5 Questions to Guide Web Strategy Sessions

Web strategy and digital-related activities at most organizations are steadily increasing in visibility, importance, and complexity. This statement alone isn’t newsworthy, but the reality is that digital - as a category - is no longer segregated to marketing or IT, or considered a ‘nice-to-have’. On the contrary, web-related implications have roared into most corners of the enterprise - throughout sales, customer service, and operations - as a top three priority item. Indeed, just when one area of the organization has been successfully web-enabled, another requires immediate attention, in a seemingly never-ending cycle.

While the interactive industry is indeed moving fast and digital tactics and strategies are becoming more complicated and high-profile, core guiding principles can be tricky to identify. But they do exist, and can and should can be used to guide web strategy exercises. To facilitate planning sessions, we at ECC have organized the following five questions for CEOs to use to direct their web strategy conversations with executive teams.

1. Which term best describes the company’s web strategy philosophy: market-leading, market-level, or laggard? At face value, this may seem like a belligerent question. It’s not. And, there’s no right or wrong answer. As meaningful and important as ‘digital’ is to most companies these days, it rarely plays a leading-man role (as it does with a handful of companies such as eBay, Amazon, and Overstock), and even the most progressive organizations lag in some areas when it comes to web-enablement.

Starbucks has weaved digital into its business aggressively and meaningfully in recent years, with a sophisticated web presence and user-friendly high speed access at most locations. Dunkin’ Donuts, on the other hand - not so much. But both companies are successful by most standards. And Dunkin’ Donuts appears to be steadily becoming more web-savvy.

No matter your industry, digital almost always justifies meaningful attention, and decisions need to be made about exactly how much focus and resources it deserves, as well as in which specific areas of the enterprise. This challenge is not unlike what executives must address regularly in other important functional areas such as HR, IT, and finance (though, they likely inherited proven playbooks from prior managers in more established functional areas - a huge difference when it comes to planning activities).

Prioritizing specific tasks will help, as will the understanding that you’re not going to be a heavy adopter in every area of the business. Your web-based face-to-the-world may be deemed paramount, as it will impact brand value, lead flow, and ability to attract talent, and will command a big portion of the budget in the short term as a result; other areas such as social media and mobile may not be as critical. Select a philosophy, evaluate options, design a 3-year plan, and budget accordingly. If you don’t pick a direction and develop a plan, it might be too late when you finally get around to it.

     “Lead, follow, or get out of the way.”

               - Thomas Paine

2. What web analytics data are you currently capturing and monitoring regularly? If you don’t measure it, it may as well not exist; this is not unique to digital activities. With that perspective as a backdrop, there are several points to keep top-of-mind when it comes to web analytics: 1) Don’t believe every data point you see, as - in our experience - only about 80% of data points are reliable; 2) Prepare for data overload and a steep learning curve, as the availability of metrics and measurement techniques is limitless in the digital realm; and 3) Know that useful web stats for the silent majority of executive planners doesn’t require regression analysis or probability theory, but rather straightforward assessment and linear comparisons.

Key statistics that you want to be aware of: website usage, digital ad spending, competitor market penetration and levels of awareness, and web infrastructure investment. A full-scale digital strategy audit can get you the core basket of data you need, but it’s not absolutely necessary. Just know that many companies are allocating as much as 20% of their entire budgets to web-oriented activities, and that percentage of investment is only going to increase in the coming years. The digital train has left the station.

If you’re currently flying blind, remember that you’ve gotta start somewhere, and getting started with web analytics doesn’t have to cost much. Your benchmark can be against your own organization’s prior month or quarter, or a loosely relevant case study that’s available in the public domain. Remember all of this ‘digital stuff’ is moving fast, and few performance indicators are widely agreed upon. So jam a stake in the ground and get measuring.  

     “Most people use statistics the way a drunkard uses a lamp post, more for support
      than illumination.” 

