Warning: This is about as foo-foo as I’ll probably ever get on this blog. I’ve been inspired by all of the people ripping off the “12 Rules” concept from Jordan Peterson, so I figured this was a good opportunity to outline some of the lessons I’ve learned in my 20+ years in the digital space, no matter how small and trivial or large and debatable they may be.
If you’ve been reading this blog regularly, you’ve probably seen me mention all of these things at one point or another. But I’ve never really reviewed them all in one place, at one time, so I hope you get some value from this.
Originally, I debated what I wanted to call this post. I toyed with the term “12 rules for digital maturity,” but I didn’t want to offend anyone who disagreed with me or who didn’t follow these rules in the past. I considered “digital awareness” too, but it seemed even more philosophical than most people expect on a technical blog like this.
With all of that said, let’s get to it.
In no particular order, here are my 12 rules for digital marketers:
- Credibility is the ultimate conversion tool.
- Projects end, but your property’s evolution doesn’t.
- No CMS does everything you want.
- Open-source isn’t free.
- IT and marketing rarely see eye-to-eye.
- You need help.
- Design is subjective; results are not.
- You need a post-deployment content strategy.
- It’s hard to commoditize thinking.
- Always budget for pivots.
- Have an escalation plan.
- Stay up to date.
Rule 1: Credibility is the ultimate conversion tool.
This is kind of a no brainer, right? Still, so many people forget this rule on a regular basis.
While these rules appear in no particular order, as I stated above, this is the one exception. This is the number one rule for digital marketers. You must instill a sense of credibility for your organization within seconds of contact with a user. Then you must continually reinforce it.
Within a couple of seconds on a first visit, a user will form their impression of your company. That impression will lead them to do one of two things: leave or stick around and search for reasons to leave. As you well may know, it’s hard to convert a user from an anonymous browser to a lead. In fact, you are doing really well if you convert 3-5% of your visitors.
Why are the internet and its users so fickle?
Well, the medium has allowed them to be. Back in the day, if you wanted to go shopping for, say, an appliance, you would go to the appliance store. There wouldn’t be many around, so you wouldn’t necessarily judge the store based on looks alone. This is the first behavior that the internet has changed—users can now leave your “store” in a split second if they don’t care for the look or feel. Therefore, how well your site is designed plays a huge role in your credibility.
The internet has made it much easier for users to find your competitors and go with them instead. Google has created a billion-dollar enterprise solely on this concept. They make it simple to find you, but they make it simple to leave you too. Any business that has competition has to take the concept of credibility seriously.
I like to think about credibility having three prongs.
- First, you have how your company looks in a vacuum, compared to no one. Does your site look the part of a trustworthy business partner?
- Secondly, credibility is established in comparison to your competitors. How does your site behave, look, and feel compared to those who can almost immediately take your customers away from you?
- Finally, there is how you stack up within the bigger picture. How does your site compare to your industry or the internet in general?
These three pillars of credibility will ultimately determine your success.
“Digital credibility,” as I define it, is a pretty loose term without any quantitative benchmark or capability to be analyzed. It’s a look, it’s a feel, it’s an experience. Either you know what it is or you don’t. And it matters greatly to your customers, who are savvier than ever before and will be making judgments about you quickly.
Take it seriously, and always use it as Rule #1 in any digital project or initiative. “Will this project enhance or diminish our company’s digital credibility?” Always ask yourself this question.
Rule 2: Projects end, but your property’s evolution doesn’t.
Surely you have heard me mention the term “kaizen” before, right? This is the Japanese term for continuous improvement. The Japanese are so devoted to the concept that they have a single word for it.
Wikipedia defines kaizen as “activities that continuously improve all functions and involve all employees from the CEO to the assembly line workers.” This applies directly to almost every digital project with the exception of video production and other deliverables that are created and distributed once.
You need to understand before undertaking a web, app, or other software project that the project may end, but the evolution of the resulting property does not. Digital properties are living, breathing things that require nurturing, analysis, and amendment as time goes on.
