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Cool Creatives is your quintessential creative agency. They have account managers, project managers, copywriters, designers, and developers.
As with every agency, there are projects to get on with, meetings to be held, budgets to be defined, and roles to be accessed.
Cool Creatives has some incredible talent on its team. They’ve got a big problem on their hands though, namely, terrible communication.
On a typical day, Ron the account manager will need to discuss the latest client requests with Lily the project manager. Often though, Ron finds that Lily’s schedule is packed for the day and the discussion will have to be put off until tomorrow, much to the client’s discontent.
Lily, in turn, is having a hard time staying on top of all the creatives on the team. There’s the new website project that everyone’s meant to be working on, but there are also some loose ends to tie together on an old ad series. Lily hasn’t a clue which members of the team are working on what. She also doesn’t have a way to track whether they are behind, ahead, under budget, or way over.
As for the creative team; Dave the copywriter is thinking of leaving the agency altogether, in pursuit of some more challenging work. The managers at Cool Creatives often seem to forget that he is a copywriter by profession, not a salesperson, not a project coordinator, and not an SEO specialist either.
Anne the designer doesn’t know what to tell her manager when he asks her how many hours she worked this month, in addition to a breakdown of how much time she spent on what. Anne had tried to keep track of her hours on a spreadsheet, but that didn’t include all the time she had spent in meetings (meetings at Cool Creatives didn’t usually amount to much, by the way. They usually went in circles and ended up discussing things that had never been on the agenda) or that day she had spent helping set up the new computer system.
On top of all that, no one at Cool Creatives is ever sure how to get in touch with anyone else. Should they pick up the phone? Walk across the office? Send a quick chat? An official email? Sometimes it takes ten minutes to answer a question that should have been answered in thirty seconds flat.
So, you get the picture. Cool Creatives is floundering.
But this isn’t just some sob story about a made-up agency. It represents countless agencies out there, to a lesser or larger degree.
Why are so many agencies struggling to hold it all together?
It’s simple really.
They’re not using a project management communication plan.
In this blog, we’ll cover everything you need to know about communication plans in project management.
Ready? Let’s dive in!
What is a Project Communication Plan?
A project communication plan is a document detailing the strategies, processes, and specific details of communicating with the stakeholders involved in projects. This is a fluid document, capable of expanding or shrinking based on the project requirements.
Agencies usually have a centralized communication plan they use for all new projects. This plan can later be modified to deal with the specific requirements of a project.
Why is a project communication plan important in project management?
Asking an account manager if they can live without a communication plan in project management is like asking a teenager if they can live without their smartphone. In both cases, the factual answer would be “yes,” they could live without. But in reality, their lives would be irreversibly altered.
A communication management plan keeps your team on the same page—figuratively and literally. In detailing when, why, and how team members communicate, keeps projects on time by facilitating the sharing of information and tracking of responsibilities. It also reduces disruptions by limiting communication to essential messages.
You may be able to live without a communication management plan if your project is of minimal scope or duration, thereby negating the need to stipulate provisions like when to use a chat instead of an email or a text in lieu of a phone call. Otherwise, you wouldn’t want to risk falling behind on a project because of poor communication.
When your graphic designer wants to run a design by their manager, do they know which communication method to use? Will it be emailed? Chat? Memo? Phone call?
When your client wants to know where the project is holding, do they know when they can ask you and which medium to ask you through?
When you want to call a meeting together, do you have a quick and easy procedure for letting everyone know about it?
Having a robust communication matrix will mean you can confidently answer yes to all these questions. It’s the oil that makes your project-making machine run smoothly and efficiently.
What are the main components in a project communication plan?
Everyone involved in a project, including your team, your client, and if relevant, project sponsors, needs to know:
- How to communicate.
- When to communicate.
- With whom to communicate.
Create a communication matrix
When a project manager wants to update stakeholders on how the project is progressing, chances are it will not be a text message or a chat notification. Likewise, a formal memo is not commonplace for asking a clarifying question to a coworker.
Put together a comprehensive list of all the different communication methods you’ll be using throughout the project, when it would be appropriate to use each method of communication, and who should be communicated with about what.
