Loving that frugal feeling

20/05: Pound Sterling (Photo credit: Chiew Pang)

I love the word thrifty and am a big fan of Mrs Thrifty’s blog: she offers top tips on saving money and spending wisely. This is not something, until recently, that hubby and I have been good at.

We’ve always chosen the quick/easy/lazy option and that often means waste and expense. Take, for example, the amount of food we throw away because it rots before we get around to eating it. Then we complain we have nothing much to eat and splurge on a take-away. Lose-lose.

I’m not keen on clutter either, although it always seems to gather somewhere – why do men open letters then put them back in the envelope before sticking them in a drawer!! – and I probably have hundreds of tealight holders thanks to my addiction to GU puddings that come in those little glass dishes.

Usually we’d take the quick route and stick our clutter a bin bag every once in a while and leave it for the binmen to deal with. But on discovering our more frugal side, we’ve discovered a better way.

People shop in the dark at 5am – can you believe it!

A few weeks ago I did a car boot sale. Yes, it meant getting up at 4.30am – why the hell to they start at 5am when it’s pitch black!? – and standing in the cold for a good seven hours, but me and my mate Angie (hubby point blank refused to help on this one) had a laugh and made almost £200 between us. Mostly for selling junk! And can you believe people shop at car boots at 5am with torches on their heads!? That’s dedicated bargain hunting for ya.

So, yes, I had to deal with people complaining that a sports watch didn’t have a battery in it – well Mr, that’s why I’m offering to sell it to you for 50p!!! – and letting go of once-loved shoes and boots for just £2 a pair. But these items went to good homes, I no longer used or needed them, and pence makes pounds. And trust me, with a baby on the way (turns out little people need a lot of stuff), that money comes in handy. I earned almost £100 for a morning hanging out with my mate when usually I’d have dumped everything in a bin bag for speed. Well worth doing!

We also have lots of items at home that we don’t use, want or need any longer. Car booters aren’t willing to pay much for anything so things like Uggs, electrical items, designer handbags and dresses were whacked on eBay. Yes, there’s an investment of time here, loading the items on and having to package and send them somewhere, but I still made money – £50 for a pair of Uggs that sat gathering dust in the bottom of the wardrobe, and £50 for a stack of DVDs that did little more than take up much-needed storage space. Again, well worth doing.

No more shopping with our stomachs

Then there are items of furniture. With a house move on the horizon, I’m keen not to transport furniture we don’t need or want to the new place. And the garage has been home to a table and chairs, a TV stand and other items for well over a year now. They’re no good to anyone in there! So I whacked them up on the intranet noticeboard at work, offered up at cheapo prices and made in excess of £250 for selling unused bikes, unwanted dining furniture, chests of drawers and a dog crate. The double whammy here is that the people buying them get decent products for a much reduced rate, so it’s win win. And I earn money while clearing out clutter. Yet again, well worth doing.

Don’t get me wrong, hubby and I still have a long way to go but we’re making much more of our money. We plan meals and food shop accordingly – getting it delivered to save us from shopping with our stomachs or getting distracted by the clothes and DVD aisles. And when we indulge in take-aways or meals out we try and look for voucher codes. I also jump on two-for-one offers, stock up on cut-price products we use regularly and use my Boots card to collect points when I buy essentials like shampoo and conditioner. And it feels much better to be doing it this way, rather than hurredly picking something off a shelf and then cringing when they put it through the till.

I’m also being more charitable. I’ve had a few clothes clear outs of late and bundle unwanted, unworn or don’t fit items into two bags – one for friends of a smiliar size who are grateful for good condition seconds, and another for the charity shops. If you’re going to throw things out, someone somewhere should benefit.

