Is best-of-breed the best choice for large firms?By Joe Walsh
August 13, 2015
Three scenarios and tips for choosing the right brand, web design, web development and marketing automation partner(s). Whom to consider, when and why.
Every business faces a broad set of challenges in our new digital marketing landscape, but none more dramatic than the shift from web 2.0 marketing to the kind of savvy, personalized and compelling brand and user experiences that users require today. Even as digital marketing matures, many firms lag behind, failing to make the most of their online presence and tools. And no wonder! Design and technology are driving forward at an ear-splitting speed. And no one, no matter how sophisticated their marketing and IT teams, knows how to integrate all the tools and agencies at their disposal (IBM 2015 CMO Survey). But what we are seeing from our most knowledgeable clients and prospects is a rapid shift from considering and hiring one provider—the “one-throat-to-choke” model—to hiring best-of-breed in each category to deliver first class results. (Note: Even hiring best-of-breed in each category can still allow “one throat to choke” with design/developers who work closely together.) Behind this dilemma is a very basic question: Is content king? Or is code? We believe this is not an either/or question but one that needs a both/and solution.
We’ve used three scenarios to illustrate your options. These aren’t the only three, but for simplicity’s sake, they’ll suffice. The scenarios are real—all from recent RFPs we’ve seen or successful engagements in which we’ve been involved.
You’re planning a full brand makeover with the website as a centerpiece of the new brand.
For any number of strategic reasons, you’re looking at the entire brand—the strategy, proposition, name, logo, tagline, colors, approach to content and all the integrated communications and campaigns currently used. Everything is in play. Since the web and other digital properties are central to everything, your old CMS is also not up to delivering the custom content and experiences of today’s vital digital brands. Leadership is likely to be heavily involved, the marketing team is all in and your tech team has a vested interest in looking sharp with well polished digital points of view to share (not to mention budget and other interests, like security). In this scenario, you need brand consulting skills, the ability to herd the big cats, as well as breakthrough design approaches and content—on and offline. Moreover, you need someone to help you choose the best CMS for you (not sell theirs). We argue you need two providers in this scenario—brand consulting/design/content experts and technology wizards.
You’re convinced the brand fundamentals are in place, but your web design and marketing automation efforts lag behind the times.
Your site is not responsive, contemporary, nor particularly compelling. Your content may also be bland, long-winded, self-centered, unpersuasive or detached from lead generation efforts. Your backend technology for the site is not archaic, just out of touch with the promise of marketing automation. Better analytics and full integration has become the Holy Grail. SEO might be a problem or an opportunity. You’re not only playing catch-up, but you’re looking to leapfrog competitors. Leadership is increasingly interested, though perhaps mostly about cost and appearances—because the cost is significant. Nevertheless, they tend to be project influencers, not drivers. Marketing and tech team members are running the show. Here you need at least two providers and, perhaps, three. Your options should include a (1) tech consultant/systems integrator who may or may not be (2) the development firm to build your site and integrate marketing automation plus (3) an accomplished web design/content specialist with serious brand extension experience.
You have no real interest in talking brand, but you know your site needs major upgrades, including becoming mobile-friendly or responsive.
Moreover, the content is lackluster (bad bio photos, no video, all words, no information graphics). But you like and have significant investment in your current CMS and developer whose design and content skills are passable, but not optimal.
By definition in Scenario Three, you’re talking, or should be talking to two providers. We suspect you’re beginning to see our point. Each scenario begs the question, “Which firm(s) do I invite to propose on my project?” Until roughly a year ago—and even now—many clients and prospects have reflexively reached out to find a single firm to deliver the complete solution for their particular scenario. We believe that is a mistake. Brand, web design and compelling content are disciplines far different than development and technology disciplines. In the past two years, they have grown far apart even as they also intersect in user interface and user experience design.
In 2012, Greenfield/Belser produced a piece of secondary marketing research called The Marketing Ecosystem, plotting all the technologies of every variety—CMS, CRM, social distribution, proposal generation, etc. As the IBM CMO Survey proved, marketing executives and their IT colleagues are still struggling to understand how everything should work together. Shortly thereafter, enterprise-level marketing software such as Sitecore, Drupal, SDL Tridion and other platforms provided an integrated answer to a complex ecosystem for large businesses.
We saw the handwriting on the wall. Greenfield/Belser shifted our web design and development approach from a proprietary CMS to a model that is technology agnostic. We developed partnerships with great tech-based development firms. We believe best-of-breed design and content will not be found under the same roof as best-of-breed technology and analytics. It won’t happen. The major exception to the rule is smaller firms whose technology demands and digital marketing programs will never be as complex. For the larger firms, the best-of-breed manifesto reads like this:
1. A brand position can differentiate the firm in the abstract, but a brand position must be realized through the digital experience.