While it might be quicker or easier for you to revert to a single form of communication for everything, bear in mind that your audience will vary, and the message needs to be tailored to the recipients. Some messages will need to come in the form of presentations or meetings. Others can be accomplished using an email or text message. Increase productivity by sharing documents and files through creative management software that negates the need to send multiple emails back and forth. Such software also saves you time by allowing you to plan based on templates from similar projects.
Whenever possible, encourage methods that allow for feedback from your audience. This way, if they have constructive criticism, you can use their feedback to improve the project.
An amazing project management communication strategy emphasizes the methods that your team uses most efficiently. Speed up projects by leveraging the means of communication that works the most quickly for and with optimal clarity by matching workflow to work style, and standardizing processes like how proofs are created, revised, and approved.
In our increasingly dominant digital age, it’s important to employ robust communication efforts. You don’t want your employees using outdated technology when they can utilize robust project management software to facilitate important exchanges.
But after all is said and done about the importance of a communication matrix in project management, here comes two spoiler alerts:
- Don’t attempt to improve project collaboration by intricately detailing who can contact whom and when and how. Constricting communication can slow the flow of information. If a team member must stop to consider if their email is within the plan’s parameters, then you are delaying your project’s progress. A well-defined communication matrix documents acceptable contact without forcing team members to read the fine print. Simple works.
- A communication matrix is not something that can be set in stone. You need a fluid communication plan that can be changed when needed. For example, when the project scope or the campaign timeline changes, or when it becomes apparent that a form of communication that you thought would work, isn’t.
Clearly Define Goals
The next rule in project communication is that your team should know where it is headed from the project’s inception. “We’re going to complete this project quickly and do a good job for the client” won’t suffice. If even a single team member asks you what the project’s purpose is, then you have not communicated your goals and objectives clearly. Be sure to communicate with your team exactly why the project is important before even starting the scheduling process.Your timeline should be similarly clear with specific dates.
Set project goals in your communication plan using SMART criteria. That is, make them:
With any plan, you must first determine where you are going before planning how you will get there. What are you striving for? Brand awareness? Lead generation? Customer engagement?
Precisely define what you are trying to accomplish, the more intimately you can detail your plan to achieve those goals, the better. Then, follow through with detailed expectations for deliverables and timelines, confirming that team members and stakeholders understand and agree.
Ensure that everyone knows their role within the project
As you are well aware, communication doesn’t come from a singular source during a project’s duration. That’s why it’s essential to outline all roles and corresponding responsibilities in your plan. Be sure to assign based on talent. Utilizing the individual strengths of your team members not only increases collaboration and reduces conflict, but it also boosts ownership and accountability across the board.
Your project could be delayed, could be thrown over budget, or could disappoint your client if your team members aren’t doing what they should be doing or are doing what someone else should be doing.
Below are some common roles to consider:
- Project manager
- Project Sponsor
- Project Lead
- Steering Team
- Team Member
Within the project team, you’re going to have a variety of roles, plus all of the additional stakeholders that will be involved at some point or another. Make sure that everyone from the manager to the intern is aware of his/her responsibilities. You could - and should - give everyone a say but your team will focus better if you avoid the din of competing voices by detailing who is responsible for what.
Set expectations for your project team. Some roles will have more responsibility than others. The project lead will be expected to contribute more through the course of the project than the project sponsor. On the other hand, each individual or group will be expected to provide proper communication when it’s requested.
Death, taxes, and meetings are all part of life’s inevitable unpleasantries. I’ve been to countless meetings where I ask myself “why am I even here? What were we discussing?” as the meeting draws to a close. I consider my time one of my most valuable assets and it’s quite discouraging to attend a meeting that has no agenda and follows no direct path from introduction to conclusion.
To make your meeting a valuable use of everyone’s time:
- Invite only those people whose participation is required.
- Provide an agenda in advance so that participants can prepare.
- Solicit input from everyone who was invited.
- Keep the discussion focused on the agenda and end on time.
- Differentiate between weekly status meetings; project plan status updates; management and resource updates; and task and activity planning sessions.
A rock-solid communication plan in project management keeps meetings from meandering by providing guidelines on who will meet with whom, when and—perhaps most importantly—why. Doing so helps you keep meetings on time and get the participants back to your project sooner.
Know your Stakeholders
Incorporate clear instructions for keeping stakeholders informed as part of your project communication plan. Establish thresholds for when to communicate and how, accommodating their personal preferences, for example communicating via email or phone call.
