Interview: Donegal's Joanne Sweeney - 'Now is the time to fully embrace digital'

'If you don't become digitally relevant you will become commercially irrelevant' - CEO of Digital Training Institute

Interview: Donegal's Joanne Sweeney - Now is the time to fully embrace digital

Joanne Sweeney

International Women's Day is tomorrow, March 8. This week the Donegal Democrat published a number of interviews with women who have been influential in their particular fields to tie in with International Women's Day. These interviews are reproduced here today on Donegallive.ie, starting with Joanne Sweeney.

Joanne Sweeney, originally from Downings, is the CEO of Digital Training Institute. Based in Galway, the company provides digital marketing training and consulting to government and public sector agencies, the commercial radio sector, and to business. It was named Best Online Social Media Training Provider 2021 by EU Business News.
Joanne is a two-time author, and her latest book Public Sector Marketing Pro was named in the best new PR Books of 2020 list by BookAuthority.
She is the host of The Public Sector Marketing Show weekly podcast and social media show.
Having written extensively on digital marketing, her clients range from Newstalk to Trinity College Dublin, the Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors, and the EPP Group in the European Parliament.
Describing herself as an Entrepreneur, blogger, vlogger, podcaster, and storyteller, Joanne has overcome many obstacles to become a leader in her field. Her favourite quote is: “Feel the fear and do it anyway!

Q. Describe your business and what exactly you do?
A. Digital Training Institute provides accredited online courses in social media, digital marketing and crisis communications. We set up a sub-brand three years ago, Public Sector Marketing Institute, to serve government and public sector clients.

Q. Ireland has embraced many of the changes associated with the digital age that we now live in. But one suspects, this is only the beginning? Ireland in 20 years' time will be a very different place.
A. Digital is everywhere around us. Video calls, messaging, social media, online shopping, smart home devices, Netflix, smartwatches, banking apps, healthcare, and fitness tracking apps, bitcoin, the list is endless. An increase in technology across all sectors is also driven by consumer demand. Self-drive cars and more people running online-only businesses will be the norm in our lifetime while eHealth and ebanking will feel more normal than actually visiting a bank or health centre. Digital is the single most disruptive revolution in the history of the world.

Q. The digital age brings both threats and opportunities. How optimistic are you for the places like Donegal and other counties along the western seaboard?
A. Now is the time to fully embrace digital! COVID-19 means that we can be location-agnostic. It doesn't matter where in the world you are, you can trade, sell, and even engage in digital diplomacy online. If companies and organisations in Donegal are yet to pivot, then put a plan in place. I love living by the sea and because I grew up in Downings, I'm always drawn to the coastline. The work-life balance is envied by many.

Q. Many people have been working from home as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. For many, it has changed work practices, with both positives and negatives. What are your thoughts on the long-term consequences of this?
A. I think it's fantastic. For the past 10 years, I have spent weeks of my life on trains, planes, and clocking up mileage in my car. I was in Brussels twice a month in the European Parliament; on a plane somewhere in Europe for Google and always on the train (which I love) from Galway to Dublin. But since March 2020 I've been gifted a 100% online business. If I'm honest, I have no real appetite to go back to where I was.

Q. We hear a lot about the National Broadband Plan and the need to ensure high-speed internet connectivity in all areas. What do you see as being the best way forward?
A. When I was a broadcast journalist in Highland Radio in 2001-2003 the A2-N5 was a constant topic of political and business discussion. Similarly, as CEO of Letterkenny Chamber, it was also top of the lobbying agenda. Right now, the focus needs to be on connectivity - the ability for micro-businesses to sow their seeds in a world where digital is mainstream. We will not go back to how life was pre-Covid, consumer behaviour is a very fickle thing. Habits have been formed and technology has been embraced. Donegal has long bemoaned the lack of fit-for-purpose transport infrastructure but now accessibility for business will be judged on output and not location. Take the opportunity now. Business hubs that support remote working and 5G connectivity are where the focus should be.

Q. A considerable number of people in the private sector may find their positions of employment vulnerable through no fault of various knock-on effects from the pandemic. As an entrepreneur, what advice would you give to anyone thinking of trying to start their own business?
A. There is no recession on the Internet. I've been able to adapt and turn my service-based business into knowledge products. Everyone needs to re-think their business operations and non-business owners and employees should seriously look at how the world has changed. 50% of the public sector professionals taking my accredited online courses are from outside of Ireland. They only know me and my business brand through the Internet and the content I produce. I have students from as far as New Zealand.

Q. The importance of having an online presence is crucial for businesses. But some people may find it all a bit daunting. Do you feel that some businesses are underperforming and underestimating the potential market they have by not having a suitable online presence?
A. I feel that overwhelm is probably the number one challenge, followed by fear, which results in paralysing progress. It really is not practicable to be operating in business without having an online presence. The first thing I tell my clients when we meet or when I'm addressing a boardroom is: Leave your personal bias at the door. This is about business, not about your disdain or your disinterest in the Internet or social media. 99% of the Irish population are online; there are more people using social media in the world (including in Ireland) than not. Don't argue with the data. If you don't become digitally relevant you will become commercially irrelevant.

Q. The expectation is that Ireland will have a period of strong growth when the Covid restrictions are eased as the year progresses. How optimistic are you that we will experience a strong recovery?
A. I am optimistic. Economists talk about 'pent up demand' as a positive market force and there is some serious pent-up demand right now. The savings behaviour of citizens is also evidence that there is money to spend. So, this economic crash is very different to the one we experienced in 2008. But what is vital is that businesses reorient themselves for the Digital Age. Those that don't will not survive. Those that do will come back stronger and will have set themselves up for the next decade. Each year in Ireland over 250 billion euro is spent online - but most of this leaves the country. Plus, when we trade online, we open our virtual shop to global marketing.

Q. Education is key to the success of developing an economy. Do you feel that there are sufficient courses and programmes that are easily accessible for sufficient numbers to embrace and learn from?
A. welcome the appointment of Minister Harris in a new Government Department focusing on Higher Education and Science and Research. This sector was in with Education but warrants its own portfolio. Minister Harries also recently launched a Digital Literacy Strategy and invested significantly in the Skillnet sector which has also got a digital-first approach. It's great to see this foresight and recognition that we need to upskill everyone in society to help bolster our economy but more than that to begin to develop new industries.

Q. If you had a cash windfall of €100 million to allocate for infrastructure projects in your native Donegal, what would be your priority areas of expenditure?
A. Digital connectivity in every household, school, and community group; digital hubs to promote solopreneurs and digital nomads; a digital skills university to upskill the entire county (every age) and a train line from Donegal to each of the four major cities and finally grant the N2/A5. But wait that wouldn't cover the bill, would it?

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