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Why You Shouldn’t Leave the Web to the Web Guys

2010 July 7

These days, everyone is struggling to catch up on digital marketing.  In the rush, too much of the thinking is often left to impressive  young webbies who seem to know a lot about all of the hubbub.

Your business on the web is far too important to leave to a bunch of technobabble.  What’s more, in their quest to show off their dazzling skills, the webbies often forget that your digital strategy needs to fit into overall strategy.  The result is usually wasted money and missed opportunities.

Here are a few simple rules that will help you get the most out of your web development and digital strategy.

Usability before Design

The most important thing about your web site is how people will use it.  Before you are shown any snappy graphics, you should insist on a functional, clickable model of your web project.

It should give you a basic idea of what your web project will look like, but mostly focus on how users will interact with it.  You can concentrate on design elements later.  This will help you concentrate on what’s important – how users will understand what the hell you expect them to actually do (as opposed to showing off some cool eye candy).

Usability guru Jakob Nielsen (he’s to usability what Kotler is to marketing) has what is probably the world’s ugliest site.  Nevertheless, it is highly popular and extremely valuable (which I believe is part of his point).

You should also conduct ongoing usability testing to ensure that users are getting as much value out of the web site as possible.  Here’s a useful and easy to understand guide that will help get you started.

Clarity before Creativity

One of the hardest parts of forming a digital strategy is that not only are there a dizzying array of options, but new and exciting things are coming out all the time (even though we still don’t really understand the old stuff).  Everybody feels like they are getting left behind.

However, like anything else, the most important part of your digital strategy is that everybody understands it – both internally and externally.  Marketers, in their misguided quest to be different, often forget this simple rule and it’s even worse with digital marketers.

On the web, originality is the original sin.  You should always follow web conventions (i.e. logo and home page link on the top left) unless you have a very good reason not to.  Conventional design and functionality allow people to use your site easily without a steep learning curve.

That doesn’t mean that you should never do anything new and different, just that when you do the reasoning should be clear and compelling.

And, please…kill the flash intros!

Use the Simplest Tech that Can Get the Job Done

Mathematicians have a great rule which says that you should always use the simplest model that explains the data.  The concept is just as important in digital strategy.

Technology moves fast, but people change slowly.  Humans, by nature, form habits that we are loathe to alter.  If you are hearing about technology for the first time, you probably shouldn’t use it.   New tech is often full of bugs and there is usually a shortage of people who know how to deploy it properly.

The web was designed to be scalable, so it’s usually easy to upgrade later if the new tech is really that important.  If the old stuff works, go ahead and use it.

Iterate

All too often, people start their digital strategy with big plans:  A new web site with lots of features, a complex new social media initiative that will engage consumers as never before, etc.  What usually happens is that after the initial excitement, the big proposal gets bogged down in internal squabbles, technical glitches and other problems.

I have found an easy way to solve this problem – roll out your strategy in stages.  Start with something so simple that you can’t screw it up.  Then you can build in complexity.  A stupid strategy that is well executed will outperform a smart one that is overly complex.

As for social media, the strength of a network comes from building tight communities, not massive reach.  So starting off with just one or two social media channels is perfectly viable.  You can always add more later on.

By starting simple instead of launching a massive initiative that you think will solve all of your problems, you are more likely to encounter small issues that are easy to deal with rather than massive problems that will kill your initiative.

It’s much better to launch three 2-month projects that build on each other than to go for a six month project that might never get done.

Your Web Site is a Starting Point, not a Finish Line

Most probably your digital strategy has very little to do with digital and everything to do with your business.  You might want to get more customers, engage them more, service them better, and so on.  That means that it will need to work well with your existing personnel and processes directed at the same goals.

The problem with many digital people is that they don’t know anything about your business.  What’s more, they usually don’t care.  What they want is to impress other digital people and are not much concerned with how your digital strategy fits in with everything else you’re doing.

