Why I Love A Planner (And You Should, Too!)

Why I Love A Planner (And You Should, Too!)

Do you use a planner in your business?

I mean, it could be a diary, it could be an app on your smartphone, or it could just be a plain old notepad which you write things down in?

For the last two years I have spent a fortune on a lovely colourful life planner from Erin Condren, but this year the weeks have sped by so fast that looking back through it just now I realise I am not making the most of this expensive planner. Especially as I also use a plain notepad for my daily to-do list, what a waste of paper!

 

New Erin Condren planner has arrived! 😊

A photo posted by Jo Harrison (@joharris0n) on

Inside view! A photo posted by Jo Harrison (@joharris0n) on

Earlier on this year I saw a Kickstarter campaign for the Passion Planner, it was right after I’d already ordered my expensive planner (which incidentally costs a fortune to post outside of the US!). As it’s coming up to the end of the year I decided that I would give this new planner a test drive in 2016…

It’s not quite as colourful, in fact it’s in black and white, but as you can see I can quite easily brighten it up on the inside. Plus this cost me around half of what I paid for this years planner (and the year before).

The Passion Planner is back on Kickstarter too, so if you fancy purchasing a sparkly gold version then take a look.

What do you use a planner for?

Going back to my original question, what was your answer?

One thing that I am hoping to use my new planner for is my daily to-do list, that should save on the notepad use. I also use mine for life and business appointments, although being virtual and living in France I don’t often have face-to-face appointments, just Skype calls.

There are so many planner alternatives out there, I must have used a fair few iPhone apps over the years, and don’t forget Google Calendar (which syncs with my iPhone). I still think that paper is the best way to get your ideas out of your head, although I do use my iPhone for noting things down on the go… it’s not like I want to lug a planner around with me when I’m taking the dogs out for a walk!

Share your planners with me, only a virtual assistant can get excited over such things.

Top 5 CMS Systems – How to Decide on Which One for Your Website

Top 5 CMS Systems – How to Decide on Which One for Your Website

CMS Content Management System word cloud, business conceptAs a Virtual Assistant, a considerable portion of my work is in managing my clients’ websites. When it comes to website administration, some types of website are easier than others. Inspired by a recent client’s clunky old custom Content Management System (the bit that allows me to make changes, upload new content, and add new features etc.), I thought I would delve into some of the most popular, modern CMSs and give a quick-guide on their pros and cons.

Choosing the system best for your purposes can be difficult, but it is an important choice to make. Most people will not want to change systems after they’ve started with one, so let’s take a look at these top five content management systems to see which one is right for you.

WordPress

Best for beginners and small to medium sized websites, WordPress is the platform serving up most blogs and brochure style websites you see these days. An automated install on most hosting platforms makes setup a breeze and you can easily be up and running the same day you do the installation. Released in 2003 and now with over 68 million websites, WordPress boasts a huge and helpful community to turn to for support when help is needed and really is the world’s most loved blogging platform.

Easy to customise, user-friendly & SEO capable, WordPress loses some appeal due to its vulnerability to hackers, limited design options and plugins often becoming incompatible with platform updates, meaning if you’re going to update your WordPress installation you’d better be sure your installed plug-ins are compatible first.

Joomla

A stable, no frills CMS for consumers and small to mid-sized e-commerce sites and education websites; Joomla, like WordPress has been around for a while (released in 2005) and boasts a robust developers community around it’s free and open-source platform meaning if you have questions or are stuck implementing it, you’ll be likely to find an answer before long.

Joomla falls behind in the areas of SEO capability, granular access control and it’s less intuitive than WordPress but nevertheless has over 30 million downloads and is in use on sites such as Linux.com and Cloud.com

Drupal

Launched in 2001, the most difficult but the most powerful CMS, Drupal can fulfill the needs of high security, enterprise level websites such as whitehouse.gov and data.gov.uk where it’s currently in use. It’s very flexible but has a steep learning curve, few theme choices and lacks good free plugins. Like WordPress and Joomla, Drupal is open-source, free and developer friendly – if you’re already a capable php developer – while also boasting superior stability, scalability and capacity for proper SEO.

