Lots of organisations are recruiting digital communications managers right now. This role requires a wide range of skills: strategic thinking, creativity, flair and instinct for written and oral communications, combined with sharp technical skills, an enquiring mind and an enthusiasm to dive deep into intricate problems and emerge with practical results.
But if you’re not a digital specialist yourself, it can be hard to know what questions to ask your candidate. And if you’re not confident in technical matters the power balance can be the wrong way round.
The following list of questions is designed to help you probe someone’s digital communication competencies. You’re looking for confidence, specific examples of achievements and knowledge rather than floating buzz words.
1) Tell me about something in the world of digital communications that has impressed you recently.
Do they care about their field? Are they excited by it and its possibilities? Hopefully you’ll sense some in their eyes as they answer this question.
This question also probes whether they have their ear to the ground. As a follow-up question you could ask: What makes for good content or a good digital campaign?
2) What’s your diagnosis of this organisation’s digital presence, and what 2 key changes would be your initial priorities?
Hopefully you’ll have some idea about what could be improved with your digital presence before the interview. If you don’t have any expertise in house, I’d recommend jumping on to a platform like Sparked and asking the volunteers there for their opinion before the interview. The community there is very helpful with challenges like this, and will give you some good ammunition.
There are lots of things that could be wrong with your digital presence. Perhaps the website displays horribly on tablets, maybe the twitter presence is more marketing spam than useful, engaging material. Perhaps the branding is sloppy, the accessibility is imperfect, or the tone is all wrong. Maybe the digital communications are focusing on the wrong things.
Whilst the substance of the answer to this question is important, also evaluate how it is articulated. Is this someone who will be able to diplomatically deal with stakeholders across the organisation?
Does it feel like they’d focus on the core issues, or get lost in vanity projects or sideshows?
3) Are you afraid of penguins or pandas?
This is a slightly mean but actually very manageable question about search engine optimisation (SEO), designed to trip up charlatans. If knowledge of SEO is on the job description, don’t be satisfied with waffle about keywords and page rank.
This question refers to two big changes to the workings of the Google search algorithm in the last year or so. These are the ‘Panda’ and ‘Penguin’ updates. So this question will tease out whether they keep up-to-date with search engine optimisation (SEO).
In short, Panda aimed to reward sites with quality content, and to punish sites with low quality and duplicate content. The Penguin update aimed to tackle sites that manipulate search engines to rank more highly than they deserve to be ranked. This includes tactics like stuffing pages with keywords, or obtaining links from disreputable websites in an attempt to pretend that a website is seen as useful.
4) What’s your favourite CMS and why?
If you’re doing digital communications, you’ll probably be involved with content and content management systems. Hopefully your candidate will have used a few and have been paying sufficient attention to prefer some over others, and have intelligent reasons for doing so.
Do their points suggest an awareness of the strategic issues at play in choosing a CMS? Issues like security, updating, the availability of developers to work on a particular platform, data liberation, and open source will hopefully be raised.
5) In what specific ways are you more skilled and better able to do your job than this time last year?
Things are changing fast, so if you can’t say how you’ve bettered yourself in the last year you’re pretty much moving backwards. Hopefully you’ve learned from your own experience, and from changes in the wider world of digital communications.
Follow up: How do you keep up-to-date with changing practice?
They may well use a mixture of twitter, in person meetups and RSS feeds. Ask them to name a couple of favourite sources of information – they can be people or organisations or websites.
6) What’s the scariest technical error you’ve ever encountered and how did you fix it?
We’re looking for technical skills, strategic direction, problem solving, stakeholder management, expectation management, and a drive to learn from problems and improve processes. Don’t hesitate to ask them to frame their answer differently if it’s not making sense.
7) What do you think about the ICO’s interpretation of the EU cookie directive?
Earlier this year the ICO formally began enforcing an EU privacy directive from 2009 that covers cookies. This is why you now see so many popups on websites asking you to consent for cookies.
The ICO’s guidance on consent, in the run up to the enforcement deadline, was a source of heated discussion. Shortly before enforcement began, the concept of ‘implied consent’ was introduced. Whether your candidate thinks this was sensible pragmatism from an organisation tasked with enforcing an impossible EU directive, or a frustrating last-minute change of tack that has abandoned consumers to continued electronic surveillance and marketing, the main thing is that they can give you an answer. You certainly don’t want to see a glazed expression .
8) What are the most important performance indicators for digital communications?
Hopefully their response will go beyond measuring statistics like ‘time on site’ and ‘number of pages per visit’ and talk about measuring the achievement of the organisation’s aims using digital.
Ask them how they’d measure the achievement of the organisation’s aims online, and what experience they have in doing this. Of course, once you’re able to measure how well an organisation’s digital presence is helping it achieve its objectives, you can try to improve thi, in an evidence-led way.
They might also hit on the thornier question of social media measurement. They’ll hopefully talk about engagement. Perhaps they’re even reading Beth Kanter’s new book ‘Measuring the Networked Nonprofit’. Ask them how they’ve increased this, how they’ve measured their successes, and what returned has come from this.
9) Talk me through the main user group on your website and their user journey and what you’ve done to make it more effective.
Do they know who the main user group is? How do they know this? What sort of testing have they done to find out? What sort of data have they used? Have they made assumptions?
10) Have analytics ever shown you something difficult or strange or surprising? What did you do next?
This question isn’t coming from a particular angle, but should hopefully see how they combine problem solving, instincts, data, initiative and creativity, as well as their ability to deal with uncertainty.
Hopefully by using some of these questions you’ll be in a better position to pick a great digital communications manager. I’d say that the main attributes are enthusiasm and ravenous desire to learn, understand and improve. If they’ve been doing this long enough to be a manager, they should have good evidence of these things.
If you can think of any other questions to add, please leave a comment!