This type of improvement happens for two reasons. First, software rots much like fruit in the refrigerator. You need to keep software up to date and make enhancements for the purposes of security, scalability, and stability throughout its lifecycle. Secondly and perhaps more importantly, you need to establish a campaign of continuous improvement for the purposes of enhancing the reason you built the property in the first place.
For many of you, this means better marketing, conversion rate optimization, and ongoing marketing initiatives. For others, it may mean continuously updating your product so as to offer new features for customers or other enhancements.
The good news is that the digital medium is primed for experimentation. You don’t need to kill yourself to test changes and amend as necessary based on statistical evidence. Your changes can be small, precise, and targeted. Treating them as experiments makes the entire process more fun and a little less risky.
So, understand this rule as hard and fast, and commit yourself to the process of improvements from the first day of your project. Don’t get hung up on getting your project perfect. Done is better than perfect—even if the definition of “done” is a moving target!
Rule 3: No CMS does everything you want.
Since we spend so much time talking about CMSs on this blog, perhaps it’s time to unload on the industry in general with another rule that will disappoint many.
The fact is, no CMS will do everything you want. No system can ever provide 100% feature coverage. And those that get close will most likely get that far through the use of various hacks, plugins, and extensions.
The CMS space is kind of broken, and there are a lot of unfulfilled promises.
The best advice I can give when procuring a CMS and building out a content project is to understand the above rule and prepare for it by understanding where the shortcomings are within any particular platform, as well as how you can deal with it. The sad truth is that no CMS vendor will ever tell you the areas of concern where their platform may fail. In fact, you may not even know it until your project is in progress or already completed. But trust me when I tell you, you’ll never get 100% of what you want.
The only possible way to get very close is to build out your CMS from scratch. We do a lot of custom CMS build-outs. However, even in those cases, clients continually have to make sacrifices. Usually, it’s because of budgetary reasons. But sometimes, it’s because a request just cannot be fulfilled.
So, do yourself a favor and trust me—no CMS does everything, and any one that promises to do so should be studied very carefully because it means someone isn’t being honest.
Rule 4: Open-source isn’t free.
I chuckle when people point to using WordPress or Drupal because it’s free.
Trust me, nothing is free.
Open-source software can cost you just as much as licensed software in the long run. I’ve written about WordPress as an example before, highlighting what it costs to actually run WP in an enterprise environment. Spoiler alert: it isn’t cheap. The platform has security flaws, scalability issues, and other reasons that cause your bill to skyrocket as time goes on.
I’d be willing to concede that open-source platforms are definitely cheaper than commercial options to implement. But the extent of savings is hard to predict given that there will be time spent in other areas that, with a commercial implementation, could be avoided. It’s best to not pretend that the cost savings will be significant, and instead budget accordingly.
By the way, when it comes to budgeting, I believe it’s best to budget for ongoing maintenance very carefully with open-source platforms. They need monitoring, uptime support, and updates performed regularly. I’d even say that the number and frequency of updates on open-source software are higher than commercial, which will cost more in the long run as well.
Rule 5: IT and marketing rarely see eye-to-eye.
I have yet to see an organization where IT and the marketing team see eye-to-eye when it comes to the conducting of business in the digital space. I’m definitely prepared to call this a hard and fast rule. The only exception is when one of the parties acquiesces to the other in frustration, essentially giving up.
I’m not going to indict either side here in the court of bad behavior. In fact, it is usually just people doing what they are supposed to do within their job function that results in the animosity. IT teams are dedicated to process; they are risk-averse and careful planners. Marketers are much more agile, prone to take risks, and a bit more prone to break protocol to accomplish a task.
No wonder these folks can’t all get along all the time!
There are solutions, however. First, marketing is taking on more and more digital work, including production and procuring technology. In fact, it’s predicted that marketers will spend more money on technology than their IT counterparts in the near future. IT’s willingness to decouple from digital means marketing can own this environment and free themselves up to run things as they choose.
Secondly, if IT refuses to remove themselves from the equation, you can allow for oversight or project management of digital maintenance. I’ve seen both approaches work.
However, I’ve not seen successful marketing growth in situations where IT is unable to hand some level of control over to marketing. In fact, I have seen several companies lose out on significant marketing ROI because they are held back by archaic IT requirements. Nothing frustrates me more than that scenario, which I see multiple times per year.
