar player. If you could pick just one, would you rather be a musician or a big data expert? I made a choice way back in the nineties to concentrate on the computing and data work. That all stemmed from a conversation I had with bassist Brendan Rothwell, he told me that work pays for being a musician but you are at the core a musician. He was 100% right. The profession of musician is just a precarious as being a startup founder, actually the probability of making money is slightly better but only just. Most of the brilliant musicians I know have some form of other job paying for the gear, the rehearsal spaces, the CD duplication and so on. Being a musician and being in the music business are two very different areas. I love both, please don’t make me choose, they compliment each other. The term ‘big data’ gets thrown around rather carelessly these days, and as such its value and meaning has declined. What do you think is the true heart of ‘big data’ and why should we care about it? I’m fine with the term “Big Data” as long as it’s used in the right context. To be honest I care little about it now compared to five years ago when I was talking about it in NI and getting blank faces all round. I lost all faith in the media’s version of Big Data when it jumped on the ‘Target Baby Story’ while Charles Duhigg’s book “The Power of Habit” was being publicised. That had nothing to do with Big Data, it was just good maths. The true heart of big data is the scale, if it can’t be processed on one machine then is it big data? I feel the tech press needs to work on a new set of cliches as the old ones are wearing really thin now. I’m at the point now where I actually care little about the term big data, it’s just data to me. Even walking around StrataConf there wasn’t a huge amount of reference to the term “big data”, the assumption is that it’s big all the time and are more bothered about the insight that can be gained from it. There was far more emphasis on streaming data than big data. The real conversation was about time recorded and time processed for streaming data applications. The next round of blog posts from me will be about streaming workflows I think. The rise of ad blocking and the increasing focus on consumer privacy has also placed scrutiny on big data and how it is applied. How do you think businesses can best balance privacy issues with effective consumer data mining? I think it’s rather simple customer communication. Businesses need to be upfront with customers about what they intend to do with their data. Whether that’s to improve the algorithm quality, find upsell potential or store the stuff about them, a customer should be aware of this on signup to the service. Data is money when used right, a business has the responsibility to treat the data, and the customer, like gold. Look at the Tesco Clubcard as an example, people are quite happy to swipe or scan their card at the checkout in return for money off coupons. Simple. A win for the customer and a win for Tesco who analyse and monetise the data to their suppliers. It gets on shaky ground when you predict what the customer wants a bit too close or beyond their comfort zone. This is the exact problem Target had with the baby club story, so they purposely put in random items to let the customer think “ah, you don’t know that much about me”. Customers weren’t aware data was going to be used in this way really, the question came about much later on. With the right data companies can do some clever things. Let’s not forget that storage is cheap, put it on Amazon S3 for example, gigabytes for pennies a month. You can sit on that data for years and then think about mining this historical to create a model for the current, within reason. Just don’t freak the customer out. You’ve literally written the book on Machine Learning, which is a phrase that’s currently doing the rounds in the SEO community in the wake of RankBrain. Does Machine Learning technology live up to the hype? I don’t think it’s hype at all, some of the machine learning algorithms we use are fifty years old, I think the hype has come out of the notion of the amounts of data available along with the scale and speed we can process, cars that drive themselves, Uber’s surge pricing, robot workers that will steal our jobs and that kind of gig. With the majority of machine learning algorithms out there you can at least verify the numbers that are being produced. The hype I’ve seen really revolves around deep learning and neural networks which become black boxes we throw data at and expect answers to come out of, we’re expected to accept that as truth because the system says so. Some of it’s really simple to do, word2vec is fun if you have a document corpus large enough. RankBrain doesn’t need context just documents and it will work out related words from there. Some of the algorithms are head melters if you’re not used to them, Support Vector Machines are a hard slog to figure out if you’re not used to mathematics (I’m not, I’m a software developer). Machine learning is commonplace and was before the tech press made it all in vogue. Now’s a good time to be near it. I landed lucky with writing the book, right people, right place and right time. You and I share an aversion for vacuous Silicon Valley-style entrepreneurial hokum. How can we best fight the spread of meaningless tech startup waffle in Northern Ireland? Well it comes from experience, I worked out in Sunnyvale in 1999 before craft beer became a thing. I found out very quickly that the hype in the area was insane, even down to basic writing of HTML, the quality was poor to say the least. So I came away from there with a dose of realistic caution, tech waffle is not something I handle well, common sense usually prevails. It’s a whirlwind over there, 17 hour days with some delightful curry sent in for the evening slog. In 2009-2011 I got caught up in the wave of startup culture in Northern Ireland, it was a raw and exciting time, there was a feeling in the air that something good could really happen. People may disagree with me but now it feels a little more fragmented. There’s a Cathedral Quarter vibe, a Titanic Quarter vibe, there’s a UU/QUB vibe and a Catalyst Inc. vibe, loads of different vibes going on. They’re all doing great things but there feels a lack of community cohesion. Perhaps it’s because I’m not in Belfast, I don’t know, I may well be missing something or perhaps I have better clarity for not being in the eye of the storm. Quite a few founders have contacted me for advice, I have no idea why apart from talking with a large dose of common sense as I do, I certainly don’t have a unicorn in the shed, but it’s alarming the number who can’t be bothered to come over Derry direction, best way to kill a conversation is for said founder to say, “No rush, let us know when you are in Belfast next.” One large startup is still waiting for me to go to Belfast 18 months after the initial phone call, I think they’ve pivoted by now. A few blog posts I wrote have raised eyebrows I know, to me the startup culture here is like Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. It appears to be a numbers game to me, jobs promoted, startups put through a certain programme. I struggle to listen to anyone telling me “it’s great to be in a startup” when it’s usually someone in a full time job for some agency telling me that may have no idea at all. My only paper qualification is in accountancy so I know how to read a balance sheet and do the accounting ratios, so as a hobby I read startup accounts and boy they can be an eye opener. You can talk the talk all you want but your liquidity ratio is far more interesting. The only redeeming feature out of all this startup lark is that got me very interested in probability and betting odds. Once you realise your startup is a number in a roulette wheel you’ll see how random it can be. The lucky ones are the ones who know how to create those chances, as Francis Bacon was quoted, “A wise man creates more opportunity than he finds”. Lastly, give us one website or app that you feel is vastly underrated and deserves a wider audience. Simple, if you’re in Northern Ireland and you’re involved in the tech sector and content creation then make sure you’re on Digital Circle. Matt Johnston was and still is a networking marvel. About Jason Bell Jason on Twitter: @jasonbelldata