So don’t leave your web strategy to web people.  You know your business and where you want to take it.  It is their job to fit into your process, not your job to fit into theirs.

And don’t let them forget it.

–          Greg

19 Responses leave one →
  1. July 8, 2010

    Well said, Greg, and thanks for a nice reality check!

    Lucky for me it came on the same day as a rather devastating review of my start-up as far as design goes – by some young webbies! 🙂

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    Arne,

    Thanks, I’m glad it was helpful. Best of luck with http://www.world4brains.com/

    – Greg

    [Reply]

  2. Katya Voropayeva permalink*
    July 8, 2010

    Excellent point. Sometimes web people really forget that they are building web sites for the sake of business and not for the sake of building them.

    I would also put quality content in the same line with usability.

    – Katya

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    You’re right about content, but that’s a least one thing that we can’t blame the developers for:-)

    – Greg

    [Reply]

  3. Robert Neuschul permalink
    July 8, 2010

    Greg

    There is a site – which shall remain nameless – which was effectively taken over by marketing webbies who were infected with the cool and bling viruses.

    What had been a perfectly functional site became a poorly designed database-driven fragile and complex nightmare that was close to unusable for end users, whilst also being exceedingly difficult to edit or update thanks to excessive reliance on poor [incompetent] implementations of flash and other presentation technologies. Given that the organisation was a serious semi-academic vertical market research operation, delivering extremely well researched and detailed papers [and bookings for in-house conferences], at fairly high prices, to C Level executives a cool and bling web site was probably the last thing they needed.

    In themselves such front-end changes don’t mean all that much, but behind the scenes these changes and the poor business logic behind them had significant and entirely unplanned impacts which hit them hard: suddenly their sales and customer data were being stored directly on the web server back-end with little or no security, whilst the volume of emails passing through the organisation’s internal servers quadrupled within one month from launch, whilst the site content was not being handled through a revision/version control system – which meant no audit trails and a vast explosion in the number of documents stored on the LAN – with no way of tracking and managing anything and with no meaningful sign-off procedures.

    The organisation wasted more than 6 months and a lot of money on having this system developed by third party web techies who were – effectively – given carte blanche to do what they liked: the marketing manager basically accepted every new idea that was presented by their contractor, without ever asking questions or considering implications and costs. Within three months they had to throw the entire system away and start again.

    A near-perfect example of why change management and planning are just as important in web implementations as they are everywhere else. It illustrates a significant part of your point.

    Keep hitting them where it hurts Greg 🙂

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    Robert,

    Thanks. As always, your insight is very valuable.

    (For the less technically adept,I think Robert’s point is that just because somebody knows a lot about the current marketing buzz words, it doesn’t mean that they have the first clue about back-end issues that could kill your project. Make sure that you have someone internally that is capable of overseeing technical specifications).

    – Greg

    [Reply]

    Robert Neuschul Reply:

    Greg

    Thanks for demystifying my techie jargon 🙂
    I need to remember that your primary audience is marketing and marketing people and not techies – I spend too many hours a day talking tech 🙂

    Basically yes: there’s no point [and some significant dangers] in considering or implementing the latest whizz-bang tech and design at the front end unless you’ve also done the full whole-business impact and cost/benefit analyses.
    The key point in my message was that the web isn’t _just_ a marketing medium, it’s also a technology platform – one that needs to be fully integrated with all of the rest of the business’s strategy and IT.
    If one doesn’t have a suitable IT person in-house then find a friendly and competent consultant to do a sanity check before making major changes: hearing other and disinterested/balanced points of view are a key to success.

    Robert

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    Robert,

    Thanks for the clarification.

    Btw. My tech people were always against using open source for security reasons (and we had some serious security problems because of open source components). However, at this point I think that unless a company has an internal technical team that is doing ongoing maintenance, you’re much better off with a big open source community like WordPress, Drupal or Joomla. If you keep up with the updates, it should be much more secure than a proprietary system that is not properly maintained.