Don’t assume that any matter is too small to warrant your client’s attention—nor even an update for your agency’s owner. They may perceive something that seems to be a minor detail to you to be indicative of large issues for them.
Involve clients as little or as much as they prefer and you can stand. That’s not to say you can disagree with their wants or whims. But establishing guidelines on whom they can communicate with and how can keep them from interfering with the project’s progress. Committing yourself to providing regular updates while actively seeking their engagement through a mutually agreeable project communication plan can give you both what you need.
Saying the wrong thing to the wrong person at the wrong time can be disastrous for a project. But knowing what to say, when, and how will help you keep your project on time, within budget, and in line with client’s expectations.
Your project communication plan is the ideal opportunity to set expectations. Create the tone for all communication that will transpire from the outset and maintain consistency throughout to deliver your project on time, within budget, and in line with your client’s expectations.
Be Sure of Your Client's Requirements
While an effective project communication plan provides internal teams with direction, it’s equally important to be aware of external influencers. Even if you’re confident in your project’s vision, it’s crucial to include finalized client requirements in your plan. Consider revising your plan if you do not have an explicit statement of requirements from the client. Without them, you run the risk of unnecessary scope change or scope creep.
At some point in your managerial journey, you’ve probably heard the adage of underpromise and overdeliver. You’ve probably even made unreasonable promises at one time. Don’t worry—it’s human nature. However, there’s a fine line between setting high expectations and promising unrealistic goals. And far too often, external influencers cajole PMs into making promises that they know are impractical.
As hard as it may be, try to ignore pushy, persistent external factors. Rushing a project can lead to uninspired, sloppy work. Pick your battles—but be realistic and honest with your team, your stakeholders, and yourself.
Project Communication Plan Templates
Project management software is the ideal way to create templates for estimates and creative briefs based on similar projects that you completed previously. You can then route them to clients for speedy approval. Providing clients with online proofs that they can view, change, and approve as part of your plan could also improve communication.
Frequent revisions or complaints from clients signify that you may not be communicating with them effectively. Unnecessary scope changes could also indicate that you may need to revise your project communication plan because your clients haven’t finalized their requirements.
Being vocal, clear and receptive establishes your leadership and sets your expectations when you plan for communication from the beginning of a project. Build upon previous successes. Customize your template for your project and review it with your team. Confirming that they understand each detail will help you reap the benefit of working together to attain your project’s goals.
Access New Projects for Risks
Even the best-planned projects can go amuck. How will you get yours back on track if it does? Avoid delays by including a risk management strategy in your project communication plan. Create contingency plans for overcoming potential obstacles such as scope changes, ensuring that team members and stakeholders know the contingency plan. Apprise them of possible problems in advance as well, so that no one is surprised should a situation arise.
Scope changes can be problematic, but they shouldn’t be catastrophic. You may need to update your project communication plan if such a challenge puts you off schedule or over budget. You should incorporate a backup plan to handle potential pitfalls. Detail who is responsible for preparing and implementing a response.
Nothing goes exactly as planned. Reviewing your schedule for any potential problems and creating contingency plans for addressing them will help you respond quicker if an obstacle arises, like late-stage scope changes. A risk management strategy like this allows you to revise your project communication plan to maximize efficiency in any situation.
Know your Budget and Resources
Essential communication plan elements like your project’s budget and resources help you avoid any confusion as to what your team can do.
Having a clear budget and a precise way of tracking it allows you the freedom to work on a project without second guessing decisions. Project management software is often the quickest and most efficient way of staying on top of your budget.
A huge factor in establishing an effective communication plan is understanding your team’s abilities, talents, and weaknesses. If you’re overly idealistic, or downright uninformed, about their capacity to handle a project, not only is it going to be difficult to set realistic deadlines, it may be time to revise your communication plan.
Make sure you meet with your team to understand team member’s needs and expectations. Utilize marketing resource management project management software to pull reports and gauge past productivity. These measurements can help set expectations and estimates that are rooted in fact.
Analyze the success of your project communication plan so that your next one can be even more effective. Assess results in terms of the measurable SMART goals that you established at the outset. Which did you achieve? Where did you fall short? What were the strengths and weaknesses that contributed to the results? Meeting deadlines and budget are paramount but defining additional criteria for success will help you and your team become more efficient.
