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Greg Jackson is Executive director and responsible for online strategy for Tangent PLC, whose recent clients have included Borders and the Labour Party.

Tangent has recently been working with the Labour Party, revamping its website, and developing LabourList, a blog / social media site, as well as promoting the party via sites like Facebook and Twitter.

I have been talking to Greg about Labour's use of social media, as well as the company's work launching Borders' first e-commerce site in the UK...

Can you tell me a little about your background?

I left school at 16 to work as a video games developer (I'd been writing games from my bedroom till then). I later went to Cambridge University to study economics (using the computing experience to good effect by auto-generating half of my dissertation). I then worked at Procter & Gamble in Marketing, before running a mirror manufacturer and then a database marketing company.

In 2003, I founded C360UK with Nick Gillett and James Eddison, as a technology-driven marketing company. That's where we conceived taobase and developed some fantastic projects with clients like SAP.  We were acquired by Tangent in 2006, became Tangent Labs and have since carried on growing. We're now at about 50 people (the Tangent group is about 160 in total) and recently split Tangent One out of Tangent Labs to focus exclusively on marketing (websites, ecommerce, email and social networking) - with Tangent Labs focusing fully on technology development.

My passion here is to keep finding new ways to use technology to improve client's results. Sometimes this may be by writing better copy for emails, sometimes finding new ways to integrate systems quickly and sometimes by creating whole new platforms. I still love staying up at night to write code or to write a marketing plan, and I hope that combination is what clients value in our business.

Can you tell me about your work on the LabourList website?
We were commissioned by Derek Draper to build LabourList in November or December 2008. He'd spoken to a number of other companies before we met, but I think the fact that we understood quite a lot about web communities, politics and had the platform to build it quickly made us a pretty easy choice.

He had some initial sketches prepared by his own designer, and some ideas informed by his intense experience in old media and we tried to meld all these together to create LabourList. I think it's now looking pretty good, and has some interesting technical features.

Of course, he has quite a polarising profile and largely launched straight into the right-wing blogosphere headed up by Guido Fawkes (order-order.com) and so was faced by a phenomenal barrage of criticism from day 1, but this profile has probably really helped him gain more publicity for the site.

What is the aim of LabourList?

The aim is to give Labour a home in the blogosphere ("Where Labour minded people come together"). While the political blogosphere is fairly niche, it's quite influential because it is widely used by mainstream media. 

So far, Labour's presence in the blogosphere has been rather lower than the Conservatives, and LabourList, along with John Prescott's GoFourth.co.uk and others, seek to redress that.

Are politicians now beginning to use the internet more effectively?

A big question. First, let me stick to the UK as politics is very different across countries. The UK was actually an early and big adopter of the internet for politics; for example the Number 10 petitions site has had over 8m signatures.  However, we haven't yet turned that into a full-blown political process; it's still very much one-way. 

Some individual MPs and Ministers are trying to be more discursive though. For example; minister Tom Watson is highly engaging via his blog, Facebook and Twitter accounts,  and Ed Miliband is really trying to engage policy ideas, including saying no and explaining why on labourspace.com. However, all campaigning is easier when you're in opposition, and I must admit that I'm surprised the Conservatives aren't whipping up more activity online.

The killer app in campaigning is email and I think the parties and politicians are all now focusing on how to build and use big email lists but the UK electoral system is based around geographically small constituencies, and their databases are traditionally name and address focused so this is a real challenge for them.  After all, why would you give your email address to a party or politician? This is the problem they're all trying to solve right now.

You created technology to integrate MPs websites with Twitter and Facebook - how does this work?

The idea is that MPs need to use a lot of communications channels but they also have a lot of other work together, so we wanted to make it easier for them to communicate across various platforms.  When MPs log into their website control panel, they can also update their Twitter and Facebook status. If they add a story to their site, it'll allow them to automatically tweet or Facebook it, and they can edit the suggested text to make it more meaningful. They can also use the system to add items to their Facebook minifeed or put events into Facebook. It also works the other way, so that they can display various items from Twitter and Facebook on their sites.

It means that constituents can access information about the MP - and get in touch with them - using the channel that suits them best.

Has this persuaded many Labour MPs to start Twittering?

Yes! In fact, you'll now find Labour MPs use Twitter far more than other parties, and even people as high profile as Harriet Harman and John Prescott are using the system for Twittering. According to tweetminster.co.uk/ 67% of all MP Twitterers are Labour.

Are they making good use of Twitter?

I think 'good use of twitter' is still being defined. Some people see it as a replacement for RSS, some still use the phrase microblogging and others see it as a real two-way channel. For me, its beauty is the lack of structure provided by its founders, so it's able to discover its own niches in different uses. The key thing for Labour MPs is that they are actually using it frequently and communicating with plenty of people.

LabourList must attract some abusive comments at times - how do you approach the issue of moderation?

First, LabourList has a very neat moderation system. Every comment is emailed to the admins, who can publish, 'trash' or delete a comment.  Trashed comments are still available on the site, but only if a user clicks "show trash comments", whereas deleted comments are gone for good. 

Trash is used to hide specious or offensive comments which detract from good conversations whilst deletion is reserved for things which are highly offensive or legally questionable. The trash/deletion concept allows good quality conversations without the accusation of censorship.

The admins can also post replies to comments directly from the email, which is ideal for when they are using iPhones, Blackberries etc, and have a whole host of other options to control how particular comments and commentors are handled by the site.