Research indicates people draw conclusions about the quality of a firm's website in 1/20th of a second! That's reptilian brain—an autonomic fight or flight response. A poor impression is apparently carried through the experience of the entire site. Moreover, people move on if they are not satisfied in just a few seconds. When the prospect disengages, the opportunity is lost. Therefore, we believe you should demand that the client experience your site delivers be:
Compelling. David Ogilvy famously said, "You can't bore people into buying your product." We find firms so engrossed in their technology transformation, they forget their clients don't read code. Creative content is the definition of compelling. If no one cares, no one stays. In the last quarter of 2015, 96% of smartphone profits went to Apple. Analysts will say, "Well, it's the premium market." But for many professional services firms, their market is also a premium market! Apple understands brand, but more than anything, Apple's brand IS a compelling experience.
Simple and resonant. Speaking of Apple, simplicity is key to communication. No one is staying up Friday night reading your website. So, when you capture their attention, you must set the hook. Creative. Simple. And resonant. Voice is the flip side of visual. Without an engaging rhetorical style—a voice that resonates—buyers move on. An easy-to-use and reliable CMS or marketing ecosystem does not deliver exciting visuals, appealing movement or a distinct voice for the firm. Remember: design and content and technology matter.
Personal. This is where technology shines: Clients, in particular, expect you to know them and their preferences. You do not get a pass because you're not Netflix or Amazon who recognize (“Hi, Client!”) you've arrived at their site. Consumers judge their experience at your site against ALL other sites, not just those in your vertical. To prove the point, your visitors might be on your firm’s site in the morning, IBM’s site in the afternoon and the Ritz Carlton site at night. Your website should deliver what your clients want and stand up to the best. Great design makes it pleasing and comfortable; technology can make it happen. Since we've opened Pandora's box, let's talk about not just how content is delivered technologically but how content is presented.
Here's an example of how the exact same content can be presented differently:
We hope you said "Wow!" because that's what your reader just said. In order to communicate and impress, you need to:
Present substantive information using charts, tables, maps and graphs. You have no readers, only scanners. We are asking our clients to rethink content without rethinking, well… content. In other words, it's not what you're saying exactly; it's how you're showing it. Again, design and content skills are different than technology and coding skills.
Tell your story to match the quality of your skills. Mark Twain was a natural storyteller. People paid hefty prices by today's standards to hear him speak. Think Bill Clinton. Why? Because it's how we learn. There is something about people that demands stories to learn—not just data. There's no emotional resonance with data.
Curate content. Consulting firms shine here but most law and next-tier accounting or A/E/C firms do not. As far as we can tell, McKinsey invented the online version of the Harvard Business Review. Who cares if that's true; what's important is that a card catalogue is not a thrilling experience but a magazine can be. Here's just one example:
Create a dais for storytelling. Once again, technology can set the stage to manage your stories—experience, videos, etc.—with a crystal clear taxonomy so visitors can sit at your feet to listen. Greenfield/Belser is widely recognized for its mastery of information design. We didn't invent the category but we raised its children in designing the Nutrition Facts labeling program that appears on over 6.5 billion packages today, the Drug Facts label that appears on a similar amount of over-the-counter drugs and the EnergyGuide that is on every major appliance in America. We know design of rich information needs to be courteous and compelling. We expect technology to:
- manage digital assets via the CMS media library
- deliver assets according to an agreed upon taxonomy
- publish content everywhere. It's called COPE (Create Once/Publish Everywhere) keep all that content moving to the right destinations, organized efficiently
Get mobile. This almost goes without saying. Millennials are glued to their cell phones. That glue is sticking to Gen Y and Boomers, too. As consumers figure out the best smartphone size for them, the distance between phone and computer is shrinking. There are even rumors of a 12" Apple…thingy. Touchscreen. Airpad? You'll need to define content that appears on multiple devices. That means designing the most efficient UX that makes users comfortable. Again, this is a skill much more closely integrated to design than technology development. Imagine the designer is like the…well, designer. The developer is the printer.
2. Technology and change are baffling.
If you’re looking for the final technology solution, stop. Not going to happen. It doesn’t exist. The pace of change is, if nothing else, accelerating. All you can hope for is something that’s right for you now. That said, you should hope for a CMS and/or marketing automation solution that will grow with you. You should expect new features, new capabilities, to be delivered to you when they are ready and not, for example, with a scheduled release every 18 months. You should expect to pay for those improvements or enhancements. If your firm uses design software such as the Adobe Creative Suite, then you’ve already discovered that their conversion to the cloud comes with a hefty subscription fee. To us, the key to managing technology is having a team who A) is ahead of the change curve and B) is someone you trust to help you make wise business decisions.
Parting thoughts on working with multiple “vendors.”
If you choose the best-of-breed model, here are tips for working with more than one partner. First, call them partners. The “V” word is inappropriate. We’re expert professionals, not vending machines. Second, be sure your partners embrace the best-of-breed approach. Choose to work with honest brokers who know what they know and admit what they don’t know. Third, insist on collaboration between design and technology firms. Each has their own skill set and area of expertise and the best solutions are a blend between right- and left-brain thinkers who insist on delivering two hemispheres of talent to you and your firm.
Good night and good luck.