  • NI Digital Expert interview: Leanne Ross

    It’s time to resume our NI Digital Experts interview series – there’s still plenty more awesome talent in the Northern Ireland digital scene to highlight. This week we’re speaking with Leanne Ross. I first heard of her a few years ago when people I followed on twitter kept tweeting posts from her blog, A Cup Of Lee. I started following her myself and quickly realised she is one of the few people in NI who were truly on their A-game when it comes to digital PR. Leanne has established herself as one of the local PR industry’s brightest stars, and is a strong advocate in Northern Ireland for businesses to properly embrace digital PR. She even wrote a book about it! Unfortunately she will be departing for New Zealand soon where her husband, retired Ulster Rugby player Bronson Ross, is originally from. Northern Ireland’s loss will be New Zealand’s gain, and it won’t be long until she’ll be rocking the Kiwi PR industry just as she has done here. So let’s now hear from Leanne and her adventures in the digital industry: Tell us about yourself and your journey in to the digital industry: how did you discover digital PR and become so involved in it? I had worked in generic Communications/PR for about 6 years when I had to take a Part-Time role with Action Mental Health to balance my career with looking after my son who has Autism. It was there that, with some spare time on my hands and yet another new website CMS to learn, I started my blog. I was only able to do that after being sent on a course about managing the content and design of the new company website which just happened to be WordPress-hosted. I thought blogging would be a good way to practice the WordPress and SEO skills I was learning, as well as starting an online portfolio for my writing. But I didn’t know what to write about so I started blogging about my industry, because I loved my job! And because I read lots of UK-based PR sites but no-one here was doing it. I came to be known as “the digital person” at work, while simultaneously reaching out to industry people to interview on my blog, which helped me network. Then I volunteered to serve on the CIPR’s committee in Northern Ireland for my CPD. Part of our role there was to organise training events to meet local professional needs. It became apparent that we needed to up-skill in digital terms, so I threw myself into that area, hosting events like Meet the Bloggers and Blogging for Business. My research and writing led me to find best practice that was emerging across the water in terms of Digital PR and how it was successfully bridging the gaps between Digital Marketing and Communications departments/agencies so I began to focus more on that in my own work and blog. Although they received the award just after I’d left, Action Mental Health’s Best Integrated Campaign win from the CIPR was special for me because we’d proved you could incorporate digital on very little budget and track tangible success, like changing government policy (which we did!) Once you start becoming the only name in a field putting yourself out there on a specific topic, very quickly you find yourself speaking at conferences and lectures, and here I am I suppose! You’ve got a degree in Communication, Advertising & Marketing, which is just about perfect for your current role. If you could go back, would you choose to study the same at university, pick a different topic, or skip university altogether? I loved doing my degree, which was really practical and creative, and I had worked hard to get a place (it was so popular I needed 3 As at A Level to guarantee acceptance). However, hindsight is a wonderful thing and, looking back, the industry degrees were – and still largely are – too reliant on theory. The full module on the history of Public Relations is a perfect case in point. Universities can’t change curriculum at the pace necessary to keep up with digital advancements in particular and too many academics have been out of the industry for too long (if they ever even worked in it). I know from guest lecturing back with the current Undergrads and Masters students that it is the digital and social media strategy skills they feel least confident in. As the industry merges more with other Communications disciplines, they are right to be concerned because they will need to be proficient in these areas. But it would be easy for me to write off my degree in favour of something more practical that I ended up having to pay for myself in later life; like the Diploma in Digital Marketing. What I would say though, is there were elements of that degree that I couldn’t have found anywhere else, that truly prepared me for this work. The final year 24-hour exam is just one example seemed painfully into our memories. We were handed a client brief at 11am and had just 24 hours to research and write an entire year-long campaign proposal including lobbying, media relations and marketing/advertising. None of us slept. And to be honest, that adrenaline and stress was probably a pretty good insight into what agency life in particular might feel like! It was a unique experience and one that I feel I would be poorer for missing out on. I think in general PR is one industry where a degree is pretty far down the list of priorities when it comes to judging whether a candidate can do the job in the real world. You’re most well-known in Northern Ireland as a digital PR expert. Tell us about what you do, and how digital PR is different from traditional PR. Digital PR is still a relatively new term and, not surprisingly, is a service offered more often by SEO agencies rather than traditional PR agencies. Old-school PR (which there’s still a place for, for some businesses, by the way) is really about traditional media relations and other types of communications between brands and their audiences. It will include things like social media channels. Essentially it differs from Digital PR in two ways; Digital PR will still involve media relations but the media will be solely online and will encompass much more than news and commentary to publishers and broadcasters. It may mean pitching features to very niche industry outlets online, or it could be GIF listicles to pure entertainment websites or blogs. But the media outlet won’t just be chosen based on reaching the right audiences like traditional PR. They will be chosen based on technical elements such as Domain Authority because the goal is to achieve not just brand awareness, but backlinks to improve a client’s website search ranking. As well as increasing the likelihood of social shares. The other element of Digital PR that makes it different is lesser-known (the type that I’m always most excited to do) and that’s about using data. So at the moment I’m working on projects where we’re taking government statistics and turning them into an interactive map that we will pitch into global popular culture media. It means I’m knee-deep in spreadsheets most of the time but the content we create with these and the stories we can tell are just on another level compared to your typical PR pitch! We can then use a lot of programmes to measure the online PR activity and its impact on the client’s website, social media, enquiries and eventually sales. Being able to track that is very exciting, too. Your self-published book “Talk Is Cheap: The Digital PR Your Startup Needs (But Can’t Afford)” is a great primer on digital PR. What made you decide to write it, and how hard was it to write? Thank you. The book was a strange, very fast, idea that is probably mostly down to my husband’s influence! I’d obviously been writing the blog for almost 3 years at that point. As I started to freelance and sometimes deliver training to businesses, I was increasingly being asked for links to articles I’d written on certain topics that people had missed or couldn’t find when they searched for the advice. I kept saying “I should pull some of this together in a sort of how-to document.” My husband just said never mind an eBook, why not a whole book? It seemed crazy at first but the more I thought about it I realised I had two things other people didn’t; a bank of content to make the writing process easier and a good friend (Wayne Denner) who had trodden the self-publishing route before me so I could call on him for help. I gave myself 3 months – starting on Boxing Day – to pull the whole thing together. It turned out to be harder to write than I thought, simply because a book doesn’t flow from just a bunch of blog posts pulled together. It requires editing when you’ve repeated yourself, and then entire new chapters had to be written on topics I hadn’t covered in-depth before. Then I needed to hire a proof-reader and a cover designer… and I needed a week formatting it on the online system so it would print correctly. It was a baptism of fire alright! But when it reached its category bestseller list, albeit not in the book store of my dreams, it was still a momentous achievement for someone who essentially just loves to write. The ‘why’ I wrote it is something I get asked a lot, mainly because it was quite a controversial thing to do, to give away an industry’s secrets. But the fact is that I don’t believe a lot of PR is hard to do. Certainly not for accomplished business owners, entrepreneurs or startups. There are skills we do possess like writing, creativity, strategy and simply speed that comes with experience. However, finding a journalist’s email address is fairly easy nowadays thanks to the internet! The industry doesn’t rely on relationships anymore, it relies on creative content and pitching – something most business people are much better at than me! I simply got fed up watching small businesses being charged thousands for retainers that amassed to a press release and a photo every few months, achieving little tangible business benefits and usually zero SEO benefits. It was making a mockery of the profession and after serving for 2 years on the NI committee for the Chartered Institute of PR, becoming the only Accredited Independent Practitioner in Northern Ireland, that was something I wanted to change. I believe if you show people the process, allow them to try it, then they may begin to understand and value it, bringing back some of the respect that the industry has lost over the years. *Sheepishly steps down from soap box* You’ll be heading for distant shores in the near future, emigrating to New Zealand with your family. It’s a loss for NI but a huge gain for NZ. What do you know about the local digital industry in New Zealand, and have you made any plans to make a running start there? I’ve started my research here, although it’s been difficult because we spent the last few months bogged down in visa paperwork with little free time! But I’ve been building my contact lists, engaging in their blogger Twitter chats, following their events online. I’ve obviously tapped into my own networks too, so there’s a Young Enterprise there like the one I volunteered with here and during the course of my work here I’ve met people from companies like Podium Apps who have offices in New Zealand too and they’ve all offered to introduce me to people there. But their industry is different to ours in little ways. For example they have much more of a culture of hiring digital people internally rather than outsourcing to agencies, so you’ll find big cities like Christchurch with not even half of the number of marketing companies in Newry. Similarly, we’re big into Twitter for our networking here, whereas their industry is more active on Instagram. I did send my CV to some specialist recruiters there to get feedback on my skill set and it was encouraging to hear that they would generally consider the UK and Ireland to be slightly ahead on the knowledge curve in tech fields specifically, so my experience would be highly sought after. Overall though, I’m not nervous to start again. I get asked that a lot, because it’s hard enough to build a successful business persona without the thought of choosing to leave it behind I suppose. But I can practice what I preach in my book and just begin again to network and put myself out there, and genuinely just enjoy experiencing a new way of doing things, meeting new people and learning from them. However, initially, as the family settles, I’m just going to concentrate on taking outsourced content work from agencies like Glaze Digital that I’ve worked closely with here. It helps when their Dubai clients won’t suffer the 12 hour time difference, too! Tell us a bit about your hobbies outside of work; what do you enjoy in your life outside of the office? I don’t have hobbies as such, perhaps because I spend my spare time writing, and that’s very much like my work, so it gets confusing! I love family time to be honest. Bronson and I were only married a year in June and so family time is a relatively new experience for us all. “Family movie night” on the sofa is a simple pleasure, although Star Wars makes too regular an appearance for my liking. We make the effort when the weather is good to take day trips to history geek destinations (because that’s what we are!) so we loved the Ulster American Folk Park and the Navan Centre and HMS Caroline. Bronson is from quite a young country (New Zealand) so he has made me appreciate how spoilt we are for things like that to do here. But we also just like getting outdoors for walks, throwing stones in the sea, eating ice lollies. The simple things really. I think that’s quite common for people who work in a fast-paced industry and spend a lot of time in-front of screens. So that was one of the very big lures of emigrating for us, to warmer climes and bigger outdoor spaces to explore, during those precious weekends we get together. Lastly, give us one website or app that you feel is vastly underrated and deserves a wider audience. I need to get better at researching and utilising apps actually, I’m often behind the times but I know from using ones like Parkmobile, when done well that can literally improve your life! As for websites, you will probably yawn because this is not new to tech people, but I only recently learned about and, for PR purposes, it is fantastic. I’m pretty sure it’s not that well-known in my field as I’d never heard of it before. It’s not only a great research tool for students on the journey of brand publishing and brand-blogger partnerships, but also from a personal point of view, it’s a great self-esteem boost to look back at some of our most successful business people and bloggers and remember that everyone started somewhere (near the bottom, usually!) I use it quite a bit now and the history geek in me enjoys it every time I visit… About Leanne Ross A Cup Of Lee, which was also a finalist in the 2016 Irish Blog Awards, and her Amazon Top 5 Bestselling digital PR book published in April 2016.

