Why it’s important to backup your content database(s)

I went to share an exciting hearing research story on twitter this evening and found that the link wasn’t working properly. Rather than a short blog post on an impressive piece of research, however, I arrived at the following screen:

could not complete the search - error message

This isn’t the type of message any digital communications manager wants to see on their website shortly before 11pm, and certainly not the state I’d left the site in at 5:45pm. Thankfully I’d planned for problems like this.

I remembered seeing this error message near the top of a php template (line 16):

could not complete the search - the php code that led to this error message

So I suspected that our main content database had become corrupted somehow. I started by attempting to view the control panel login page. That was working fine, which confirmed that the server itself was up and running happily. (Indeed, if it wasn’t, you wouldn’t have been able to see the error message in the first place).

My next step was to try the content management system login page. This page loaded, which was a good start. There could potentially be a useful diagnostic message inside. Unfortunately the login functionality had stopped working. All this suggested that there was something wrong with the database.

Thankfully we keep daily backups of our content databases, (I’ll write a future blog about our backup strategy at Deafness Research UK) so I just jumped on to Dropbox and downloaded the latest backup of the main content database, from 6 hours ago. Just to be safe, I backed up a copy of the databases currently on the server – even though one of them seemed to be broken.

My next step was to put on some chilled prog rock (Camel’s Mystic Queen). So far the diagnostic process had taken a couple of minutes. I was pretty confident that I was on the right track and wanted a relaxed mood for the rest of the operation.

I jumped in to cPanel, Backup Wizard > Restore > MySQL Databases, and then uploaded the main content database:

restoring database

I had the problem sorted before the song had finished.

How can I improve my response to this problem in future?

My response was speedy and effective, but the I was fortunate to have noticed that there was a problem. Had I not been checking that link, this problem could have just as easily been waiting for me  tomorrow morning.

What’s the best way to know if something’s wrong with your website?

I have automated systems to check server uptime, and to contact me in the case of hosting downtime and log any gap in service, but not to check if the website is actually operating properly. As we saw above, the server itself was responding happily to requests, but the database on the server had broken a bit.

I’ll have a look tomorrow to see if there are any good tools to use here. If there aren’t any, I might have a final project idea for my CS50x course… You’d need to know the different potential error messages, and periodically iterate through the front page searching for these. A ‘successful’ search would then need to trigger an action of some kind, such as an email being sent to my personal address.

Towards digital service provision by charities

Charities are still working out how best to harness digital communications for fundraising. (See Public Zone’s Digital Handbook, for example).

But digital’s untapped potential extends far beyond fundraising. I’m most interested in seeing how we can use digital technology to improve service provision and to directly change the world for the better. In this post I outline two ways of achieving this.

1) Providing static information online

Providing information is a common charitable objective, and can be carried out very effectively online.

Creating useful web pages, visible to search engines and for the queries users are likely to enter in to them, is a good start. The SEOmoz guide to SEO is helpful here.

At Deafness Research UK we’ve been working to improve our provision of static information. Most visitors to our website are looking for information. Most of our visitors arrive through organic search, and the search terms they use show that they are looking for a solution to a specific problem, rather than being interested in our charity, or knowing in advance that we can help them. Many more people come into contact with us through this route than come to our dedicated Advisory Service.

Providing information and support is one of our charitable objectives, so we’ve worked to improve how well we use digital channels to achieve this. We use data on what people arriving at our site are searching for and produce content accordingly. So we extended our tinnitus and glue ear information, for example. We also look at what people are searching for on the internet as a whole, so that we can pick up gaps in our provision.

We’ve started taking this objective seriously by building it more strongly in to our reporting. Rather than focusing our website reporting on slightly arbitrary statistics – bounce rates, dwell time, overall pageviews – we’ve set up a series of goals in Google Analytics to track downloads of our resources, as well as tracking pageviews of our information content.

We’ve made our factsheets more visible and easy to download. From September to November 2012, these changes, along with the implementation of a Google Grant, led to a 103% increase in website goal completions. And because these goals are driven by our corporate objectives, they actually mean something.

