Tuesday, August 29, 2006

GoogleOffice Part 2 : Client Interaction with a Powered Support and News Site

[ Google Office Tools Homepage Google Powered Office Articles GoogleOffice Notebook ]

Last time, I looked at using a particular Google product (GMail) in a business environment. This week I'm looking to achieve a particular business function using a bunch of Google tools together.

Here's what we'll use:

Used together they're going to be the foundation for a customer support site for people interested in industry information (Oil & Gas Technology) as well as my company's PR line. And the best thing? Once set up it's going to update itself regularly with minimal maintenance required from me. Sweet.

This, is what we're heading towards.

But -- Why?

The idea is to create an Intervention Engineering branded website with useful dynamic content that also serves as a central support site for clients; one that requires minimal upkeep but stays fresh. Then if there's something I want to advertise announce I've got an interested forum with a ready made audience.

I'm using these Google services because they let me setup and maintain this support and news site without my having to dedicate a lot of time to it. As you'll see below, I'm going to use these tools to leverage my existing activities to provide content for the site.

Why not make this the main site? If you're online (Amazon, Google, etc.) your main site is you. It should be functional and intuitive. If you're offline (like me) your site is where people go to find out who you are -- because they've just heard of us or gotten our business card and want to know WTF we are. So it's formal, professional, and carefully crafted to deliver a strong message of who we are. The blog is conversational, less formal and more generally informative.

Can You Blog a Business with Blogger?

Indeed you can. A nice feature of Blogger is that it allows you to host your own blog while still using their platform. While I'm developing the blog I'll sandbox it at Blogspot, but when it's ready for release I'll host it on a subdomain like blog.intervention.com.au.

The 5 keys to corporate blogging with Blogger:

  • Customize your template. Branding is key, make sure your colours and logos are consistent with your existing website(s). It's a blog so it can (and should) be less formal, but maintain a consistent look and feel.

  • Blog Widely, Blog Often. This may be a bit controversial, but I'm going to make this site more about the industry than my company. I think this is vital to keep the blog ticking over regularly and a small company will struggle to come up with material. Mind you, I'll blog the s**t out of anything noteworthy that our company does, but I'll also have regular industry posts. My hope is that local industry will start visiting regularly, and the blog will become a part of their browsing routine.

  • Be fair and objective. This follows on from the last point. The blog is less formal than our main page, so we don't have to stick as closely to the script. If there's a problem with a product or project, here's the place to admit it and discuss it with users. If a partner company has a cool new toy, talk about it. Big new project coming up in the region? Talk about it. You get the idea, yes?

  • Encourage interaction. Respond to queries and try and generate discussion and conversation in the comments. Ask questions of your readers to initiate conversations. Trying to decide on which feature to implement? Ask people! Make people know you're there and listening, and give credit where it's due. Why should you bother? It'll make you site dynamic, with useful commentary for zero effort. An active community of readers and regular commentators is the life blood of a popular site, it's difficult to achieve but worth the effort.

Dynamic Content with Related Links, Google Reader, and the GoogleMaps API

This stuff is cool because it adds content without having to put in any effort.

Related Content Links

Google's related content links lets you add dynamic content in the form of news, web links, videos, and searches based entirely on the content of your page.

I've added this related link applet to the bottom of each post to provide readers with additional information on the topic of the article. It's an excellent way of adding depth -- without having to do the hard work yourself.

Create an Aggregated RSS Feed with Google Reader

Use Google Reader to leverage your browsing habits to provide content for your support site.

Each morning I trawl through a couple dozen RSS feeds to get my news fix. That includes a half dozen oil & gas industry and tech feeds. If there's something of particular note, I'll write it up as a post on the blog -- but there's always at least 2 or 3 items that are noteworthy but not worth writing up on my own site.

Reader lets you label each article and has the option of 'sharing' an aggregated feed based on a label. I label 'shareworthy' articles 'intervention-engineering', and then share this feed. When you select 'share' from the Reader interface, you get the option of creating a JavaScript applet that you can embed in your site. This provides a handy 'quick news' panel that updates with current news every day as a side effect to your own news reading! Lazy, but effective.

Show Where You're Working with Google Maps API

Google Maps on websites are cool. They're an excellent way to share information, and they're interactive to boot. The Google maps API makes it easy to add a map to your site, for an excellent tutorial on putting a map on your blog check out the aptly titled 'How to Insert a Map Into Your Blog'.

What you put on your map depends on your business. IE's projects are based in remote location all over the world, so I'm going to mark the locations of our projects and provide a little information about each of them. It's an effective way to provide a list of our successful projects and our global coverage. For real-estate or travel sites the use here is obvious, if your business is entirely local, you could put up a map of your exact location.

I've put my map on my support site, but it could just as happily live on the main site, YMMV.