Come on, people!
Rule 6: You need help.
I honestly believe every marketing team needs outside help from an agency or consultant, even if they have taken all of their production work in-house. I don’t care if you are a multinational corporation, a mom-and-pop shop, or some other entity—if you have in-house resources working on your digital presence, you absolutely need outside eyes on your initiatives.
Why? Well, first, you may be missing the obvious. It’s easy to miss out on simple things because you are too invested at a deep level. It happens all the time.
Secondly, you have to be honest about the amount of exposure you and your team have to best practices. If you are managing one or two domains in-house, you are missing out on tons of opportunities that exist as the market is changing all around you. An outside helper can shed some light on those areas where you may not have much insight.
Finally, outside resources can help settle arguments or directional disagreements within your team. That’s because they will settle them based on quantitative data, not just on feelings or internal politics.
I encourage all organizations to have an outside resource they can call on. If not for production work—also known as the “doing”—then get some help with the “thinking.” You’ll get more value from that type of arrangement than you may think.
One last note regarding this rule: The internet is still the Wild West. You need to carefully vet whoever is helping you. Other than some certifications that exist, there is no regulation or oversight of our industry. There is no licensure. You have to vet carefully whoever works on your project and has access to your systems. Way too many folks are getting burned by bad actors; that makes those of us who are legitimate in the industry frustrated and angry.
Tread carefully, check references, and check previous work product before engaging in any sort of relationship with an agency or consultant.
Rule 7: Design is subjective; results are not.
If I had a dollar for every prospective client that tells me they want a design that is “clean,” “open,” “easy to navigate…” Oh. My. God. I’d be retired.
The truth about this request is that it drives us crazy. You see, everyone claims they want a cutting-edge design; they want amazing design features and a completely custom user experience. They want to “move the needle,” etc. But in almost all of those conversations, the discussion around desired results never happens. Clients are, for the most part, too invested in impressions and less on performance.
It’s important to focus on the intersection of the two. I want to create a cutting-edge design that enhances company credibility (see Rule #1) while simultaneously increasing your performance metrics.
Don’t rely on an agency to define and focus on the desired results for you—you need to come in and know what statistics are important and what your goals are for the project as a whole. Agencies can help, but this is something that should be so near and dear to you as a business owner or marketer that you know the answer before we finish asking the question.
Some people may say that “results don’t matter.” They are simply confused, because even setting a positive impression is a result that can be quantified. Always focus on a new design in this order: first, what you are trying to achieve and second, how can the design look great, build credibility, and lead to the desired results.
Rule 8: You need a post-deployment content strategy.
This is often recognized at a high level, but overlooked in practice. I make sure to ask all prospective clients about this on the first call I have with them because content transition/migration can be a major undertaking.
But it doesn’t stop there. What is your ongoing strategy post-launch? Many people overlook this important step.
Before starting a project, have a plan in place for not only your content transition, but also how you plan on enhancing your content after the launch of the site. This involves both content creation, content strategy, and technical know-how. Will your team have the capacity to create content and administrate it via the CMS? Will they need training? What will they need in terms of ongoing support?
All of this must be thought through and developed early in your project, if not before it starts.
Rule 9: It’s hard to commoditize thinking.
I’ve come to recognize that the digital production business is highly commoditized. You can hire developers and designers from around the world, and the pricing can vary from $10 to $250 an hour. Crazy, right? And I do agree, it makes a lot of sense to commoditize production when the inputs are clearly defined and the outputs are easy to test, quantify, and deploy.
But you can’t commoditize thinking. It simply doesn’t work that way.
Its via thinking that most quality agencies and consultants can differentiate. My message to customers is very simple: going with the lowest bidder often involves the least thinking. The highest bidder typically has the highest depth of thinking (and connectivity to influencers).
I don’t want to pounce too hard on this point. I’d rather leave it as is and let you think about your past projects. When one of them succeeded or failed, was it in the actual production or was it flawed thinking?
Rule 10: Always budget for pivots.