  • We are shortlisted for the UK Search Awards

    When I started Polemic Digital in 2014, my goal was to deliver world-class SEO services to business across the UK and Ireland from my base in Belfast. Previously I’d achieved considerable success with my team at The Tomorrow Lab, winning numerous DANI Awards and getting on to the shortlist of the UK and European Search Awards on several occasions. In due time I hoped to achieve similar recognition with Polemic Digital. Being shortlisted for a UK-wide search marketing award would be one of my entrepreneurial milestones, a measure of how far my business had come. Though I accepted that this would take a while, due to the slow-moving nature of SEO projects; good SEO takes time, so any potential accolade would have to wait for my projects with Polemic Digital to achieve success. I’m very happy to say that we’ve now reached that first award milestone: Polemic Digital is shortlisted for three UK Search Awards! We’re shortlisted for the following three awards: Best Local Campaign Best Low Budget Campaign Best Small SEO Agency I’m very happy to see our hard work for Super Saver Oil has been shortlisted in two categories, and I’m especially proud that Polemic Digital has been shortlisted for the Best Small SEO Agency award. When you consider the businesses we’re going up against in these awards, it’s incredibly uplifting to see our small Northern Irish outfit ranked among some of the best agencies in the UK. It’s one thing to believe you should be counted among the country’s best – it’s another to know that others agree with you. Many thanks to all the people who’ve supported Polemic Digital in various ways. Achieving success is never a one-person effort, you need the support of so many people around you to make it happen. To all of those people who have lent a hand in one way or another: thank you so much. It’s also great to see fellow Belfast-based agency Loud Mouth Media shortlisted for Best Small PPC Agency; Mark Haslam is a great friend of Polemic Digital and his agency deserves to be recognised as one of the UK’s finest digital advertising companies. The awards event on 30 November in London promises to be a wonderful celebration of the UK’s vibrant search marketing industry. I’m proud that Polemic Digital is part of this industry, and we’ll make sure to enjoy the celebrations regardless.