Realtime Client Support with GoogleTalk

GoogleTalk is a great tool for interacting with your clients. The ability to support your customers using IM or voice is the way of the future. Maximise the potention by using Google Apps for Your Domain, create a new alias specifically for client support enquiries. I'm setting up Support@Intervention.com.au. Because we're using GMail, we can use GoogleTalk for IM, VOIP, and Voicemail -- as well as a centralised support email address.

Using hosted GMail nicknames you can shift the responsibility for online support to suit you, without needing to log on to different accounts or change contact details. Your clients email / IM / talk to support@intervention.com.au -- but support is a nickname for me or Stuart depending on who's rostered.

Share Knowledge with Google Coop

I' ve already written an article on Gaining Trust with Google Coop, it gives a decent idea on how I think Coop should be used. I won't go on for long now, but essentially, you can leverage your existing knowledge by making it available to subscribers to your Coop profile. Once people are subscribed, your rankings and subscribed links will affect their search results. If done well Coop can form an excellent part of your communications strategy.

I'll talk more about coop in a later week when I discuss how to increasing your public profile and becoming an influencial voice in the online community.

Next Week

Project Management

This one is going to take a bit of effort on my part, I'm going to use Google Apps for Your Domain, Spreadsheets, Writely, Blogger, Calendar, Google Desktop Search, and the Calendar API to manage a project.

It's going to include timesheeting, invoicing, scheduling, and internal discussion tracking. I'm going to need to write a couple of applications that make use of Google's APIs to help smooth this process along, so I'm going to be busy, but I should have a couple of cool tools to share when I'm done, so keep tuned!

Friday, August 11, 2006

Quick Link bar for My Services

To coincide with yesterday's Google Homepage layout changes, this morning I noticed that the quick link 'my services' bar in GMail has grown. It now includes 'Photos' (Picasaweb) and 'Spreadsheets' (Google Spreadsheets) -- but only if you are registered and using those services.

So far, the quick link bar appears only in GMail and Calendar.

The next step (seen by some for a moment, some time ago) is to let us define which of our services we want to appear in the bar, as well as making it available in the top left of more services.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

GoogleOffice Part 1 : Business GMail

[ Google Office Tools Homepage Google Powered Office Articles Gmail for Business Notebook ]

Desktop email clients are old and broken. The new hotness? Web based email for your domain.

In many ways GMail is the cornerstone of my GoogleOffice. So for Week 1 I'll spend some time justifying GMail, before passing on some tricks. This is a big topic, so I'll leave most of the crossovers with other Google services for when I discuss them specifically later.

It was sometime around 1999 when email at work stopped being a useful convenience and started being a necessary evil. Until recently, web based email was Outlook's ugly step child. You would never have considered something like Hotmail as a business email client (rightly so!) -- in fact people actually used Outlook Web Access for Exchange to access work email via the web(!).


I know people who return from a week's holiday and delete their whole inbox.

"If it's important they'll send it again"
Seriously. Is that how to do business? GMail has instant search results and lets you filter and label, so you can quickly get to the important stuff in an overcrowded inbox. These days you expect to be online, so you can download just for a local offline 'cache' or backup. This alone will change the way you think of business email. Gmail is a strong Google offering. Gmail for your domain is a robust, web hosted, email alternative that still provides POP3 access for local copies.

Using GMail for Domains For Your Company's Email Hosting

Enough evangelising, on to business. Let's look at:

  • A business case for justifying the switch to GMail for your domain.
  • How to get a hosted 'GMail for your domain' account.
  • Using labels and filters effectively.
  • Some tricks and tips for maximizing GMail's effectiveness.

A Business Case

Here's a short list of reasons for you (or your boss) to switch to GMail:

  • 2Gb online storage capacity. All your emails are accessible from a web interface, plus you've now got a robust offsite backup strategy.

  • Conversation View. One of GMail's most addictive features. 'Email chains' are displayed as conversations, grouped together with their replies, including all different participants over long durations. Once you've had this for business you'll wonder how email could ever have worked without it.

  • Instant search. Search the complete email text; search by sender, recipient, date, or label. Search in Outlook is so ridiculous it's been relegated from both standard Windows search shortcuts -- 'tis neither F3 nor Ctrl-f (it's F4) -- my recommendation? Hold down Alt before you trigger your next search in Outlook.

  • One SMTP server for outgoing mail. If you're using a desktop client, you can use Google's outgoing mail server no matter how you connected.

  • Use Google Calendar within your company. Share calendars and events using your domain email addresses instead of separate GMail ones.

  • Great web interface. Better than anything your ISP will provide, better in fact, than any desktop client will provide.

  • Excellent spam filter. Invaluable in a business environment; I've had zero false positives and only 5% of spam slips into my inbox.