                    - Mark Twain (as refernced in a ClickZ article on analytics)

3. How is the company’s website traffic and usage trending? Heavy-duty (and hubristic) digital marketers will scoff at this question and remark “That perspective is so 2007”, but it’s my experience as a practioner in the field that more often than not, companies don’t have a sound handle on basic metrics such as site traffic, time on site, and conversions. And for 95% of companies, there’s no excuse these days for usage to be trending anywhere other than up — more people are getting online every day, those who are already online are becoming heavier users, and digital marketing promotional activities should be driving increased traffic and usage. If numbers are headed in the wrong direction, there’s likely a ready explanation and a quick fix. If your team isn’t prepared to have this conversation with a day or less of preparation, take notice — it should be regarded as a serious concern.

     “No great marketing decisions have ever been made on qualitative data.”

              - John Scully (former CEO - PepsiCo, Apple)

4. When considered from a digital strategy perspective, what are the top 3 organizational strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats? Yup, that’s right - a S.W.O.T. analysis. Rudimentary, perhaps, but it should be conducted regularly, especially when it comes to digital tactics because the pace of change is so swift due to the enormous level of private equity funding flowing into the sector. And, as with most of the recommendations in this article, preparing a SWOT analysis doesn’t need to be prohibitively time-consuming.

Think about how cool your organization looks on the web - or not. (Yes, looking ‘cool’ is an advantage - even if you head up a law or accounting firm.) Consider Mac-Gray’s LaundryView as a beacon of a how a classic brick-and-mortar company can employ web strategy creatively for game-changing success. Conversely, consider how archaic the online banking system provided TD Bank is, and how it impacts customer satisfaction and new customer acquisition; unfortunately for TD Bank, overhauling a complex online system is a serious undertaking.

Every organization has its strengths and weaknesses, and it’s no different when thinking about digital-enablement. No two companies have identical strategies, and those same two companies are likely over-acheiving in some areas and under-acheiving in others. Job one for the strategic planner is to conduct the analysis and create a model for evaluation and prioritization. By stepping back and taking an objective look at how your company is using web tactics to move the business forward, you’re likely to feel both enthusiastic and nauseous about the situation.

     “Lake Wobegon is a town where ‘all the women are strong, all the men are good
      looking, and all the children are above average.’”

          - Garrison Keillor (author & humorist, commenting on the human condition)

5. What is the company’s digital budget, and how does it compare to direct competitors, the marketplace, and best-practice organizations? As is the case with most of the major professional sports team in the U.S., spending statistics on digital initiavites and marketing in general are either easily accessible or readily available through market research and modeling. Conducting planning activities within the context of competitor spending is not only a responsible way of pursuing strategy, but can also illuminate golden opportunities in unlikely areas.

Most successful companies spend a fortune on marketing, and with good reason — it generates awareness, supports perceived leadership, provides peace-of-mind, and educates buyers on new technologies and methods. But we also know that the simple act of spending - on marketing, R&D, payroll, etc. - doesn’t guarantee success. Consider a baseball example from last season: the Tampa Bay Rays spent $41 million on payroll while the Boston Red Sox dished out $161 million, and TB made the playoffs, and the Red Sox did not. However, conversely, also consider that only two teams in the past 20 years have won the World Series with a payroll outside of the top 10. The same basic premise holds true across industry; the largest and deepest-pocketed companies can often remain on top through sheer size and brute force - but they’re always going to be vulnerable is targeted areas.

The analytical aspect of strategic planning - that is, determining how to allocate scare resources for competitive advantage and success - can illuminate valuable pockets of opportunity in the form of new ways to market, deliver products or services, or new product development. The advent of the digital age has made access to information and research much easier and more cost-effective, and can facilitate confident decision-making. But you can’t work the research into the planning if you don’t go out and get it. 

     “I need more money.”

     “We’re not New York. Find players with the money that we do have.”

          - Billy Beane in Moneyball, and the Oakland A’s owner’s response.

     “In guerrilla warfare, you try to use your weaknesses as strengths…if they’re
     big and you’re small, then you’re mobile and they’re slow. You’re hidden and they’re
     exposed. You only fight battles you know you can win.”

          - Detective Lt. Walter Brill, Enemy of the State


For more information on how East Coast Catalyst's capabilities in digital strategy, marketing and media audits, and digital optimization solutions, contact Tim Bourgeois at 617-314-6400 or tbourgeois(a)eastcoastcatalyst.com.