  • Barry’s Pubcon 2016

    Last year I attended and spoke at the legendary Pubcon conference for the first time. I wrote about my experiences that year and how much I enjoyed the whole event. This year I wasn’t sure if the event could hold up to the high standard that was set in 2015. But I shouldn’t have worried; it was once again a superb conference, and we had a truly great time in Las Vegas. I was asked to give two talks this year: one as part of the Tech Issues session and another in the Site Security session. All my sessions were in the same room, which looks like this when empty: When it’s full of people, however, it’s suddenly a lot more intimidating – especially when you see some of the SEO industry’s biggest names sitting right at the front. My first talk was about Google AMP, which I see as one of the major technical SEO challenges of the moment and something every SEO needs to keep a sharp eye on. I’m conflicted about AMP; on the one hand I see its enormous potential, but on the other hand I don’t feel the web needs yet another new standard – especially one controlled in large part by Google. In my talk I discussed the basic principles of AMP and dissected an AMP page to show how it works. I also discussed the way Google is putting a lot of effort behind AMP to encourage widespread adoption. In that same Tech Issues panel, Dawn Anderson gave a stellar talk about crawl budget and URL importance. Dawn likes to read research papers and patents in her spare time, and as a result she’s learned a lot about how Google’s crawlers work. Her talk was nothing short of amazing, and has lead to a very deep rabbit hole for SEOs like myself to follow and learn more about Google’s crawling processes. Make sure you have a look at her slides here. After that first session I moderated a session on site speed, which featured three amazing talks from Ian Lurie, Jenny Halasz, and Fili Wiese. Then after a lunch break I was back on the podium for my second talk of the day about site security. In this talk I showed how you can use Google to find vulnerabilities in websites, and how website owners should protect their websites from such basic reconnaissance methods. The slides from my talk feature several Google queries that you can use to find potential security flaws in your site – it’s worthwhile doing these on your own sites to see just what kind of information you might have out there without realising. Pubcon’s official photographer managed to catch me in the act during this talk: In that same session, Kristine Schachinger gave a very solid talk about WordPress site security, which you definitely need to check out if you run a WordPress site. After that session my Pubcon duties were fulfilled and I could enjoy the rest of the conference at my leisure. And I did – I watched many great talks and enjoyed wonderful conversations with all kinds of awesome people like JP Sherman, Tobias Fellner, and Dennis Goedebuure. After the social event on Tuesday night a group of us went out for dinner together – Aleyda Solis, Eric Wu, Purna Virji, Wissam Dandan, Marty Martin, Dawn Anderson and her hubby John, Rob Woods and myself: We had a wonderful dinner and afterwards I probably had a few too many drinks at the Breeze Bar in Treasure Island. But hey, that too is part of the Vegas experience, right? On Wednesday evening after the conference, the 4th annual US Search Awards were held in conjunction with Pubcon. As I was a judge for these awards, my wife and I were invited to the awards event. We got all dressed up and made our way to Caesar’s Palace where the awards were being held. It was a wonderful evening in a great venue, and we had a lot of fun. We met plenty of new people and hung out with long time industry friends. Seeing my name on the list of judges is a personal highlight of my SEO career: The following day, suffering from a rather epic hangover, my wife and I decided to participate in the Kerboo Tournament of Champions – a fun set of activities organised by Dom Hodgson and Paul Madden. Our good friends Sam Noble and Ben Norman from Koozai also participated, as did Jon Henshaw from Raven SEO. The goal was to accumulate points through various games and activities across several, ehm… interesting locations in Las Vegas. We started with three rounds of bowling at The Orleans, which was the highlight of the day as far as I was concerned as the points I scored there would be pretty much the only points I’d win that day. Then we moved on to Circus Circus for a dozen different games in their Carnival Midway, before heading to Fremont Street for some food. Needless to say, at the end of the day when we tallied up all our points, I was dead last. Thus I won the not-so-coveted Loser trophy, which now graces a shelf in my office. Despite my embarrassing loss, it was a great day spent with wonderful people and a fitting end to our amazing time in Las Vegas. Once again Las Vegas in general and Pubcon specifically were amazing. It’s such a great gathering of the search marketing industry and definitely one of the highlights of my year. I’ve not much time to suffer from the inevitable post-Pubcon blues, as I’m off to Dublin to speak at the Learn Inbound event. I hope by then the last remnants of my jet lag will have faded.

  • NI Digital Expert interview: Andy Hill

    After a week’s hiatus due to travel we’re back with the NI Digital Experts interview series. This week I interviewed Andy Hill, who’s been an industry friend of mine for years. I first met Andy through the Digital Exchange networking group that helped me find my feet in Northern Ireland when I first moved here, and he’s been a constant source of advice and inspiration for me. I credit Andy to a large extent with planting the seeds that led to my eventual decision to start my own business. His encouragement over the years helped me grow confident enough to take that leap, and I’ll always be immensely grateful for that. Andy is a seasoned digital marketer and renowned throughout Northern Ireland as a true social media expert. Chances are you’ve probably Liked a page and commented on a post he’s managed. So let’s hear it from Andy and his journey in to digital: Tell us a bit about yourself and your journey in to the digital industry: how did you discover the internet, and how you became so involved with it? My name is Andy Hill and I run Dokoo Digital, we are a social media marketing agency who help clients build their brand online. My journey in the digital industry began after university when I started working in a marketing role for a manufacturing company. This was a fairly traditional marketing role and I spent most of my time travelling around Europe and the USA. One of my favourite assignments was to help source a supplier to build our new company website. I loved this assignment and working with a web company I was captivated with online technologies, and from then I knew my career lay online (coincidentally Gareth Dunlop was one of the developers behind that site). Around 2006 I discovered Google Adsense, and with a little knowledge set up basic websites in certain niches and made money from ad revenue. I was amazed when I saw my first cheque roll in and knew I wanted to learn more about how online worked. I started my first agency in 2007 which you can read about below. Back when we were growing up, there wasn’t any sort of formal education in to digital technologies outside of computer science. You have a degree in Business Studies – do you find that your formal education has helped at all in your digital journey? If you could go back, would you choose to study the same subject, another subject, or skip university altogether? I remember studying computer science for GCSE at Sullivan Upper school, this was 1995 and it was extremely boring! All we learned about was binary code and local area networks. When I went to university in Newcastle Upon Tyne the internet was booming, but, like many degrees at the time, there was very little teaching about the web and its potential in any of my lectures. If I’m being brutally honest, I don’t think university really helped me understand what business was really about. Ironic really as I was studying a business studies degree. My biggest takeaway from university was making some lifelong friends and a lot of debt! I had a job in a bar whilst at Uni and I often joke I learnt more from that job in dealing with people than I did at Uni! What I did find useful were the Chartered Institute of Marketing qualifications. I studied these whilst I was working full time and would encourage anyone who has an interesting in marketing to look into these. Like myself, you’ve gone through a number of in-house and agency-side jobs before you started Dokoo Digital. When did you decide that starting your own business was the right decision? Tell us about your journey as an entrepreneur. I was made redundant from a senior marketing role in 2006, the company that I worked for was the sort of company that people worked for their entire careers. This never sat right with me and when I was offered redundancy I jumped at the chance and decided to set up my own advertising business. I had no idea about setting up a business, and together with a business partner we managed to secure deals with NatWest, Three Mobile, and UNICEF in our first few months of business. The business went from strength to strength and I realised very quickly that I never wanted to work for anyone else. I never set out to be an entrepreneur but whenever I made my first money online I knew I could do this, and I loved it. I have been running businesses for over ten years and it is one of the hardest yet most rewarding things anyone can do. Why the name ‘Dokoo Digital’? I was sitting at an awards event in London in 2013 and Dokoo had just launched, and a gentleman sitting next to me turned and said, “Dokoo, I like it, I take it you know ancient Greek?” From my puzzled look he obviously knew I didn’t have a clue what he was talking about so he continued, “Dokoo means hero in ancient Greek, I take it you named your business after that?” I replied, “I would love to say that was the case but the reality is I was struggling to come up with a name for my business and went on a domain registry. was available for £200 so bought it and haven’t looked back.” The gentleman laughed and said, “whatever you do, don’t tell the story again about buying the domain for £200, use the ancient Greek angle.” In Northern Ireland you have a strong reputation as a social media expert. Like SEO, it’s a field that suffers from its fair share of cowboys and fly-by-night amateurs. How do you distinguish yourself as a true expert and manage to win your clients’ confidence? If I had a pound for every social media expert I have met in NI I would probably have about £245 :-). It used to annoy me as many of these people did nothing but ruin the reputation of the profession but now I am a lot more mellow as I have noticed many of these people have been “found out.” The reason I know that we are good at what we do as all we do is social media. Since the days of Myspace I’ve loved setting up online communities and most of the people reading this have probably commented or liked one of the pages I run, as we have in excess of 2 million people in our online communities (social media pages). My Facebook business manager causes people much amusement as I think at last count I am admin on over 250 business pages. If people ask us to design a website, run an AdWords campaign, or help with SEO then we decline. We have probably lost a lot of work over our refusal to do these services but I truly believe that no company can be an expert in all things online. I make a point of telling clients that I am on the board of the Chartered Institute of Marketing for Ireland as social media is a marketing discipline which requires structured marketing strategy to get the best results. One thing that has always worked for us at Dokoo is world of mouth. Most of our clients refer us work, there is no better compliment that we are doing a good job. I recently worked out that over 90% of our new business enquires in 2016 came from word of mouth. Tell us a bit about your hobbies outside of work; what do you enjoy in your life outside of the office? I enjoy spending time with my wife Nicole and my one year old daughter Lily. I am an avid Northern Ireland football supporter and had an amazing time in France supporting Our Wee Country. I have also written a book that only close friends and family know about, It was even number one in Kindle’s free book chart! Lastly, give us one website or app that you feel is vastly underrated and deserves a wider audience. I recently changed to Vitality as my life insurance provider (exciting I know!) and they have a cool policy were if you walk for 7,000 steps 3 times a week you get one free cinema ticket a week and a free Starbucks drink. Now, this might sound gimmicky but since I signed up I have never been off the Vitality app and Moves app checking my rewards / step count. Audible is another app that I love, with a young child in the house I find reading books a struggle at times, so when I discovered Audible I became addicted. I never thought I would listen to audiobooks but now I can’t go on any car journey without listening to a business book. About Andy Hill Andy on Twitter: @FollowAndyHill