You’ll have to budget a lot more time setting up your site with Drupal than with WordPress or Joomla. Stay away unless you or your team are already capable with PHP… but if you are, this one is the best for when you’re asking a lot out of your website solution.

ExpressionEngine

While ExpressionEngine differs from the open-source free CMS described so far, it can be compared to, and has a leg up on WordPress by including ecommerce and membership without needing 3rd party plug-ins. A paid-application which includes support in the purchase price, you can structure your EE the way you want, as well as allowing for unlimited content types. WordPress design is essentially limited to themes available, and installs with 3 content types (posts, pages, media) while with EE you can define as many as you need without knowing anything about coding PHP.

With excellent scalability and a noteworthy security record (cough cough @wordpress), ExpressionEngine touts a number of partners on their website like Adobe, Apple, Disney, Ford, Nike, and more showing it is a CMS that can not only give you more power and flexibility with your blog, but is trusted among huge corporations.

Craft

Built by a company that got started making high quality plug-ins for ExpressionEngine, Craft similarly starts as a blank slate allowing you to structure your site as you want it to be while offering a few advancements like more advanced functionality when it comes to entry creation and editing in the control panel.

Craft offers several pricing options to fit your needs and support comes with your purchase price. Like each of these CMS there is a supportive community but Craft, being the “new kid on the block”, doesn’t have quite the robust add-on library, yet.

In my experience, all of these are good systems. The most important thing is to choose the platform that best suits your business, your customers and your own internal structure. Not all businesses are blessed with the scope for an in-house webmaster, if it falls to you, be sure you have researched, and chosen, a CMS that you feel comfortable working with. If you end up hating the process of updating your website, you will likely find yourself leaving it to languish. Fresh, relevant content and a good user experience is king. If you have that covered, managing your website will be a piece of cake.

My Favourite Tools & Apps in 2014 [Podcast]

My Favourite Tools & Apps in 2014 [Podcast]

I took part in a Podcast with one of my clients last week, it had been in the pipeline for a while, so really pleased that we managed to get it done before the New Year. It’s all about the tools and apps we’ve been using in 2014. As you know from my blog, I love testing out new tools so this podcast was right up my street. I got to talk about my top 3 apps/tools/resources I’d been using for the last year, some golden oldies and a new resource I hope you’ll all check out.

You can listen to the Podcast here: Our Favourite Apps and Tools of 2014 – Podcast – it’s just less than 20 minutes long, so a great thing to do while having your morning coffee!

 

Canva.com – Images Made Simple

If you’re like me then the thought of having to create images for social media, blog posts and websites is not one that fills you with joy. After all, some people have artistic flare and others don’t – that’s life.

However, there’s a tool that I’ve discovered which is absolutely perfect for people like me (and you – if you’re the same). It’s called Canva and basically lets non-designers create beautiful images using drag-and-drop tools.

I’d always wished I was proficient using design tools like Photoshop but when I tried it all just seemed far too involved. Who wants to spend a small fortune on expensive software to find out that it’s complicated and you need a design degree to use it.

That’s why Canva is so revolutionary! It lets you easily create images from the ideas in your head using simple tools that slowly build a picture. Furthermore, you can create designs for just about anything from online publications to invitations.

Let me outline some of my favourite aspects of Canva:

Online-based & free to use

Canva is online-based which means you can login from anywhere that has an internet connection and access your previously created images and design preferences. Moreover, Canva is totally free if you just want to create an account and take advantage of the free images and templates that they provide.

Drag-and-drop

Perhaps the most appealing feature of Canva is that it is literally drag-and-drop. You can start out with a blank design and add elements of your choosing quickly and using a real-time visual editor.

This allows you to build images piece-by-piece and remove certain aspects should they not fit with your overall design. Your design can start from a blank canvas or you can utilise one of the many standard design templates that are available.

Built-in photo editing

How many times have you wanted to create an eye-catching social media image using an existing picture but the quality hasn’t been quite right? Canva’s built-in photo editing tools allow you to apply preset filters and adjust the brightness, saturation, tint, contrast and blur of every image.