Don’t Overdo it!
Is there any such thing as over-communicating?
In a project setting, definitely. There is a thin line between being clear and being annoying. Your clients and team members don't need to hear from you 15 times a day.
First, evaluate who needs to hear from you and what they need to hear. There is a clear hierarchy in terms of interest and importance in every project. Some stakeholders need daily updates. With others, you can update them once a month and that’s good enough.
Another example of misuse of communication is when technology is overused.
The simplest example of this pitfall is when two co-workers are across a cubicle wall or a 10-second walk away, but instead of communicating in person, directly, they choose to use chat messaging at the computer. This isn’t always a bad thing, in that if there is a quick question with a direct answer, it’s now recorded in the chat log. More often than not though, I’ve seen a conversation drag on for over 10 minutes, with limited productivity outside of the conversation, when it could have been solved in under two minutes including walking time. Of course, that assumes that at the end of the 10 minutes the individual with the question was completely informed and won’t need to ask any more follow-up questions.
Another example would be using a shared network drive that can only be accessed within the company’s network. If you’re working with outside collaborators, you’re effectively requiring them to be on-site to work on the project.
Getting your communication just right is part of your communication plan. Work out how often communication is required and make sure your team is clear on the most effective ways to communicate in different scenarios.
Now that we’ve discussed and dissected all the important elements of a good project communication plan, let’s take a deep dive into the actual process of creating one. I’ll also show you some project communication plan examples along the way.
How Do You Create a Good Project Communication Plan?
The client communication plan springs from the specific requirements for each project. It can be as complex or clear as the project demands.
Therefore, to create a communication plan, you first need to understand the project’s scope and requirements. This is a three step process:
- Identify key stakeholders for the project
- Create a plan to manage project stakeholders
- Create a communication plan based on above stakeholder plan
I’ll walk you through these three steps below.
Identify Key Stakeholders
A “stakeholder” is anyone who has an interest or concern in the project. These are people who have the ability to influence the outcome of the project.
Stakeholders can be of three types:
- Internal stakeholders: People within your agency who have an interest in the project. This will include the immediate project team, contractors, vendors, top management, and anyone else involved in the success of the project.
- External stakeholders: Anyone on the client’s side involved in the project. This includes your liaisons from the client’s project team, executive sponsors on the client side, top executives, etc.
- Other stakeholders: In some projects, you’ll also want to involve third-party stakeholders, such as tech evangelists, influencers and journalists (usually near project completion).
In a new spreadsheet, make a list of everyone involved in the project. Identify whether this person is on your team, on the client’s side, or belongs to a third-party. Also include their position. For large projects with involvement from multiple departments, you can include the department as well.
Communication Plan Example
This list of stakeholders will be the foundation of your communication plan, so make sure to keep it as comprehensive as possible.
Create a Plan to Manage Stakeholders
The stakeholder management plan is focused on four things:
- Interest: How interested is the stakeholder in the project? A director in a tangential department would be only minimally interested in the project, while the project leader on the client’s side would be heavily interested in it.
- Influence: How much influence does the stakeholder have in the project? Influence isn’t always related to interest. A top executive might have minimal interest in the project but have the influence to stop/expand funding for it.
- Key Objectives/Motivations: What does the stakeholder want from the project? This can be tangible (“higher revenues”) or intangible (“more influence within the company”).
- Contact Information: Self-explanatory - the stakeholder’s key contact information.
In your stakeholder spreadsheet, add additional columns for “Influence”, “Interest”, “Objectives” and “Contact”.
Communication plan example
You’ll score “Influence” and “Interest” on a scale of 1-5 (or 1-10 - whatever suits you). The higher this number, the higher the stakeholder’s priority in your communication plan.
Here are a few tips to help you figure out influence and interest scores:
- Leaders on yours and the client’s side will have the highest interest in the project. Give them a score of ‘5’.
- People who control resources - top executives, department directors - might not have interest in the project, but can influence its direction. Give them an influence score of ‘5’.
- Your immediate liaisons on the client’s side will have strong influence/interest in the project.
- Similarly, your project team leader will have strong influence and interest in the project.
Consult your team for scoring each stakeholder. You don’t have to get this 100% right. You’ll use this only as a guideline for communication.