  • NI Digital Expert interview: Naomh McElhatton

    My NI Digital Experts interview series is going full steam ahead – we’re already on the 8th interview! This one is very special to me, as it’s with a woman who for a long while was almost synonymous with the digital marketing industry in Northern Ireland: Naomh McElhatton. I owe Naomh a lot: when I first arrived in NI in 2009 and was trying to find my feet, I met Naomh through my wife’s work and she immediately made me feel welcome and part of the local digital business community. Through her Digital Exchange networking group, which she co-founded with Andy Hill (soon to be featured in this interview series as well), I connected with loads of professionals and it helped me establish myself locally as an SEO expert. Naomh was also the driving force behind the DANI Awards, which ran from 2011 to 2015. These awards empowered the Northern Irish digital scene to take pride in their work, and be more vocal about their achievements rather than just plough on in that typical understated ‘Norn Iron’ fashion. Without Naomh’s efforts, the local digital industry would not be as vibrant and healthy as it is today. So let’s hear from Naomh herself. Tell us about yourself and your journey in to the digital industry: how did you discover digital marketing and become so involved in it? This is always a funny question as it can be tricky as to where to actually start “my story”. I originally trained as a primary school teacher, however that vocation was not for me, so I somehow fell into advertising and marketing and knew quite quickly that I had a flair for it, when the opportunity presented itself to work within this new digital space I grabbed it with both hands. For the purpose of making this a “digital journey” I’ll start back in 2008. After my eldest was born I took the risk of working for a company that had an idea of becoming the first online advertising network in Northern Ireland, unfortunately with the lack of start-up investment it didn’t last more than 6 months. After that I began working with another web design agency as a business development manager. Very quickly we identified that we could in fact try and give the online advertising network another go. Just when momentum was gathering I found out that I was pregnant with number 2, a healthy trout according to my midwife! So that put a spanner in the works. I must admit I knew from early on that I really loved the variety that the online space offered and knew that I had found the industry that I would like to give my full attention to. After bambino numero 2 appeared I knew it was time for me to take the reigns and become my own boss. Back in your university days you studied to become a teacher. Do you feel that this education has helped you in the digital industry? If you could go back, would you choose to study the same at university, pick a different topic, or skip university altogether? You know what, if I could do it ALL again I would be a web designer! I love the creativity and thought process behind it. I have just about got my head around building a simple WordPress site (don’t laugh!). Is it sad to say that I find it quite therapeutic? My teacher training has definitely helped me; in that it’s given me the confidence to stand in front of any crowd and deliver a presentation confidently. However, having spent more time within the education sector teaching, which believe me is so ironic, I can honestly say that university education is not the be all and end all. If you have an interest in digital marketing per say, or web design or coding, there are so many brilliant courses available to you, which do not require you to go through the expense of university. Unfortunately “back in my day” we didn’t have this rich variety. In 2010 you started Digital Advertising Northern Ireland (DANI) to provide digital advertising and marketing services. What made you start your own business, and what are some of the biggest challenges you faced as an entrepreneur? I suppose it was a mix of want, need and must do if that makes sense. It was a tough time for me at that stage two babies under 2 and my hubby was out of work at the time, but that’s enough of the sad story! Anyone that knows me will know how much I love a challenge, excitement and risk, starting my own business sure as hell give me those feelings in bucket loads. I was very lucky in many ways, I managed to secure seed investment to get my venture off the ground. We had some major successes and great times! The problem with running your own business is knowing when to jump forward and when to take a step back. If I am completely honest I was a total greenhorn, little did I know about VAT, PAYE, NI payments, P&L’s etc., thankfully I had a great team and support at the time to manage that side of the business. When you start a business the biggest trick is learning to manage cashflow, most of the time I ended up robbing Peter to pay Paul. If the truth were told this is what killed DANI in the end, that and the advances in online advertising technology, location and competition. Maintaining focus was another issue; I’m a dreamer, the queen of procrastination, which is something that I’ve had to work hard to rectify. Someone once call me an Ideas Box. My mind goes into overdrive, I can think of a million things that I would like to do and I get so excited about the thought of it all. Another peer in the sector once told me that he writes a priority list and does not waiver from that until all the “to do’s” are complete. Such a good discipline and one I now adhere to. Having entrepreneurial blood means that failure only pushes you on, I am more confident now than I have ever been. Mistakes are key to improving who and what you are. Never give up! You’re most well-known for the annual DANI Awards which ran from 2011 to 2015. What was your main driver to create these awards, and why is it important for the Northern Irish digital industry to celebrate their successes through such awards? I will NEVER forget the day the light bulb came on for the DANI Awards, we were sitting in the office high-fiving each other for managing to survive our first year in business. Then we talked about what we could do to celebrate this. I know it seems hard to believe but back then the digital space in Northern Ireland was still quite underground and unknown. I decided that it was time to make space for the digital sector in Northern Ireland and for it to be accepted as a serious player in the market. I look at pics now from over the years and nip myself asking did they really happen? Did I create these? It was brilliant and something that I will always be really really proud of. The delight in winners receiving their award, the competition and the bitter losers only added to how serious they treated the awards. This is the passion agencies and businesses have their digital marketing efforts. This passion and pride is prevalent within the digital space. I think this is something that still excites me, to see a website launch or a social media campaign activated that goes viral. I think it would be hard to find this feeling in any other industry sector. Nowadays you’re mostly occupied with teaching digital marketing for House of Comms and the Northern Regional College, as well as serving as an advisory board member for Digital Catapult. What are the most valuable lessons you want to share with budding entrepreneurs and upcoming digital marketers? Read, read, read! Knowledge is power. Within this fast paced, ever changing industry you need to keep your finger on the pulse. I read the most random articles, I’ve about 25 Google Alerts that hit my inbox daily. Tell us a bit about your hobbies outside of work; what do you enjoy in your life outside of the office? Well, I have 2 little munchkins to keep me entertained, so they take up quite a bit of my time. When the mummy hat is off I’ve been known to partake in the odd glass vino or two and enjoy dining out. I took up golf last year and I have to say I LOVE it (don’t judge me). Other interests include reading, I recently started a book club, which is going well so far, mind you folk could perceive it as a vino club too, but we do read the books (I promise!) Bar the ole socialising and entertaining I run a bit, have fallen in love with the Body Coach’s HIIT sessions and have started practising Ashtanga Yoga, plenty to keep me going. Namasté! Lastly, give us one website or app that you feel is vastly underrated and deserves a wider audience. Hmm… not that it’s underrated but I am loving AirBnB’s app! You can find some of the most AMAZING places to stay at a fraction of the price. I am already planning various little breaks for 2017. About Naomh McElhatton