Canva say that there are “more than six quadrillion options” when it comes to image editing. I’m taking that with a pinch of salt but then I haven’t discovered them all, so I won’t dispute their figure just yet.

This is in addition to the thousands of free pictures that Canva provide for you to use. A simple search brings up literally pages of results that you can add to your designs – often for free.

It’s not just images…

Design software often allows you to add images and manipulate them in an effective manner. However, the ability to add text can sometimes be lacking. With Canva it’s certainly not.

Text can be added wherever you like and there are hundreds of different formatting options to choose from. Plus, the ability to overlay text on an image makes the whole design process seamless.

When you’re done, you can select the exact format that you want your final image to be and download it or publish it accordingly.

Canva has made designing online images for people like me an absolute breeze. Obviously if I want anything really involved creating then I consult my designer but otherwise it’s Canva all the way for me. As an example, I recently created a new Facebook cover image for my business page using Canva.

Have you tried Canva yet? If so, what do you think of it? Also, if you use any other free software I’d love to hear about your experiences.

Welcome to the World of Spokal

Last week, I gave you an insight into my top 5 productivity tools. Whittling that list down to the final 5 was actually quite difficult and I’ll tell you why… When I started planning the post, I soon realised just how many tools and applications I use on a day-to-day basis!

In fact, it could have quite easily been “My Top 10” or “My Top 15” but I felt that that would detract somewhat from the overall impact and meaning of the list. That said, there was one other application that nearly made the list but didn’t – and there’s a reason for that.

You see, when I was composing the other post, I was in two minds about whether to include Spokal or not. In the end I chose not to, but promised myself that I would write a separate post on it.

Spokal – for those of you who haven’t tried it – is quite simply, brilliant! Basically, if you want a fast and easy way to create highly effective inbound marketing campaigns then Spokal is for you.

It works in unison with your existing WordPress website/blog and a host of other applications such as Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+ Facebook and Mailchimp. From my point of view as a virtual assistant, the best thing about Spokal is that incorporates so much functionality into a single tool, which saves a huge amount of time and immensely boosts productivity.

Spokal has many features and I can’t begin to go into them all. Therefore, I’ll outline the three that I find the most useful – which was difficult to determine as every aspect provides real value.

Content Creation

You’ll no doubt understand the importance of great content as part of an inbound marketing strategy and Spokal makes creating it not just easier but also more fun. That’s because Spokal features a content editor that is predominantly drag & drop.

Therefore, you can create exceptional pieces of content in just a few clicks using your imagination. Spokal even serves up a variety of Creative Commons images, from sources like Flickr, which you can use royalty-free and the relevant photo attributions are automatically created.

Also, the real-time SEO advice is great for anyone who is looking to really optimise their content for the search engines – aren’t we all!? It provides an SEO overview for your post as you create it and offers tips on how to improve your post’s SEO score.

The Twitter integration is really powerful and allows you to literally drag relevant tweets right into your content to add extra depth. Spokal will display a list of relevant tweets and you can choose the ones you want to include.

Social Media Sharing

With your high-quality and engaging content created, Spokal then enables you to schedule it in a highly efficient way. Basically, Spokal will automatically share your content based on a custom schedule that you define.

Again, the social media calendar is drag & drop, which makes the whole process much quicker. You can start building a comprehensive schedule in a short period of time. Once configured, Spokal will take care of the rest and you can concentrate on doing what you do best: running your business.

Furthermore, the Feedly integration allows you to curate content from other people in the same calendar, thus saving you a lot of time.

Twitter Builder

We all know that social media is no longer an optional extra to boost marketing. In fact, it now represents a significant part of our marketing arsenals and, when used correctly, can drive traffic, create more business and allow us to really engage our customers and potential customers.

Spokal’s Twitter builder is perfect for those of you who want to tackle the social network but aren’t sure where to start. It’s designed to get you leads and traffic more quickly than you would alone.

It’s designed to help grow your Twitter following on autopilot with genuine followers who have an interest in what you have to say. This allows you to forge new relationships and steadily engage more people to boost your brand’s reputation, ultimately driving more sales.