Providing static content more effectively is great. For a lot of people this will be all the help they need. But we can take things at least one step further than this.

2) Using social media to provide interactive services online

  • We can proactively address people’s problems and concerns in a range of online spaces.

    At Deafness Research UK we’ve made some forays into proactively answering people’s questions on Yahoo Answers, and through twitter. By setting up twitter searches (see point 2 here) and Google Alerts, with a little bit of filtering you can keep an eye out for anyone talking about terms you might be able to help with.This is useful because lots of people who might want help don’t know about the support we can provide. And people experiencing sudden sensorineural hearing loss often don’t know that they need to seek urgent medical attention if there’s to be any chance of regaining their hearing.Ideally I’d like for us to commit to get in touch with anyone talking online who sounds like they might be affected by this type of sudden hearing loss. This would allow us to make more of a difference than simply providing a reactive service.By going beyond the online spaces we know, own and control – our facebook pages, websites and email inboxes –  into streams of activity on social media and online forums, we can help a lot more people.There are a few issues to consider when thinking about providing interactive advice and support online:- Can we ensure the provision of quality interactions and information through interactive channels? I think we can. If we’re relying on trained officers to deliver support on our helplines, I suspect that similar safeguards will help us provide quality information online.- Where do our beneficiaries stop? Should a UK organisation only provide support to people in the UK – and potential UK donors?

    – Private, longer-form, potentially more personal channels – such as email and telephone – are essential for any service providing advice and support. The ability to directly speak to an immediately responsive, warm, human with a voice is important, and for the next few years at least that will mean telephone helplines are essential.

  • Making connections online can directly help us achieve other charitable objectives.

    The Dogs’ Trust uses twitter to rehouse dogs, for example. I learnt at the November 2012 NFP Tweetup that it took them seven months of work to house the first dog, with another ten being housed in the next six months, with numbers growing from there. Switching to digital service provision can take time, but if your objectives align, there may be significant gains to be realised.

Providing interactive services online is a great way to publicly achieve your charitable objectives. But this is only part of the story. In my next post I want to go further, and propose how charities can use digital to encourage profound social change.

My favourite New Year email campaign

This evening a sharp email campaign arrived in my inbox. It’s from Meetup, a platform for people to arrange in-person meetups around shared interests.

With talk of New Year’s Resolutions becoming a little tiresome, the one-word subject line “Unresolutions” feels liberating and iconoclastic.

meetup unresolutions subject line in Gmail
The content of the email is clear and focused:
meetup unresolutions email content
The body of the email has an intriguing statement and an invitation to positive action, with a deliciously chunky button, leading with the imperative “try”. So of course I clicked on it.

Great landing page:

meetup unresolutions landing page

Strong visuals, focus on the central image and call to action, with other options invitingly waiting at both sides of the screen. The page covers a good range of options.

I like this campaign – it’s positive, empowering, expansive, exploratory and hopeful. Have you seen a good email campaign recently?

 

Setting up your twitter command centre

If you’re following more than fifty people on twitter, watching everything in a single stream of activity on twitter.com is probably tiring and frustrating.

The constant rush of messages can feel overwhelming, and it’s hard to make sense of what’s most important. If you follow accounts covering different topics, the diverse tweets can blend together into a confusing and unhelpful sludge.

Fortunately this situation can be improved. I’d like to share three tips that have helped me:

1) Lists help organise different voices and interests

The accounts you’re following probably fall into different categories, congregating around your different areas of interest. Organise them into lists for each of your interests.

So for my personal account I have online learning, charity digital, tech and gaming. When I check twitter, I can look at each of these lists, rather than having to navigate a torrent of disordered voices in my home feed.

It’s also much easier to see how active certain communities are, and who the prominent voices are, than just looking at your home feed.

2) Searches can be very useful, and you can do a lot more than just hashtags.

I follow a few hashtags using twitter searches (#mooc, #moocmooc, #cs50x, #cslondon12, #NFPtweetup and #oxengage are the main ones.) Here’s an example search for #mooc.

Searching for keywords rather than just hashtags can be a great way to come across relevant messages you otherwise wouldn’t see.