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I’m back! And not wearing earrings…

Holy feck, it’s been an age since I’ve blogged! And for anyone who’s actually tolerated liked my posts, I apologise. I haven’t really had my blogging mojo since May but I’m hoping it’s back after an almost six-month break. That said, I’m struggling to write much past this last sentence. Just kidding…

So, the summer was busy… I wrapped up my audio project on female bloggers to complete the first year of my MA in Online Journalism, spent a wet week in Devon with hubbles and the bow wow, and discovered I was pregnant with my first child (not an accident, I hasten to add). So I haven’t really blogged since getting preggo and neither have I worn earrings – not related in the slightest, just two random facts I want to share with you.

So, while I’m still not wearing earrings (I just can’t be arsed to push them through the holes), I am back blogging. I’m also hoping to snazz upmy blog offering with a new design (coming soon) and some new content ideas and, low and behold, possibly a blogging theme. I’ve tended to ramble on about anything and everything but I would like to blog with focus – whether this means theming this blog or starting another, I have yet to decide.

So, for now, that’s it. I just wanted to check in, say hi and attempt to remember how to string a few pars together.

Over and out… for now.

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A report from CASE 2012 (a conference for higher education bods)

Whenever you intend to do something a little bit whizzy, technology inevitably fails. I had every intention of live blogging this year’s annual CASE conference but Cover it Live dealt me a body blow when it withdrew its freeness in favour of a business model. Great for them, not so great for me; I’d have to cough up money if I wanted to use it. Pah. To cut a long story short, no suitable solution could be found and here I am blogging the old fashioned way, after the event… so enjoy this less whizzy contribution…

Higher education bods from across the country and overseas descended on Birmingham for the biggest case conference of its kind so far, with more than 1,000 delegates from 34 countries. The aim? To share best practice, learnings, research, case studies and passion for the sector. Oh yes, and how universities are each tackling a new fees regime and a catalogue of changes to the future of higher education. It’s at this point I should point out that I work for The Open University, hence my attendance.

We arrived for middayish registration on Tuesday 28 August at Birmingham’s ICC and after a fork buffet – don’t make the mistake of asking for a knife as my colleague did – it all began with an opening by Mark Damazer, of St Peter’s College, Oxford, who described the creative mess that lies beneath every higher education institution.

And then the sessions began, each following a different strand – marketing, communications, alumni relations, fundraising, strategy or schools.

Here’s a short summary of some of the stuff going on in the sessions I attended… (and if you just want the quick Storify version, here it is!)

CASE conference 2012

 

What excites the public about universities?

Well, quite a lot actually, according to this panel of expert communicators and educationalists:  Jack Grimston, assistant news editor at The Sunday Times; Catherine Hearne, BBC Midlands; Colin Hughes, former associate editor at  The Guardian and now at Middlesex University;  Alice Roberts, author and professor, science presenter on BBC’s Coast and from the University of Birmingham; and chaired by Alistair Jarvis, University of Birmingham.

A news story is “something that makes our audience feel mad, sad or glad, “ said Catherine Hearne, emphasising the need for an emotional connection to a story. Her BBC Midlands patch covers 12 universities. So what makes people mad in HE? Answer: tuition fees. What makes people sad? Answer: the debt gained from university study. What makes people glad? Answer:  Great A Level results, new inventions and things that make people proud of their local area.

Colin Hughes said the most trafficked area of The Guardian site this time of year was league tables. What excites people is how good universities are; their reputations matter.

Alice Roberts – one of the presenters of the Open University/BBC co-production Coast – added: “Any civilised society in the world has had a university in it, going way back in time. Historically, they’re a very real strand in our society and they depend on the public being excited about them, people depend on universities. They’re not just repositories of knowledge they are generators of knowledge and that’s pretty exciting.”

Catherine Hearne then covered what should be obvious to most university press offices – make connections, keep in touch and give as much notice about as possible.

“It’s hard for communications staff to keep connected with people and tell their stories,  it’s a constant sweat,” added Colin. “It’s less evident that unis have great stories to tell about the public engagement of their student body, but it goes without saying that unis have good research stories. Students doing things in the public eye make great stories, which is massive positive about the student body; it’s not just about the academics.”