Apart from influence and interest, you also need to identify each stakeholder’s key objectives and motivations. Doing this will help you decide what information to communicate to the stakeholder.
For instance, if the stakeholder is only concerned with the new revenue generated from the project, you don’t have to bother them with daily check-ins. You can update them once a month about the project progress, spending, and eventually, the results.
Motivations can be:
- Financial: Project cost or expected revenue. Usually important to project leaders and resource controllers.
- Personal: Usually important to executives personally involved in the project’s success, i.e. when the project is someone’s “baby”.
- Career-focused: Stakeholders will want to further their own careers through the project.
- Business-focused: The impact the project will have on the business. Say, an internal stakeholder might want to use the project to showcase your agency’s capabilities
- Brand-focused: The impact the project will have on the brand. For instance, an external stakeholder might want to use the project to earn press and promote the brand.
Again, remember that you don’t have to get this data 100% right. You only want near approximations to determine how, when and what to communicate to each stakeholder. You can even skip this part for smaller projects with limited stakeholders.
Finally, add key contact information for each stakeholder, including preferred communication channel.
In the next step, I’ll show you how to turn all this data into a communication plan.
Create a Client Communication Strategy
The data you gathered in the above step will determine the frequency, format and content of your client communication.
For example, you might send weekly check-in emails to stakeholders who have a high interest and influence in the project. Stakeholders who only have high influence but no interest can be emailed once a month with updates.
In your spreadsheet, make note of each of the following for all stakeholders:
How often you communicate with the stakeholder will depend on their interest, influence and position. Generally speaking, the higher the stakeholder’s interest and influence, the more frequent the communication.
Tone and Style
The length and tone of each message. This will depend on the stakeholder’s position and your existing relationship with him/her.
For instance, you might send busy executives short, formal emails about the project status. For internal stakeholders, you might send more casual messages.
Determine what kind of communication to send each stakeholder - daily check-ins, weekly updates, hours worked, etc.
This will depend largely on the stakeholder’s motivations, interest and position. You might send a monthly high-level update to the executive sponsor and a detailed report of hours worked to the client liaison each week.
What to deliver in each communication.
For instance, you might share a mock-up of the website in your weekly progress report to management on your side. For your daily check-in with the project leader, you might share a list of tasks completed and hours worked.
Each stakeholder can have different communication preferences for different communication types. For instance, you might do a weekly check-in via email and have a Skype chat once a month for progress reports.
Specify when to start communicating with the stakeholder. You’ll want to involve some stakeholder right after project kick-off. Others - especially third-party stakeholders - don’t need to receive communication until the project is near completion.
For example, if you’re building a new tech product for a client, you don’t need to involve journalists and tech influencers until you at least have a working prototype.
Add all this data to your existing spreadsheet, like this:
Communication Plan Example
This will form the basis of your communication plan.
Create a Communication Plan for Each Stakeholder
Your spreadsheet now has enough data to help you create a specific communication plan for each stakeholder.
In a new document, list out every stakeholder. Make a note of what, where and how often to communicate. Also make note of the communication tone and style.
Something like this:
Share this plan with anyone on your team who will communicate with the client. Make this a “living” document, i.e. get your team to review and update it as you gather more information about the client.
You can also add/remove stakeholders from this document as the project moves closer to completion.
Create Event-Specific Communication Plans
While stakeholder-specific communication will ensure that you send the right messages to the right person, you also need a communication plan for specific events, such as a kickoff meeting or a monthly status meeting.
To do this, you need to identify:
- Event-type: Common events include kickoff meetings, project team meetings, design meetings, monthly status meetings, and project status reports.
- Communication channel: Identify the communication channel for each event-type. You might have face-to-face kickoff meetings and run weekly status updates over email.
- Frequency: Whether the event happens daily, weekly, biweekly, monthly, etc.
- Participants: Who all is involved in the event. Specify the exact position of the participants and whether they are internal, external or third-party.
- Owner: Who has ownership over the event. Usually, this is the project manager.
- Objective: What is the purpose of the event? For example, the objective of a monthly status update meeting is to share the progress of the project with the management.
Add all this data to a communication plan template in excel, like this:
Communication Plan Template in Excel
You can then create a project management communication plan template for each event-type based on the participants, objectives and preferred channel.
Address Contingencies and Concerns
Try as hard as you might, issues will crop up in any project. As the project manager, it is your job to address any contingencies and concerns.