  • NI Digital Expert interview: Mark Haslam

    So far I’m incredibly happy with the feedback on my NI Digital Experts interview series. People seem to enjoy hearing about all these amazingly talented and dedicated experts living and working in our wee country. This week we’re interviewing Mark Haslam, founder and MD of PPC agency Loud Mouth Media. Mark and I operate in the same space (Google search) but we do entirely different things. I get sites to rank organically, whereas Mark specialises in paid ads on Google’s search results. In spite of that, or perhaps because of that, Mark and I get along great, and I have huge respect for his accomplishments. In fact, I consider Mark and I to be the good & evil twins of search engine marketing in Northern Ireland; he’s the PPC guy, I’m the SEO dude. And I’m pretty sure I’m the evil one – after all I’ve got the facial hair. It’s easy to get started with PPC but it’s hard – very hard – to do well. Mark does it very well indeed. When it comes to PPC, Mark’s agency Loud Mouth Media is the only one I would recommend; they are at the top of their game and can deliver superb results. So let’s hear from Mark and how he got started in the digital industry. Tell us a bit about yourself and your journey in to the digital industry: how you discovered the internet, and how you became so involved with it? So, there is a simple answer to this one: I love tech and marketing. Going back to when I studied at A Level, a long time ago, business was the only thing that interested me, and this became even more obvious when I received my A Level Results! (Not good!) As a result I didn’t get the Uni place I wanted but eventually graduated with a 2:2 in Business. The next number of years saw me floating around a number of sales jobs in telecoms and advertising, until I arrived at a pretty huge telecoms company where I was selling advertising space to local companies. As the market moved on, my focus shifted pretty quickly to the possibilities within digital and fortunately for me so did that of the company. I moved over to a new online sales team where I cemented my love of digital products due to the transparency and measurability! (Big word) From there I decided that I could do it even better myself and so I walked out of that company, with no job, no prospects of getting one, and my wife had just had our second son. Great timing I’m sure you’ll agree! Then after a couple of months of faffing around and deciding that I was largely unemployable, I set up Loud Mouth Media, named after my dear mother in law! (Don’t worry, she knows and loves it!) From then on I’ve become absolutely immersed in everything search, display & social advertising. The key for me is that I absolutely love it! I get to use my experience I have built up in dealing with people of all types and also my love of tech. (And possibly my OCD tendencies getting a hit from all the stats and measurable results.) Your formal education is in business. If you could go back, would you choose to study the same at university, pick a different topic, or skip university altogether? As I sort of touched on there I stumbled into Uni to study a degree that was far from my first choice. If I look back, I probably should have left school after my GCSEs but I’m not sure I would have landed where I am now if I had. There weren’t too many digital marketing courses available back in the very early 2000’s so I probably did as best as I could. My advice to my kids and anyone willing to listen now is ‘if you are going to Uni, study something you have a real interest in doing when you leave, don’t just get a degree for degrees sake‘. Personally, when I look at CVs I am more interested in the person and their experience rather than their education, although it does play a part. You spent years working in-house at British Telecom before you set up on your own. What made you decide to start your own business, and how did your experiences at BT shape your entrepreneurial journey? Arrogance probably! I decided after about 5-6 years in BT that I could do things better, rightly or wrongly. I decided that I wanted to be building relationships with clients and become an important part of their marketing team, rather than someone that shows up every 11-12 months looking for more commission. Don’t get me wrong, I couldn’t have done what I do now without BT as it taught me a number of great lessons. (Like where all the best cafes are around NI!) I had always wanted to start my own business and this was only fuelled by seeing my brother doing so well with his. The difficulty in being a sales person that wants to start a business is you need something to sell, and until the Google AdWords product came along I didn’t feel I had that offering. Your agency Loudmouth Media is dedicated to online advertising. What appeals to you in advertising, which is seen by so many (myself included) as one of the internet’s primary polluters? Why should we take ads seriously as businesses and as consumers? Baz, I love our conversations on this topic! I’ll be very honest, there is a bit of a stigma around the Paid Advertising industry and I completely understand that. Let’s face it, day to day we are bombarded by ads for things that we have no interest in, we didn’t ask for, and in no way impact our lives. The appeal for me is being able to place strategic advertising in front of users with a genuine need for what we are showing. Thanks to the various new means of targeting that Google, Bing, Facebook, Twitter etc afford us, we can put things in front of people based on such a vast array of interests, demographics, wants etc that we get rid of the spammy feel and go for the targeted approach. I feel that’s what makes us different and ultimately has laid the foundations of our success. We don’t want to spend all of a clients budget just because we can, we want to spend as little as possible and achieve the maximum result. Why should ads be taken seriously? Good question! To be blunt, they shouldn’t be unless they interest you. Lazy people place ads in front of just anyone. People that know what they are doing from a strategic marketing view place ads in front of users based on a need, want, desire or action. As a result, everyone wins! The advertiser spends less by being more specific and the user wins by actually seeing what interests them! Bonus! I’m more than happy for the majority of the ad industry to do it the old way though! With the rise of ad blockers and an increasing focus on consumer privacy, online advertising seems to face an existential threat. Where do you see the online advertising industry headed in the near future? And what about the industry’s long-term prospects? My feeling is that the industry should feel threatened. Don’t get me wrong, not everyone clicks ads, but a hell of a lot of people do! I feel that the search engines should be forcing relevance and therefore users would be less inclined to use things such as ad blockers. In saying that, we have a hell of a lot of clients that are doing very well and getting better every month so I’m not too sure ad blockers are having the effect some (you Baz) feel they are! Tell us a bit about your hobbies outside of work; what do you enjoy in your life outside of the office? Outside of work I am generally still stuck in front of my laptop, much to my wife’s dismay! I have 3 young kids and everything I do is to make their lives as enjoyable as possible. I love spending time with them, although it can be hard sometimes, but they are everything to me, as is my wife. I love a game of golf and I turn up to football on a Tuesday, i’ll not say ‘play’ as that’s a bit of a stretch of the imagination! I love to watch sport on TV and I enjoy a beer with my mates. Lastly, give us one website or app that you feel is vastly underrated and deserves a wider audience. From a work point of view Xero is a life saver! It saves so much time on mundane accounting stuff I couldn’t do without it. Personally, Talk Sport is my go to app. Cant get enough of it! About Mark Haslam Loud Mouth Media, Mark has a wealth of online advertising knowledge and experience. As well as speaking at industry events and lecturing for the Digital Marketing Institute, Mark has built Loud Mouth Media from a one-man-band in 2011 to currently one of the top SEM agencies in the UK.