    What do you think?

    – Greg

    Robert Neuschul Reply:

    Greg

    Phew: big big question. Puts techie hat back on again 🙂

    I’ll take the view that OSS tools are no more insecure than any other type of toolset: security doesn’t automatically or inherently lie in products or software. Security is a state of mind and an ongoing process. Good security online comes from the specific implementation by people who understand what they are deploying and how to deploy it.

    It’s perfectly possible to build and deploy secure OSS tools: and there are plenty of those on which the entire foundation of the internet currently rests – the Berkley Database is a case in point – it’s the foundation on which the vast majority of the internet routers and routing tables are built – you wouldn’t be reading this message if that software wasn’t secure, stable and resilient – and very very efficient. Apache is another good example of an OSS product suite which has security capabilities properly designed and built in, and which drives a majority of internet web sites, but which is also capable of being deployed very badly and insecurely by incompetent fools who believe they know what they’re doing but don’t.
    Myself, I know enough security to know when to leave it to specialists, and when I can get away with doing it myself.

    Read Bruce Schneier’s regular monthly Cryptogram newsletter for ongoing analysis of how too many people make this mistake and confuse the goals and the tools with the process and the thinking: we even have a term for that now – The Theatre of Security. It’s a very common phenomenon in government and amongst too many global enterprises to talk about security that’s visible [we must be seen to be doing security stuff] without understanding what security actually is, let alone how to achieve it: even the Homeland Security Acts and their implementations are mostly about theatre and not about real security.

    As for so-called OSS CMS tools – there’s two key points to make;

    1] they aren’t CMS tools: at best they’re WCMFs – web content management frameworks.
    A real content management system handles _ALL_ kinds of content within a properly managed version control and metadata environment. A real CMS is about and for managing all of your intellectual property and content in a compliant and auditable manner: it’s the architecture that underpins your enterprise’s knowledge management and most if not all of its service processes.

    WordPress – for example – doesn’t handle image versioning or pdf versioning, or MS Word document audit trails – and certainly doesn’t comprehend things like sub-rights assignments [permissions and authorities], and has no real mechanisms for handling anything that isn’t “web” content.

    2] the underlying architectures of Joomla/Drupal/WP et al are not inherently secure; they’re not natively designed to assist and enable security in any real sense. It’s a “good enough” approach that works more or less OK for many people who, as a community, have created the mythology of the all singing all dancing one size fits all CMS. That doesn’t make them correct: this is one very specific case where the wisdom of crowds is stupid; and wrong.

    If a business wants to make such a CMS site relatively more secure than the native platform permits then that will require making use of the add-on architecture to do so [or hacking the underlying code], and that add-on architecture is itself one of the flaws in the underlying systems architecture and in its security “thinking”.

    For some purposes such systems can, with care, deliver adequate [not good, adequate] security, but if one were attempting to deliver a high-security solution for online high-value shopping, or the exchange of sensitive high-security information between members or subscribers then such CMS tools are probably not the correct starting point. However there’s no guarantee that a proprietary system would be any better: like all tool selection issues [and all web design processes] one starts with the requirements specification – what do we need to achieve. Only when we have that clear can we move forward to discussions of how we’re going to implement the steps and processes by selecting the best-fit tools.

    In very simple terms the specification gives you a check list of the things you need to achieve – including the type and nature of any securities, and thus the things you will need the tools to deliver. Starting from the tool end of the process – before one knows what one is seeking to achieve and deliver – is often a recipe for disaster, or for huge wasted expenditure.

    **********

    Is an OSS system that’s up to date better than a proprietary system that’s not properly maintained? That’s a question which isn’t amenable to a useful general answer; properly, one can only examine [and answer for] specific cases.

    Proprietary systems are not – at least by virtue of _being_ proprietary – automatically or inherently better or more secure or more robust or resilient than any OSS solution. Or any worse.