Any project, whether you are rebuilding a kitchen or developing a website, requires budgetary consideration for the unknown. Assuming your project was properly architected, specified, and planned out, you will hopefully not have any major “gotchas” that can come in and totally frustrate you.
Now, I’m not asking you to prepare for budget overruns due to technical negligence. I’m asking you to budget for all the other ideas that will crop up during your review of the project and its progression from concept to reality.
I am unsure of any project we have done that didn’t result in a v1.1 or some other small iteration immediately after the final delivery of the project as specified. There are always new ideas that come to mind, better ways of doing things, or adjustment to business models. We’ve even begun offering clients the ability to budget for this with discounted, prepaid time allotments because the issue is so common in development.
Whether your developer offers this or not, you should budget internally for these unknowns—which, by the way, should be viewed as good things, not bad.
Rule 11: Have an escalation plan.
What is worse than sitting down to binge on Netflix or have a cocktail with friends on a Friday night, only to get an email from the boss saying that your company’s website is down, and if you don’t fix it, you will need alternative employment?
Whether your business is small or a Fortune500, you NEED an escalation plan. There is no downtime scenario that is pleasant. You’ll either be disturbed off-hours and forced to respond, or you’ll totally miss that something is wrong, perhaps not even finding out that your site or app was down until the next business day. Then you’ll look either incompetent, inept, or both!
And it isn’t just downtime to be afraid of. Security breaches are an entirely different animal which can not only take down your site, but take down your company as well.
Well, if you had an escalation plan, you’d still be a bit alarmed, but at least you’d know that you have a set of procedures in place to take care of the issue. The best plan starts with monitoring: not just to see if your site is up and running, but also looking at the overall health of the server. Then you need a plan of attack for when something does go wrong. Who responds? How soon? And do they have permission to contact relevant parties to resolve, even without you?
Finally, you need to know that you have resources available at a moment’s notice to resolve the issue, whether it be a system or software issue. Sometimes web hosts fill in some of these services, but not always. We always recommend finding a comprehensive partner who can help aid and assist when you need it the most, preferably 24/7/365 so you can rest assured that your expensive cocktail won’t be left half-drank at the bar.
Rule 12: Stay up to date.
As a business owner or professional marketer, it’s important for you to stay up to date on the latest trends, technologies, and industry changes. Otherwise, you’ll lose your edge to others who are more on top of the latest and greatest techniques and tools.
This isn’t easy to do—there is literally so much going on in the digital world that keeping up to date can prove quite a challenge. I was speaking to a friend in an old-world business last week who was having trouble with internal team communication. I asked if he had heard of Slack…nope! That gives me a pretty good idea how the rest of their technology and marketing initiatives are running.
There isn’t any one good trick I can share about continuing education. I think it’s a mixture of techniques that work the best for you specifically. Try to stay active on social networks such as Instagram and Twitter. I use these as examples because I feel Facebook is working hard to change how they present news and other media-based information, which results in less ability to learn about new things—unless your own network of friends is sharing these types of stories. LinkedIn, I left out too—it’s becoming very spam-driven. Everyone there is announcing new products.
I find that when I see a news item trending on Twitter or see user feedback on Instagram, it’s a good indicator of the value of a tool. In the above example, when Slack went down, Twitter went crazy—this is a great indication of how prevalent a tool is, even though the mention was during a negative moment.
It also helps greatly to put boots on the ground and attend events in your industry. I wasn’t always a fan of conferences; I am a creature of habit, and why leave the office if I can get all that info online, right? Well, truth be told, there is a massive value to in-face networking and the consumption of so much data in one place.
How can you tell if a conference was valuable? Simple: you left with pages and pages of notes, tons of ideas, and new techniques to try.
Rule 13: Just Kidding…
Hopefully, you found some insight in this post, or at least found that it reinforced what you already believed. There are countless other “rules” and ideas I had in mind, but narrowing them down to the above 12 made the most logical sense.
The fact is, the rules may vary depending on your unique company, industry, and personal situation. Not all of these might apply to you, or perhaps there are more that I missed. But the core values for successful digital marketing remain the same: credibility, agility, and a willingness to learn and ask for help.