  • NI Digital Expert interview: Sheree Atcheson

    Six weeks in to my NI Digital Experts interview series and we’ve heard from freelance digital marketer Emma Gribben, all-round digital marketing expert Niamh Taylor, digital industry veteran Gareth Dunlop, awesome front-end developer Derek Johnson, and online reputation ninja Wayne Denner. This week we’ll hear from someone who’s made a strong name for herself in only a few short years: Sheree Atcheson. She is best known for bringing the Women Who Code movement to the UK, and is a fierce advocate for gender equality in the tech industry. I first met Sheree at the BelTech 2014 conference where she chaired a panel about women in IT. I was immediately impressed by her intellect and the passion she expresses for her cause. Gender equality is something I also care strongly  about, so I’m really chuffed she agreed to participate in this series. So let’s hear it from Sheree and her journey in to the digital industry. Tell us a bit about yourself and your journey in to the digital industry: how did you discover IT and become so involved with it? I originally became interested in tech from a very young age. My cousin was a prominent developer for Wombat Financial Software and what he did always interested me. I realised when doing GCSE ICT that I wasn’t content just using applications, but rather wanted to make them. I did A-Level Computing and then Computer Science at university. From there my career stemmed into a software engineering position and now into a more client-facing role in tech business analysis. Your formal education is in Computer Science. Now that you’ve worked in tech for a while and have the benefit of hindsight, if you could go back would you choose to study the same at university, pick a different topic, or skip university altogether? I would say that I would have most likely chosen a different university, perhaps one that focused less on the “theory of computer science” versus the actual doing. Ulster University works to change its software engineering courses to fit what the industry wants and because of that, I would have chosen to go there. Regarding my topic, I chose CS because in secondary school, I loved programming and the processes around that. Now, after being in industry for a few years, I know my strengths are in the Business Analysis side of things – the client-facing roles at the start of the software cycle. That may sound like I might think that I would have been better doing Business and IT. However, due to my now strong technical and coding background, I have a set of skills that I believe is very important for any self respecting BA; the ability to assess the technical feasibility of something whilst being able to explain it in a non-technical way. You joined local NI software company Kainos straight from university after you had your placement year with them. Why did you choose Kainos, and how did they help you grow and develop as a coder? I chose Kainos at that stage because I was very interested in their Evolve Healthcare product and I wanted to work on something that actively made a different to everyday people. Unfortunately, I did not get to work in that business unit, however I was able to work on several UK government projects – some as high profile as the Online Register To Vote panel. Working on those kinds of projects (the projects that actively change everyday people’s lives and ways of doing things) is something that has always interested me and the realisation that millions of people were using my code was phenomenal. Being given the responsibility of such a large project so quickly into my career is something I am forever grateful for, as it helped me strengthen my coding ability (because you can’t be a part of a project like that without being trusted to know what you’re doing) whilst allowing me to fully realise that I wanted my career to move from development to the earlier stages of the life cycle. You’re now most known as the woman who brought the Women Who Code movement to the UK. Tell us about this initiative and why it’s so valuable to get more women in to IT. WWCode now has 80,000 members throughout the world. Let’s think about what that means. That means we have reached 80,000 members, from all walks of life, careers and ambitions – that’s a pretty amazing thing. We’re here to eradicate the gender bias through free hack nights, tech talks and career trainings – and it’s working! We have the support from tech giants such as Heroku, Capital One, Nike, Google, Etsy, and many more. When giants like that take notice of your work, you know you’re doing something right. If we stick with looking at the UK tech scenario, we can see that only 8.1% of A-Level Computing students are female (2015). This lends to our average % of females in UK tech positions being around 17% and around 21% of women in leadership. Unfortunately, 33% of women in technology leave the tech industry mid-career through a lack of representation. Through WWCode, we’re actively showcasing local women to other women that may need that leadership. We’re also providing women with the skillset they need to excel in the tech industry. And as we’re well aware, we cannot have a tech industry that flourishes without half of the population – that’s why this is so valuable. Realistically, we’re all here to make money, and it’s been statistically proven that companies with women in high level management/board roles has a much higher turnover and profit! Do you see your future career more in the WWC movement or as a hands-on coder? Or do you see yourself combining those two aspects of your professional life? I would definitely not consider myself a hands-on coder anymore – that’s not what excites me. What excites me is working with clients, helping them find their requirements and how they want their software/system to work and being the person to fine-tune that on whatever scale necessary. I fully believe I have already combined both of these aspects in my new job I am starting in two weeks (Tech BA with Deloitte). This is the job I have been working towards since university and it allows me to combine my technical background, alongside my client-facing skills that I have obtained through my work with Women Who Code, speaking at conferences, reaching out to sponsors, and being the face of WWCode in the UK. Finally, tell us a bit about your hobbies outside of work; what do you enjoy in your life outside of the office? As anyone who knows me, I am a huge fan of my dog, Alfie – my fiancé Sean and I are pretty much just here to enable his fabulous lifestyle. So in my spare time, I spent a lot of time with them or in the gym because I like my “off time” to be entirely cut off from work, so both the gym and relaxing with my family allows me to do that. About Sheree Atcheson Sheree on Twitter: @nirushika