Someone in the audience then piped up and – using the word inherently much more than necessary – said universities were often behind the majority of news but never got the credit for their news stories. Sound familiar?

“There are lots of things going in at universities,” added Colin, “that people what to hear about, they are newsworthy. But people want to read miserable new stories, that’s the reality, and it’s harder to place positive news stories. Broadly, yes, bad, news sells, but that doesn’t mean positive university stories are not newsworthy.”

 

Improving student communications

It’s a fairly new-ish thing but since around 2009 – Nottingham possibly being the first – universities have been appointing student-specific communications officers. Better student comms can be traced back to the launch of the National Student Survey in 2005, explained Kathryn Jones, director of comms and marketing at Birmingham City University.

She said while engaging with students is much easier since the birth of social media, budgets, human resources and a lack of systems were the biggest barrier to effective communication with the student community.

HEA research shows that one in 12 students leaves after the first year of study and one third think of withdrawing. Those are pretty big numbers and stresses the point that good communication shouldn’t cease as soon as students sign up. They’re the best ambassadors universities have and they need to be nurtured for the whole of their student journey, and beyond. They need a sense of belonging at core level, subject level, faculty level and university level.

Kathryn then handed over Tom Thompson, a student comms officer at BCU, who’d conducted an audit across his university and made some recommendations about how students are communicated to from accepting an offer to study, right through to graduation. (Would it be mean of me at this point to point out, as a BCU student myself, I get lots of campus-related emails when I’m a distance learner based two hours away?)

So, BCU has 25,000 students in six faculties on eight campuses. Tom met with students, focus groups, Student Union groups, staff across faculties to gain a better insight into student communication. He hijacked student council meetings, society meetings and quiz nights to talk to core students but confessed it was hard to engage with the less engaged, i.e. those who aren’t active members of the student community.

Each department had a different way of communicating with its students – for some it was the noticeboard, for others pigeon holes on campus, eNewsletters for others. And Tom’s goal was to draw upon those ‘local’ solutions and implement a plan that worked for everyone. No mean feat, huh?

To cut a long story short, Tom has lots of ideas and is currently implementing them, including work on a new online magazine in which students will play an active role, producing content, designing the pages, marketing the site. This not only helps with communication, but also adds to the professional development of the students involved; it ticks a lot of boxes. And students can visit the site when they like, in order to get the university headlines, rather than being bombarded with often irrelevant messaging. One of BCU’s priorities is employability and this initiative will give students ‘real world’ experience.

Personalised content on the site was also mention and this is something I know a lot of us – either students or HE comms bods – would cry out for.

As part of his work, Tom has built an active community on LinkedIn for student comms officers – check it out!

 

Live social media demo

There’s not a lot I need to say about this as the presentation is online so check it out for yourself.

 

Communication, confidence and making internal politics work for you

If you don’t think universities are highly political and complex organisations, you probably need to take the cotton wool out of your ears.

Birkbeck University’s Pro Vice-Master for Student Experience Tricia King says: “It’s not what you do in universities, it’s how you make it happen. The challenge is getting permission to operate where you are.”