  • Presence and Instant Messaging. GoogleTalk and GMail chat provide presence and IM between all your workers (and your clients). All your IMs are logged in your email -- as part of the email conversations that spawned them. For privacy you can go 'off the record'

  • VOIP with Voicemail. GoogleTalk has VOIP functionality, and these days also lets you receive VOIP voicemail in your GMail inbox. Sweet.
  • Email aliases for business roles (and individuals).
  • Internal mailing lists.
  • Mobile phone access. Via GMail mobile access.
  • GMail for your domain is free.

Why not a normal GMail account?

  • For business email? Seriously, if it's work, you've got to be sending it from your business domain. Maintain your brand and professionalism while taking advantage of GMail functionality.
  • Hosted email is more stable than its public cousin.
  • Google Calendar is fully integrated -- more on this later.

Getting GMail for Your Domain

Happily, this process is straight forward. Go to https://www.google.com/hosted and click 'I'm Interested'. You'll need to be logged in on a Google Account. Answer a series of questions about your company, the most important are 'number of users' and 'why do you want it?'. Be honest. For tips on the latter, look above at the business case :)

It'll take a couple of days to process, so far I've seen either 25 or 100 accounts provided. If you've got a requirement for more, contact Google -- they've provided GMail for domains for several universities already.

Filing with Labels and Filters

Every company I've worked in has issues with email filing. In business it's vital to easily track:

  • Full conversation threads/chains. Particularly contract negotiations and/or disputes.
  • All emails from anyone at a particular client.
  • Any correspondence from anyone mentioning a particular product or service.
  • Emails from everyone to do with a particular project.
The result in Outlook usually ends up like one of these:

The first layout is highly structured and needs careful maintainance. The second effectively forces you to have multiple copies of each email in different folders. Ouch. Filing with folders is a poor metaphor for email, and labels are the solution.

Labeling for Business

Create a label for all your: clients (Upstream), projects (06/007 Field Visualization), and products (IE:DEV). Add all relevant labels to each email. In paper-land this is stupid. To search, you'd have to go through each piece of mail to find the ones with the label(s) you want -- but GMail does exactly that, in about 3 nanoseconds -- so it works!

Now label your emails auto-magically, as they arrive, with a few simple filters. Emails will then be presented in your inbox with the right labels pre-applied. At a glance you can see what each email is about without having to open it.

  • Clients. You know Bill works for 'Upstream' so create a filter that labels any of his emails as 'upstream'. Do the same for anyone else at Upstream -- or anyone with an @upstream.com.au address.

  • Products and Services. Create a 'Has the words' filter for all your products and services. Any mention of 'IE:DEV' or 'DEV' will get labeled accordingly.

  • Projects. GMail features '+' notation, so you can create arbitrary email addresses of the form 'Reto+ThisCanBeAnything@intervention.com.au'. GMail will deliver them to you with the full name. Why does this rock? For each project, create a new email address using + notation (Reto+06_005@Intervention.com.au). Distribute this email to other project members, and set it as your reply-to address when you send project email. Then just add a filter that applies the project label whenever you receive an email addressed to this new address. Sweet!
There's no need to add a year label as it's trivial to search by year (after:2006/01/01).

Your inbox will be populated with messages pre-labeled by client, project and product. Unlike Outlook, GMail doesn't presume that labeling something means it doesn't still belong in your inbox.

Tips and Tricks

I've included a bunch of tips and tricks under links below, but here are a few that are particularly useful at work. There are plenty more I'll go over, but most of them relate to using GMail with other Google services, so I'll talk about them later.
  • Create and share a label in Google Reader specifically for internal broadcasting using Webclips within GMail.
  • Get mobile access to your important business emails. Creating a standard GMail account and use filter rules to auto-forward all important messages to this account. Auto-forwarding lets you use any number of any filter rules to forward messages.
  • 'Save searches' with browser bookmarks. Perform a search in GMail, then create a bookmark in your browser. Opening this bookmark will open GMail with the search performed.
    This works for any complicated search -- like your two top clients in 2006: (label:BHP OR label:Woodside) AND (after:2006/01/01).
  • Similarly, you can save a bookmark for composing new messages.
  • For those of you who can't let go of a desktop client I know of two options:
  • Opera. Opera's mail client supports labeling exactly the same way as GMail. Point of fact, Opera was doing it first.
  • Hosted GMail Client (Unofficial). I've never used this but could be worth a look.
  • Any other POP3 desktop email client. GMail provides POP3 access to your email so you can access it from any desktop client.

Useful Links

Next Time

Communicating with Clients and Customers -- Google Style

Email is good, a web presence is better -- but excellent customer communication should be dynamic. Next time I'll talk about creating a company blog, using Google to add dynamic (ad free) content to your webpages, providing real-time support and interaction with clients using GoogleTalk/Chat, and using Google Coop to become a part of their everyday web searching.