  • NI Digital Expert interview: Wayne Denner

    We’re now five weeks in to my NI Digital Experts interview series. So far we’ve heard from great all-round digital marketers Emma Gribben and Niamh Taylor, UX agency founder Gareth Dunlop, and front-end developer Derek Johnson. Today we’ll hear from Wayne Denner, who is a well-known figure in the local digital scene as an expert in online reputation management. He was recently featured on UTV to give his thoughts about a PSNI social media gaffe, and has written a great book aimed at students and parents about the pitfalls of sharing your personal information online. Wayne regularly speaks to students and businesses about cyber safety, reputation management, and online well-being. I’ve known Wayne for several years now, and we share a passion for the internet and a keen awareness of both the joys and dangers it can bring. Although our face-to-face catch-ups are rare (both Wayne and I are hard to pin down, which makes syncing up calendars rather challenging), I consider him a friend in the industry and it’s always a pleasure to hang out with him. Let’s hear from Wayne and his adventures in the digital industry. Tell us a bit about yourself and your journey in to the digital industry: how did you discover the internet, and how did you become so involved with it? I’ve always been fascinated with tech and love having the latest gadgets. I remember back in the mid 90s, perhaps ‘93 or ‘94, getting my hands on an AOL CD and about 1000 FREE hours of daily internet use. I was instantly hooked. I started to build very very basic webpages putting up early forms of my own content. I loved how even the very early Internet gave you a chance to learn, access new information and build new connections with people you might never have met. Back then social media was just chat rooms. For me, my (some might say) obsession with the Internet evolved from those early days on the family computer connected via dial up to AOL. Or, as I used to call it, ‘AO Hell’ due to being kicked off it constantly when the phone rang or when my 15 minutes was up on one of the 3 computers owned by my college!. Aaarrgh, remember that lovely dial up sound? :) [Ed: I still have nightmares about dial-up modems…] Your original university degree was in travel & tourism. You’ve since successfully managed to transition to marketing, with a special focus on digital marketing. If you could go back, would you study a different subject at university, or perhaps skip it altogether? Yeah my journey to university wasn’t typical. When I left school the Internet was still in its infancy. Opportunities were really limited – compared to what is available today. Strangely enough I originally trained to become a mechanic. This lasted about 6 months. I then switched to a painting and decorating apprenticeship but the early mornings (5.30 AM) – off to Belfast in a white van, again was not for me. I’m a night worker and I finally realised manual labour wasn’t for me. :) Finally, after some misspent youth and bouncing around, I was given the opportunity to study a BTec National Diploma in Media Studies at Newry College of Further & Higher Education. Then an HND in Travel and Tourism Management and then a Degree in the subject at the University of Northumbria in Newcastle. I was lucky enough to study for my MSc in Communication at Queens University which focused very much on the principles of traditional communication. My knowledge on digital communications is self-taught and comes from over 18 years of challenging myself every day to learn new things online. I think looking back, this was actually a good route, as pretty quickly I knew what was and wasn’t for me. Also the media and travel/tourism industries have changed massively as a result of the internet and technology and these sectors were early adopters. You were an early internet entrepreneur with, and have gone from strength to strength since then. What were the biggest lessons you learned in those early years? I’ve always had a flair for entrepreneurship. Though some might say I’m just unemployable. :) Growing up there wasn’t much money around and I always liked the challenge of trying to generate my own income and building something from nothing. At 14 with another friend I ‘launched’ Wayne’s Mobile Disco Roadshow, DJ-ing at 16th and 18th birthday parties as well as bingo calling at local elderly peoples homes. I also DJ-ed and presented for clubs and a few (unofficial) radio stations. Fun days. Around 1998 myself and a friend had been toying around with an early website which was basically a scrapbook or our nights out. This then became Outlastnight – an early social network platform pre-Facebook and even Bebo which didn’t come along until 2004. The nights out platform grew from strength to strength; at one point we had around 40 photographers in 8 locations that included Derry, Liverpool, London, and New York! It was really in those early years that I learned a lot about building a business online, especially the aspect of educating businesses as to why they need to be utilising online advertising opportunities for their businesses. You’re now established as an expert in online reputation management and cyber safety. What made you specialise in this niche? Was there a specific trigger that made you choose this speciality? Yes there was a trigger for both. Regarding reputation management for business I’ve never been a fan of the ‘jack of all trades’ and I work deliberately to get exposure in certain areas. This shapes the niches I like to work in the most. We live in a world now where social media is everywhere. Business, brands, personalities and individuals are all using social media on a daily if not hourly basis to create content. For many the content does not cause too much of a stir but from time to time – and increasingly now as it’s so integral to our lives – things go wrong. What’s posted and shared online can impact a businesses, brand or individuals reputation. Also for many, so much more can be done to improve a reputation if you know how. So as I saw the development of more and more social media platforms and apps, giving people the ability to create content, and businesses to use these as a way to market their products and services, I knew that businesses and organisations would need help to protect and manage their online reputations. Re: our cyber safety work, the school talks and events started as a bit of CSR over 4 years ago. This is now a huge part of what we do. The trigger for this was actually back in the Bebo days when profile based systems first became popular. Seeing first-hand the imagery and content young kids around 12, 13 put online – how vulnerable they made themselves in the online world – was why we started the ONLINE REPUTATION MATTERS program (Reputation, Protection, Wellbeing & Employability) in schools. Our team also provide up to date and jargon-free resources for children and adults as well as daily content on main social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat. To date I’ve now spoken with over 250,000 students, teachers and parents in Ireland, UK, and the UAE, on e-safety, digital resilience, and online education topics, and reached many more via our online channels. I deliver the talks personally and they’re designed to inspire and motivate young people to protect themselves online and use social media, mobile and internet technology responsibly – as tools to help them get opportunities in life. We also deliver to adults to empower and inform parents, teachers, and school community stakeholders with relevant guidance. This is the first generation of adults who’ve had to worry about these things. The rapid rate of new message sharing and video sharing apps being released, as well as risks involved in gaming online, has been tough on parents and teachers. We give them the heads-up. The programme is constantly evolving and takes up about 60% of my time now. Schools are a great environment to work in. For young people going online, the internet can be a hazardous place. What would your number one advice be for kids when it comes to the internet? And what would you tell parents about how to manage their children’s online presence? For young people, I know it’s a cliché, but think before you post. Just take a minute. It’s normally what you have posted in the past that comes back to haunt you in the future. That stuff could be up there forever. Then I would recommend using technology to get opportunities as I’ve been lucky enough to have. Find ways to create positive content about who you are and what you’re all about so that when it’s time to apply for university or the job you want, your future employer/college recruiter will find great things about you online and you’ll be ahead of the pack. You already love your apps. Use them to get a job, travel, connect with people you admire. Investing in your digital self is where it is at today. Be positive and responsible online. The possibilities are endless. For parents, educators and anyone who works with children and young people, I would say, please never forget that no matter how good they are with technology, they need your adult input and guidance. Keep the conversations going and keep up with what you need to know to help children and young people protect themselves. You have a duty of care. Be aware of the risks and set a good example. How your child uses technology is key to their future education, career and life opportunities. Oh and (shameless plug) buy them a copy of my book ‘The Students Guide to an Epic Online Reputation..and parents too’. Tell us a bit about your hobbies outside of work; what do you enjoy in your life outside of the office? Spending time with the better half and our two boys is very important especially given how crazy the life of an entrepreneur can be. Being a dad to two little boys keeps me busy. In between rugby, footie, and bug hunting, I try to squeeze in the odd cycle on my road bike which I got into a few years ago. I’d love to do more but when I do get out it’s a lot of fun. As a family we enjoy getting outdoors, visiting new places and a bit of fishing. Lastly, give us one website or app that you feel is vastly underrated and deserves a wider audience. Never one to miss an opportunity Barry I have to say my new app RepSelfie which helps you take control of your online reputation – and improve it. We’ve been working on this for some time and have just launched in the UAE. It will be available in the UK and Ireland over the next 2-3 weeks. To put it in context, 93% of recruiters admit to using social media to screen applicants and 67% of college and job recruiters will remove you from the application process if you have a negative online reputation. RepSelfie is the new and exciting tool which allows you to view, monitor, and improve your online reputation. About Wayne Denner

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