Here are her top tips…

  1. Know the value of a crisis, never waste it. (and if there isn’t a crisis try to invent one, harness something, take it to your boss and present them with an answer.)
  2.  Identify and work with powerful people. Power doesn’t always sit where the structure says it should sit. Don’t fight them, you’ll always lose, try and help them so they can help you. Also find a champion or advocate on your senior team who can help and support you. A lot of nodding and agreeing doesn’t mean things will change. Get the person in power to present your ideas and solutions as people will listen and it will make more of an impact. Universities are about power.
  3.  You have to be of the culture and in the culture to influence the culture. Dress appropriately for your audience; if meeting a donor then dress like them. At Birkbeck the team dresses down because that’s how their community dresses so it’s shorts in summer and jeans in winter. And remember not to use jargon when talking to them, you need to make yourself of that culture.
  4.  Buyer behaviour. We’re used to using language to suit the audience and engage in the right way, but we rarely use those skills internally. Use professional skill sets and turn them on your own staff, what type of people are they? What will work for them?
  5. Sometimes, just do it. It’s often easier to ask forgiveness than ask permission. Risky but sometimes you can get away with doing it.
  6. The importance of story. Good stories are key, you tell stories all the time and they’re powerful. Our job is about storytelling. Tell stories to different people for different purposes and tell those stories back to yourself. We’re so focussed on bitter business we forget what an extraordinary institution we are, that we’re carriers and pursuers of stories. Tell them internally and externally, and remember the emotional hook is at the heart of what we do.
  7.  Is this superhuman effort worth it? A good university will never be anything other than a creative mess and our job is to work in that chaos and not getting frightened by it. We’re creating the future and leaders of society, that’s what wedo everyday and they need what we do more than they ever have done, whether realise it or not. Don’t give up the fight, it’s not just you, it’s the way it is.

There is positively LOADS more to say on this conference, but if you’re not asleep by now you will be soon. For the full story in bitesize pieces, check out #ceac2012 on Twitter.

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Surrounded by women bloggers: my day at Cybher!

I have never in my life been to a conference in which mothers breast feed babies while guest speakers talk, undeturbed, about their area of expertise. And that pretty much sums up the relaxed atmosphere at Cybher on Saturday – the UK’s only conference for female bloggers – in which 300 were in attendance.

Throw in free leather satchels, a constant supply of coffee and cookies, some talented and inspiring speakers and lots of happy, smiling faces, and you can’t go far wrong.

9am to 6pm is a long day at a conference for me and I’ve always had enough by 4pm – especially given my 6.30am alarm call to trog to London on the train with my sidekick for the day. But I was wide awake and 6pm and returned home to Milton Keynes feeling inspired.

 

Cookies and coffee and handbags Podcasting session with The High Tea Cast Caz Walton's Cybher badge

Caz and an AVG cupcake Taking notes at Cybher Cybher conference screen in the ballroom

 

I’ve never attended a conference where I’m not ‘working’ it – and Cybher was no different. My latest MA project on multimedia covers the conference, the stories behind some of the guest speakers and how blogs can change people’s lives.

So I had one eye on the conference and the other on my project but, to be honest, this assignment has been a lot of fun and one thing is clear – bloggers are talented, powerful and most of all, lovely. Not concerned about competing with each other, they’re all happy to share their experiences, their tricks of the trade and their expertise. Very refreshing!

So, enough from me, go check out ladieswotblog.co.uk for indepth interviews with some of the speakers as well as a round up of Cybher in pictures, text and audio.

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Women who blog (and why I haven’t been)

Cybher 2012 logo
So, while I haven’t actively been blogging much of late, I have been focussing on blogging in a slightly different way. My multimedia project for the MA in Online Journalism I’m almost half way through is now in full swing and I’ve just launched a microsite called Ladies Wot Blog, featuring audio interviews with some lovely women bloggers.

These bloggers, bar one who I approached from an expert/academic viewpoint on women in the blogosphere, are all attending Cybher 2012, the all-inclusive conference for female bloggers, which takes place next Saturday 12 May in London. And I can’t wait! I still have a couple more interviews to conduct, one to edit and will also endeavor to do an audio report from the event, venturing into live blogging territory I guess. I’ll also take some piccies and follow up with a full blown report of the day when I return home, and possibly some more audio.

I’ve learned loads while doing this project – and continue to do so – and have had the pleasure of chatting with some fab and interesting people. Studying has never been so much fun!

So if you blog and want to hop over to my microsite and share your blogging stories, highs or lows, or just comment on some of the interviews, please feel free to do so. The more the merrier!

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