The Baggage of Long-Term Digital Experience

Starting your digital strategy from scratch is, in some ways, a far easier thing to do than to continue to productively plan, optimize, and enhance an ongoing program. However, not many businesses are in possession of a clean slate anymore. The number of those who have yet to enter the digital marketing game in at least some fashion is clearly dwindling both because, over time, many have recognized the efficacy of the various interactive channels and because some percentage didn’t and may not be here to compete anymore. New businesses and new-to-digital businesses have a unique opportunity to craft and hold to a digital marketing strategy that is devoid of the baggage that comes with experience.

We often tout the advantage of digital history and experience. Digital marketing history and performance data can tell you a lot about what works for what goals with what audiences at what cost in what circumstances at a particular point in time. It’s a backwards-looking snapshot of the opportunities and competitive situation of that moment and doesn’t tell you if you maximized those opportunities even if you are meeting your stated goals. The incremental optimizations within channels and across channels, on site and off are the everyday chances to test your programs and to bring them closer to your ideal. The problem is that all programs, especially successful programs, bring their own baggage. If you’re not diligent, success can weigh down your digital programs, making them sluggish and plodding. Eventually, probably quickly, you will end up with a less competitive and less effective program.

Here are some things to watch out for:

  • Inertia. Long-term programs of any sort gather a kind of inertia that can be hard to break. If you have found a winning formula that makes the top brass and perhaps your shareholders happy and comfortable, it might be difficult to get buy-in for change of any sort to test new channels or approaches. It won’t take long for you to fall far behind in the fast-changing landscape of digital marketing if you stick to the same approach quarter after quarter. In this case, risk aversion is risky.Solutions: Keep your proven winners, but always maintain a test budget that can be applied to new technologies or approaches. Test programs should always have learning objectives first and revenue objectives second. Any new information gleaned should be shared and reviewed in the light of all the marketing you’re doing online and off to help make all programs stronger.

    Continue to make small incremental shifts and changes within those winning programs. Test new messaging or creative, optimize your landing pages, and try a new vendor, new pricing model, or a new audience segment.

    Challenge yourself to continually beat (not just meet) prior performance to avoid stagnation. Similarly, challenge your partners and vendors and avoid long-term commitments that lock you in without performance assurances or reasonable out clauses.

  • Broken clock syndrome. Your audience, competitors, and the environment in which you compete are all in a constant state of flux. Assuming that your proven program can remain constant while the world keeps on spinning is not rational or productive. You need to stay ahead of the changes that will impact your business performance. It’s exhausting, but necessary.Solutions: Outline trends in audience and customers (especially new customers), competitive spend, and programs at least every six months or more often if your audience, industry, or segment are particularly dynamic. Look at those trends next to the changes evidenced (or not) in your programs.

    Do a regular internal review of all programs every six months or well in advance of any high seasons and make sure that the trend information you’ve gathered is explicitly addressed. Get a range of recommendations that reflect different assumptions and cover different time horizons. There are many ways to accomplish this depending on your circumstance. Often by asking for a low, medium, or high risk or conservative and aggressive recommendations accompanied by a full rationale, you can get what you need. You could ask your team to make two sets of recommendations – one that would be blind to the existing history of results (the clean slate set) and the other with that historical performance knowledge as its basis. If you have the luxury, you could split your team into two and have each team make their recommendation based on different information sets and assumptions. The point is to state clear goals and challenge the assumptions to keep your team focused on continual improvement.

Using periodic external audits to get a non-biased but expert opinion can be another good way to shake up the current state and avoid gridlock in your thinking. Often a leadership change occasions such a fresh look, which may partly explain why CMO tenure is reported at an average of 18 months. I’m afraid that’s not often enough for most businesses to exercise their change muscles in digital marketing. While we continue to value and mine the information available from historical performance, we need to also recognize that historical performance data is necessary but not sufficient in itself to fuel our strategy. We must continue to look and plan forward, not backward, if we are to succeed.

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