Besides stakeholder-specific communication plans, you should also have a strategy to handle the following:
1. Dealing with Emergencies
In your communication plan, make a note of who to contact (both internally and externally) in case of an emergency. Identify what exactly to communicate to them.
Ideally, you’ll want to target stakeholders who a) have a high interest in the project’s success, and b) have enough responsibility to resolve the emergency, if necessary.
You can go further and have separate plans based on the scale of the emergency. For instance, in case of a major emergency, you’ll want to contact leaders on yours as well as the client’s team.
In case of minor emergencies, on the other hand, you can limit communication to your project team alone.
2. Addressing Objections
In every complex project, you’ll have some people opposing certain things on either side. Anticipating these objections and charting out responses to them can make for a smoother running project.
In your document, make a list of potential objections. Consult with your team to create a strategy to address each objection, such as:
- Cost concerns: Share hours worked, project progress and expected revenue from the project.
- Creative concerns: Consult with the design team to explain creative decisions
- Progress concerns: Share current progress, including mock-ups, templates, etc.
The idea behind this is to have a ready-made communication strategy in case of any contingencies. It’s not necessary, but it will save you a world of trouble once issues do arise.
Create Communication Templates
In this final step, you can turn your plan into stakeholder-specific communication templates.
For example, in the above document, we are sending weekly updates to the project leader on the client. This update includes:
- Details of tasks completed
- Total number of hours worked
- General project progress
Instead of writing an email from scratch, you can create a communication management plan template to use for all such updates across all your projects.
You can even export data from a project management tool like Workamajig to make your job easier.
Share these templates with your team. Use them for all scheduled updates with the client. This will bring in much-needed uniformity and standardization to your client communication.
Communication Plan Example
Conclusion and Key Takeaways
Creating winning client communication plans is a matter of understanding:
- Who is involved in the project
- What they want from the project
Once you know these details, you can create highly targeted communication plans for everyone involved in the project. This will help standardize your communication and help the project run smoother.
- Client communication depends on identifying and understanding all stakeholders involved in the project.
- The influence, interest, and motivations of each stakeholder will determine how you communicate with them.
- The communication plan should focus on communication frequency, content, channel, and tone for each stakeholder.
- Your communication plan should be a fluid document that you can update as you gather more data about the client.
Now, let’s go all the way back to Cool Creatives–remember them?
Having read through Workamajig’s blog on communication plans, Cool Creatives went ahead and implemented all the tips discussed here. It didn’t happen overnight, but within a couple of weeks, life at Cool Creatives was transformed.
Nowadays, when Ron the account manager needs to discuss clients with Lily the project manager, he sends off a quick templated email, to which Lily can easily respond. Ron can even anticipate when it would be a good time to meet with Lily, as he has full insight into Lily’s schedule, thanks to the project management software they’ve started using.
Dave the copywriter has decided to stay with Cool Creatives. Thanks to Lily’s new practice of frequently meeting with the creatives on the team, it was discovered that he was being given the sort of jobs he didn’t enjoy. Now that Cool Creatives is much more focused on assigning roles appropriately, employees feel happier and more appreciated for their strengths.
As for Anne’s problems with accurately keeping track of her hours, tracking time at Cool Creatives has become as easy as pie. With the task management feature in the project management software, all Anne has to do is clock in and out of the program, choose a program, choose a task from her personalized drop-down menu, and she’s good to go and get paid 100% accurately at the end of each month!
Sounds like they’ve got their act together, no?
Well, YOUR agency can do it too!
And to get you a hop, skip, and jump ahead of the game, I want to tell you a bit about Workamajig.
As a software designed exclusively for creative agencies, Workamajig specializes in getting all your project management requirements under one, comfy roof. From task management to time tracking, to marketing agency accounting features client billing, Workamajig automates your processes so you can easily stay on top of projects-no sweat, and lots more profit, thanks to all the time Workamajig saves you.
As for communication plans, well that becomes easy peasy breezy with Workamajig!
You get to share documents and files instead of wasting time going back and forth with multiple emails, create reusable templates, see who’s doing what at what time and generally make the most of the latest technology and keep your projects moving at a quick and efficient clip!
Better communication, better projects.
Find out how marketing project management software like Workamajig can help make it happen today