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17th April 2019 Bea Udeh

New Ways of Working: Airtable #Digilab

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, goes the general idiom.  At Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Digital Lab Fellow, Nicky Hand explains in this detailed blog how implementing new digital tools is helping her organisation try new ways of working. 

For my first Digital Lab experiment I decided to focus on an internal process that was basically working, but I knew could be so much better. We’ve been using a content calendar to plan our social media and blog posts here at the Trust for several years now. During that time we’ve been working hard to skill up colleagues across the organisation and enable more people to contribute content to our outgoing feeds.

We’ve made great strides in empowering our staff to share their stories, but there’s still more we can do to ensure that the overall cohesion of our digital channels isn’t compromised. I was keen to explore how our content schedule could work harder to help us towards that aim.

During my research I came across Airtable; a web-based tool that can be used to create spreadsheets (much like Excel or Google Sheets) but also allows you to view the data in a calendar format. It’s this extra layer of flexibility— along with plenty of filtering and sorting options — that I was most intrigued by. I knew from feedback that some of our content champions found it hard to draw useful insights from information in a table format, so the idea of being able to manipulate the data to suit different learning styles seemed like something worth exploring.

How Airtable works
I’ve found Airtable straightforward to navigate and intuitive to use, so I was able to set up our demo database without much trouble. Airtable offers a suite of templates to inspire you, or you can start from scratch and just set up the fields that you need.

To help users along (and keep things neat) you can dictate the type of data that can be entered in different fields, such as date/time, single choice, multiple choice, free text etc. You can also link records between sheets, which gives us an easy way to note when a blog post has been shared through social.

There are different levels of user access, so you can tailor that to suit the needs of your teams. I’ve found it helpful to restrict the ability to create new tags in drop-down lists so that people need to ask me for help creating new labels. This ensures we don’t end up with multiple variants of the same thing and helps me to retain my overview of what people are working on.

The most exciting potential I can see is the ability to manipulate the data and use it alongside other campaign analysis. I hope to be able to draw insights that will help us to improve our content in line with what goes down well with our audiences. Airtable makes it easy to switch between different views such as ‘grid’ and ‘calendar’ to see the data in different formats. Records can be grouped, sorted and filtered in a variety of ways so that we can see what went out on a particular channel, or within a campaign but across all channels, or across all content but aimed at a particular audience.

By looking at the data from different angles we’ve already started to notice patterns as well as anomalies in our outgoing content, which threw up opportunities to experiment with different ways of posting. Next up I’m eager to work with our marketing team to incorporate Airtable into their campaign analysis workflow and see what other insights can be drawn from it then.

Working within limits
We’ve started off using the free version of Airtable, which allows you to invite an unlimited number of users but does have some restrictions in functionality. Almost everything we need is covered in the free version, but there are a couple of extras that might come in handy if budget were available for a paid subscription;

  • Up to 50,000 records in the database – the free version is capped at 1,200 so I plan to make regular exports to archive anything over nine months old.
  • Colour coding in calendar view – this would make it easier to see at-a-glance which platform a post is going out on (for example). We’ve been working round this using filters to narrow things down to a particular channel.
  • Plotting a record across a date range – to plot the duration of full campaigns as well as just individual posts.

These features require a Pro Plan which costs $20 (USD) per user per month. Airtable offers a 50% discount to non-profits and educational organisations that meet the eligibility criteria listed on their website.

Rolling out a new tool
I was keen to involve our content champions in the process of trialing any new tool, and to take the opportunity to review the way our content schedule was working — and where it could be made to work harder.

With the help of some of expert advice from my mentor, I mapped out some additional information that could be useful to us, but wasn’t being captured in the current social media schedule. I’ve added new fields to record things like the wider campaign that a post fits into, the audience segment being targeted and the scheduling tool that’s been used (we have a couple of different tools in circulation, so it’s useful to know where to look if something needs to be amended).

After giving our content champions a demo to get their thoughts on the viability of the tool, I followed up with written guidance and a trial period for users to access and play with Airtable for themselves. I invited feedback and offered guidance throughout this time and finally took the plunge, migrating both our social media schedule and our blog schedule over to Airtable in December.

Since then I’ve continued to offer support and welcome suggestions for how things could be amended. We’ve worked through a few teething problems and made some adjustments to make sure the data capture is as useful as possible without the whole document becoming unwieldy.

It’s still early days, but user feedback has been positive so far and we’ve already identified another area of the Trust where Airtable could be put to good use (I’m working with another team to set that up next). I’m really looking forward to working alongside my colleagues to further develop their confidence and hope to see Airtable being adopted in increasingly strategic ways. I believe that as our bank of data grows, the extra insights to be gained through Airtable could have a real impact on our understanding of why certain content performs better than others and will have a genuine influence on the way we approach every aspect of content creation.

Image courtesy of The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust © Stewart Writtle.

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