At Deafness Research UK I have a list of the most important accounts in hearing research, but there are always new voices to discover. So I have a search set up for: deafness OR hearing OR tinnitus OR ear AND research OR science OR breakthrough. a hootsuite twitter stream searching for deafness OR hearing OR tinnitus OR ear AND research OR science OR breakthrough The OR and AND are logical operators. In this case they mean that the content of the message needs to include at least one of: deafness, hearing, tinnitus or ear, and to also include at least one of research, science or breakthrough.

Of course, you can’t be perfect with these more prospective searches, and you’ll see a lot of irrelevant posts, but it’s a useful exercise nonetheless. In the above example, the tweets from aromatixteam, Science_Alerts and EquiisSavant seem to be worth a closer look.

3) A dedicated tool is more useful than twitter.com

Hootsuite and Tweetdeck are your main choices. I’ve used both, and settled on Hootsuite. They have very similar features, so mine was probably an aesthetic decision as much as anything else. (That and the fact that you used to have to install Tweetdeck, I think) I find Hootsuite’s light blue more appealing than Tweetdeck’s darker palette.

Being able to see multiple lists and streams (for example a search) at once is massively helpful. Here’s my home hootsuite dashboard (in 2 parts): the main section of my hootsuite dashboard

the second part of my home hootsuite dashboard
– I track mentions to make sure that I can respond to people and keep up conversations. Standard practice I’m sure.
– If I spot something that looks fun but don’t have time to read it now, I’ll often favourite it for later. Or if I’m at an event and planning to storify it, I’ll favourite tweets as I go.

The ability to schedule up messages in advance can be helpful too, although you probably don’t want to overdo this:

  • What if someone likes what you have to say and wants to chat about it right there and then?
  • What would the fallout be if something unforeseen happens? A catastrophic accident, or a change to a planned event that makes your preparations incorrect or inappropriate?

4) Find out what works for you on twitter and what doesn’t.

Twitter isn’t the right medium for everything. Don’t be afraid to focus in on the best stuff and ditch the rest.

I don’t like sifting through noisy news sources on twitter. It takes much longer to filter through Mashable on twitter than it does to skim through all their posts and find the 5% or so I’m interested in if I’m using an RSS feed.

Similarly, there’s loads of news that I’m not interested in. And I don’t have time to watch breaking news on twitter, or to read in-depth analysis while at work.

So I follow these areas through RSS feeds, which get attention over breakfast, at lunch, and in the evening.

How do you organise your twitter command centre?

Digital communicators need to keep learning

To be a good digital communicator is to be a lifelong learner.

The digital landscape keeps changing. Google alters its search algorithm; new services and platforms are released; user devices and expectations evolve; web standards develop; a new version of HTML or CSS is released; the legislative context shifts as the EU’s cookie laws are implemented. This means that our practices – and our instincts – need to be forever questioned and improved.

The toolkit of digital competencies isn’t a static box of best practice to absorb once and for all. Certainly there are some good foundations to acquire – an inquisitive, analytical mind; instincts for storytelling and visual design; a conceptual understanding of how the internet and websites work; an enjoyment of play, discovery and exploration; a logical approach; knowledge of HTML, CSS and any of the other web languages.

But the core digital competencies are inquisitiveness and an enthusiasm to engage in discourse with other people trying to understand and shape the digital landscape. A restlessness and a desire to figure out how things can be done – or could be done – better. A desire to understand what works and what doesn’t – particularly when evidence is hard to come by, and an open evangelism to share the results.

I find that making sense of the world around me by producing openly shared media is the best way for me to learn. Publicly sharing my thoughts as I try to work through them helps me formulate them more clearly. Working like this is a vulnerable position to be in; and sharing living work-in-progress rather than thoughts that are ‘finished’ means that I won’t always be ‘right’. Rather, I hope to be stimulating and encouraging.

In my posts here, I hope, by learning aloud, and in conversation with others, to help develop our knowledge of digital communications.

NFP tweetup’s 4th birthday in 10 tweets – Opening up (organisations with) social media

Lasa’s Charity Digital Summit 2012 in 20 tweets

Leveraging Social Media and Digital