How else can politicians use social media effectively?

Politicians are traditionally very good at campaigning where people are: they hand out leaflets in busy streets, knock on your door and go to residents' meetings. Social media allows them to do this online, more frequently and more flexibly. It also presents challenges, such as how to invite themselves into networks in a sympathetic way (you don't want your local football club's Facebook group hijacked by the local candidate), and how to handle the potential for enormous increases in conversations they have. 

Many have set very helpful guidelines on how they'll respond to things; setting expectations whilst still engaging helpfully (eg. "I'll respond once a day to general themes raised, even if I can't respond to everyone individually".)

Many politicians are great communicators, and as long as they can keep up with the pace of change, social media opens up a whole load of new places to communicate. It also provides a real opportunity to engage groups of people who engage others, so the politicians don't have to do it all themselves, but develop networks of activists and proponents who actively spread the message and open up conversations more widely. 

After all, we're more likely to listen to a political message from a friend, relative or colleague than a politician. Of course, elections are still won in the real world, and politicians need to meld the online and offline conversations; it's still important to deliver leaflets, knock on doors and make phone calls. As social media becomes more geographically aware, so it can play an ever greater role in this.

You had to develop an e-commerce site for Borders from scratch - how big a challenge was this?

We’re entirely responsible for the borders.co.uk website, and other activities such as email. The key challenges here were speed and lack of history. 

In terms of speed, Borders needed the site up and running within just a few months of commissioning, including finding and integrating with about ten other partners; payment partners, product supply, call centre, etc.

The lack of history was at least as challenging, as Borders had previously used Amazon as its online webshop. Amazon retained all customer and sales data, so Borders really was starting from zero. When you have over a million products, that creates real challenges in terms of product recommendation and sorting of search results. Additionally, it meant that the sales base was zero so we had to compete with the biggest names in ecommerce, and established book retailers from a standing start.

Of course, that gave us real opportunities to do things differently, so we used auto-complete search for example, long before any other significant retailer. We created 'pop-over' synopses to enable rapid browsing of books without constantly going back and forth between product pages and listings pages, and really good SEO (even the product images have friendly URLs).

Personally, I really enjoyed being able to lead a small team here, working with a small team at the client, to create a great online book and DVD retailer from scratch.

How has the site performed so far?

It's been very successful, certainly stacking up well in all respects (traffic, sales, user experience) against Waterstones and WHSmith, both of whose sites cost many, many times more money to build and have been in operation much longer.

The key factors are that we have our own agile methodologies, a very flexible underlying framework for building sites and manipulating data - taobase, and a great client who 'gets' how to work with an agile supplier.

Of course, this is all driven by a great team, the taobase platform is the work of over a dozen people here - headed up by James Eddison our highly respected CTO, and the Borders project team involved some very smart people.

I think the mark of the success is that we've been commissioned by Australia and New Zealand's largest chain of bookstores, Angus & Robertson, to deliver a series of webstores this year. They overlooked all the more established names in our favour because of what they'd seen at Borders.  The first of their sites is just going into closed beta, just 6 weeks after work began, with over a million products and a dozen integration partners.

I did review the new Borders website when it launched, and while it was mainly positive, I found the checkout process confusing. What was the thinking behind it and how has it performed so far?

We saw your review at the time and liked the fact that you broadly liked the site, especially rating it rather higher than the much more expensive solution chosen by Borders USA.

In terms of the checkout process, I think there were three key points:

The language of "review and purchase" as opposed to "proceed to checkout". This wording was an artefact of some testing and we totally agreed with you that it was wrong.  It was amended not too long later.

Overall, the site's data suggests that the checkout process is a good one, with a low abandonment rate and a good repeat purchase rate. This is reinforced by customer feedback.

The way the basket works "in the page", along with recent addition of clear indication of offers applied and shipping cost status means it's a state-of-the-art shopping experience, but of course we're continually analysing and testing to see if we can improve further. You'll also see a host of very exciting design tweaks in the next month or so, and some more significant changes a month or two after.

By the way, we also faced the unique challenge of changing supply chain partner in the last weeks before Christmas when Borders' DVD supplier EUK ceased trading. Within days, they'd appointed another supplier and we'd completed a full integration with them, saving Christmas for thousands of customers when other sites had to shut down. It's this kind of nimbleness that we're especially proud of.

Why did you decide to have it all on one page, rather than making it a 3/4 step process like many other sites?

The one page process rather than the usual three/four page process. We'd done a lot of analysis on ecommerce checkout processes, and found that most sites used multiple steps for technical reasons. However, this meant that users couldn't gauge what they'd be asked for. By using more modern techniques than most ecommerce sites (namely, AJAX) we were able to put it all in one page. 

The benefit to a user is that there are no surprises - they can see exactly what they're expected to do.  Again, we tightened the language a little subsequent to your review, but all the testing and data indicates that users love it.  It's so much easier than most checkouts, and I think you're beginning to see more like it including from some of Borders' competitors.

Why do you make users register before purchase - was there a reason you chose this option and has it worked for Borders?

In terms of the "register to buy" question - we need to ask all these details - other than a password - in order to send you a package and email confirmation. However, the language may still be improvable - perhaps not calling it registration. We're certainly open to alternatives, and the platform could easily do without. It's something we'll continue to discuss with the client.

Graham Charlton

Published 3 March, 2009 by Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton is the former Editor-in-Chief at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter or connect via Linkedin or Google+

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