I’d love to hear if any of you have tried Spokal – or any similar tools for that matter – and if so what your experience has been.

Photo credits: Spokal

My Top 5 Productivity Tools Revealed

In my role as a virtual assistant, I’m constantly looking for ways to boost productivity – both for myself and for my clients. And while productivity is hugely influenced by psychological factors, such as mindset, mood and motivation to name but a few, there is also a plethora of tools available to help us be the most productive versions of ourselves.

But using tools to boost productivity isn’t new and it’s certainly not revolutionary. After all, we’ve been using tools to make our lives easier and increase our efficiency since the Stone Age. Therefore, it stands to reason that the ubiquity of the internet would lead to the development of countless productivity tools.

On a day-to-day basis I use loads of different tools and applications to help me with my work. Everything from Skype for communicating with clients to Evernote for capturing all of my thoughts and sharing ideas. However, whilst these two applications are extremely useful, they didn’t make my top 5 productivity-boosting tools list.

Let’s see what did…

Asana

Without Asana, my days would be an absolute nightmare. Sure there are numerous other applications out there that help manage workloads, but I’ve found Asana to be the best. Their slogan says it all, “Teamwork without email” and that’s exactly my experience with it.

I use Asana for keeping track of every piece of work that I do for my clients. Every outstanding task is created and a due date entered. The way everything is managed is just perfect as the tasks are all grouped by client and you can see a general overview of your schedule with the calendar feature.

I’m able to create separate workspaces for everyone I collaborate with, like my writers, virtual assistants, eBook formatters and graphic designers. Asana even gives me the ability to chat with them and see real-time task updates.

Get Started in Asana from Asana on Vimeo.

Dropbox

I honestly can’t imagine what my working life would be like nowadays without Dropbox. I use it for absolutely everything in terms of file management and sharing. And the fact that it synchronises silently in the background means I am never stuck without my files wherever I am.

The beauty of Dropbox is that it not only provides a cloud storage solution for everyday people like you and I but it also allows files to be shared effortlessly. For example, if I have a new brief for one of my writers I simply drop it into the relevant Dropbox folder on my computer and it takes care of the rest. The files are sync’d in the background and ultimately end up on my writer’s computer.

Hootsuite

Hootsuite is my one stop shop for everything social media related and my life would be a whole lot more complicated without it.

Basically, Hootsuite allows you to manage all your Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus, LinkedIn (and many more) activity in one centralised interface. Perhaps its most useful feature is the ability to schedule messages and updates. You can rack up a significant amount of updates and let Hootsuite do the rest.

Moreover, there are analytical tools to let you see which of your campaigns are working and there’s even a clock that tells you how much time you’re saving by using Hootsuite – priceless!

Feedly

Find yourself regularly checking the major social networks for updates that are relevant to you and your clients? Most of us do but a lot of time can be wasted trawling through page after page of irrelevant content.

Feedly, however, allows me to check all of my regular sources of news in one centralised application. I can configure all of the sources I want to glean information from in one place and peruse a simplified version of all of them.

If any of you are still waking up each morning and checking a variety of online sources for updates then you are wasting both time and energy. Simply add your favourite news sources to Feedly and let it do the rest – you’ll be glad you did!

If This Then That

Okay, so the name sounds bizarre and the URL even stranger but If This Then That is one of my biggest time savers.

It’s difficult to explain but anyone who’s familiar using it will understand the benefits and the name really does say it all: If This Then That.

The basic premise is that you can configure IFTTT to handle numerous scenarios for you automatically and trigger certain actions. For example, your social media channels, like Facebook and LinkedIn, can have triggers associated to them. When something happens on one of these channels that satisfies your configured trigger criteria something else happens.

It all sounds very confusing, but once you get used to it you will realise its true value. For example, you can configure IFTTT to automatically create a status message on Facebook every time you are tagged in someone else’s status.

That’s a very simple example but the possibilities are almost endless. Check it out for yourself to see its full potential.

So that’s my top 5 tools for boosting productivity. I’d love to hear if you’ve got any others that you use and the reasons why you use them.