    Now, let’s get back to marketing 🙂

    Robert

    Greg Reply:

    Thanks, Robert. That was very helpful.

    – Greg

  4. July 9, 2010

    Greg, well said indeed. I do have to point out though, ( as a graphic designer ), I know that on the webbies side it isn’t always “let’s make some really cool stuff” attitudes. They have standards and compliances. That being said, the client is just as responsible for making sure the developers understand what it is they want the site / application to do for them. The developers need to reach out and ask about the strategies of the client as well, but in most cases they receive an answer like, “That is why we are paying you, come up with something.” I know in the world of my skill set ( print and illustration ), 97% of my time is spent trying to educate the client on things the should have already thought about before contacting me. For example, I had a client just the other day call me up and say, “I need a postcard.” , that was the extent of the input I received. Of course I can start building that postcard, but it wouldn’t do them much good. So I contacted the client, asked what the postcard was going to be used for and what they would like for content. ” I don’t know, think of something cool we can send to customers that will drive business. ” was the answer I received. I think this could be a see-saw sort of conversation if you start talking to the webbies.

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    Mike,

    Of course, you’re right. In a briefing process both sides have a responsibility.

    Part of my point was to admonish business side people who aren’t active enough. Sorry if that got lost amid all of my bitching about incompetent developers.

    – Greg

    [Reply]

    Robert Neuschul Reply:

    Mike

    I soooo sympathise: I have a few spare T-Shirts.

    If it helps, one of the wisest pieces of advice I ever received some 30+ years ago from a senior partner at Ernst & Young was “Freely give away the most valuable things you know, because the customer won’t value them or pay for them, but do charge them highly for the things they do value. By the time the customer learns the value of what you freely gave them, they’ll be bashing your door down for more. It’s the secret to long-term repeat business.”

    So far, I’ve not found him to be wrong 🙂

    Robert

    [Reply]

  5. Cheryl Howard permalink
    July 15, 2010

    This spring I assigned my advanced marketing class with developing a marketing plan for a local small computer business. They aggressively pushed for the owner to pay for a “cool” looking web site rather than the one he had. However, when he asks new clients why they called him, several said they found his web site and liked it. It was plain; no flash, no jazz. It also was easy to read and understand, and focused on what new clients wanted to see: prices, customer service, and free set up with delivery. The kids meant well, but that recommendation didn’t impress him. (However, they recommended that he start a Facebook site to talk to ongoing clients, and he has done so.)

    Keep up the good work!

    Cheryl

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    Cheryl,

    Great story! Thanks.

    – Greg

    [Reply]

  6. July 19, 2010

    Great post. I particularly like the bantor on LinkedIn (nice response to smart ass webbie).

    I recently was the Direector of Business Development for an online marketing firm. They were incredibly talented but struggled with thinking strategically for clients beyond the online space.

    It’s one reason why I am going into marketing consulting. There’s such emphasis in the online space but the “experts” cannot connect with the clients.

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    Steve,

    I feel ya. One of the things that people overlook about online marketing is that it lacks the interfaces that were built up over decades with more traditional media.

    In so-called “old media” everybody knows their role and there is tons of accumulated wisdom that can be drawn on. Online, things need to be worked out as you go. Agile is promising, but still too programmer centric.

    Good luck!

    – Greg

    [Reply]

  7. The Media Fairy permalink
    August 29, 2010

    Fortunately for me, website developers are seldom also good copywriters, so I get plenty of work proofreading, editing and (re)writing content. Techies are so focused on showing off the bells and whistles, they forget the most important function for your site to perform is to get to the point. If visitors must struggle to find the information they seek, they will quickly go elsewhere. Clean, uncluttered design, ease-of-use and smooth navigation may not be what your web developer wants to build, but it’s what your customers will prefer to use.

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    Thanks Media Fairy! Absolutely true (although some techies are quite usability focused).

    – Greg

    [Reply]

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