The first steps you take in many things in life are usually quite important and this is certainly true for organisations creating (or revising) their online strategy.
Even if your online activity only extends to a website, and perhaps some social presence, it’s important to consider the factors that will most influence the likelihood of your investment meeting your planned return.
Most online strategies quickly evolve into practical plans detailing how internal and external resources will work together to build websites, develop visual branding, create content in support of search engine rankings, create mobile apps, maintain a clean onsite structure … and so on.
So what are the typical first steps in online strategy creation? I suspect that in many situations there is a heavy reliance placed on any internally available expertise and of course external suppliers. As a result, there is a natural tendency to quickly move to the more practical aspects of website design and build. Senior management, ultimately tasked with the overall business performance, rapidly retreat to a position of safety away from the “front line” for fear of being dragged into aspects of online marketing or technicalities that they don’t understand!
As the organisation heads down this very practical path there will be an implied motive of supporting the overall business objectives however I believe that there is a “trap” into which many unsuspecting organisations can fall. It occurs when an assumption is made that online strategy is simply a way of taking a business onto the internet … i.e. online strategy becomes just an amalgamation of website(s), social presence and online advertising with the objective of bringing the “real world” business to an online audience.
Internet Marketing is different
I’m going to ignore pure internet business here (e.g. e-commerce) because presumably the two strategies are very closely aligned. However for all other businesses, let’s quickly remind ourselves of just a few of the reasons why marketing on the internet is quite different from those bygone, pre-internet, days.
- It used to be the case that if your business did something great for a customer they told maybe 5 friends. If you messed up they might tell 25 (everyone loves to complain!) Now, in the internet age, you can seek online “likes” or testimonials which are great, however every time you get it wrong your errors are potentially laid bare across the entire internet, not just locally but internationally to thousands, even millions, of potential customers.
- The internet is an incredibly competitive place. There is no hiding place for products that don’t work very well, service that is second rate or pricing/value which is second best. Are you ready for your pricing, products and services to stand the close scrutiny of an audience which stretches far beyond the personal relationships which an offline business can more easily influence? E.g. adverse customer comments and reviews on social media sites, or, an inability to publish full product pricing on your website because of historic pricing agreements with customers.
- The internet creates a powerful “levelling” effect as observed by the user. Young “upstart” businesses are listed next to long established brands and of course the internet has no physical boundaries. It presents a great opportunity for small/young businesses to compete with big/established businesses – which is either a threat or an opportunity depending on which side of the fence you sit.
- An interesting twist to the “levelling effect” is something we have increasingly observed which is the dominance of big brands. Smaller business, early adopters of internet technology, may have a track record of success but find themselves increasingly “muscled out in search” by the power of the large/active “big brand” websites. This presents an interesting opportunity for big brands which may be able to exploit the online authority and reach of their websites to enter markets (or at least trial them) in a rapid/cost effective way that would not be possible in the physical world.
- The demands of internet users increase by the day e.g. speed, clear calls to action, ability to access you on any device, endorsement from their social circles and from 3rd parties. Email newsletters and downloadable brochures are becoming dated. Although these factors might at first appear to be rather technical and unrelated to the achievement of business goals, they are actually very important because they can effectively be every bit as important to your target audience as your products/services themselves.
What can go wrong
What might happen if a business makes an assumption that its website and other online properties are just electronic “shop windows” for an already established business strategy?
- Business risks may not be identified and opportunities may be missed.
- Failure to secure an appropriate amount of budget (based on the opportunities) both at the outset and ongoing.
- Adhoc/piecemeal website development e.g. blogs, e-commerce sites, forums or recruitment portals developed with their own domains (independent of the main company website). Fractured development like this can create a situation of multiple interlinking sites, each with its own challenge of obtaining domain authority – which is not an optimal situation.
- Website development that simply mirrors the physical business e.g. Website navigation which is entirely product/services led (it should of course consider the needs of potential customers in the first instance and offer products/services as the solution).
- Website development that takes an entire range of products/services (ie. what the company currently does in the “offline world”) and simply drops them into a website format. It may be that, although successful offline, many of these products will never be competitive online.
Online Strategy First Steps
The first steps should perhaps be reflective.
- A critical analysis of the differences between your existing offline business and your potential online.
- A thorough analysis of the online competition you will face (which is often different from the competitors you encounter off line).
- What can be learned from users of the company’s existing websites and social sites using analytics and other available data?
- Considering the likely range of skills and experience that will be required to execute the strategy, will the internal team and external suppliers provide the appropriate mix?
Taking time to be reflective is actually quite a difficult first step within many organisations because it may appear like inactivity and an expensive delay.
The first steps are important – tread carefully
image courtesy of Stefan Erschwendner