In the past decade, the web has matured as a critical touchpoint for brands. Online has continued to grow, audiences have matured, and the tools available to make the web more useful, interactive, and experiential have proliferated. Yet, despite advances in technology and demographics, the optimal online experience is often challenging and elusive for leading brands to accomplish.
Earlier this year, Siegel+Gale launched an initiative to study the best practices and common challenges of some of the web’s most innovative purveyors. We interviewed senior executives in four distinct industry segments: media and entertainment, information services, financial services, and sports. While we discovered nuances specific to each segment, all respondents sounded a common concern: how do you manage and measure the sometimes obscure, always alluring benefit of online experience?
SUPERIOR ONLINE EXPERIENCE IS HARD TO DEFINE. IT SUCCUMBS TO THE POTTER STEWART BENCHMARK: YOU KNOW IT WHEN YOU SEE IT. NEVERTHELESS, IT HAS BECOME THE PERFORMANCE GOAL MOST COVETED BY BRANDS ONLINE.
The elusive experience gene
Our study concentrated on the delivery of brand experience–the part of online strategy that often goes unseen. It’s not just the design, messaging, or utility; it’s the organizational alignment, priority, budgeting, and manpower that make it all work. We wanted to know, given the web’s rise to brand touchpoint importance- how were leading organizations making sure that brand promises were being kept.
In a recent Forrester Research study, over two–thirds of businesses surveyed said the customer experience was the most critical driver of performance, yet nearly just as many said that their company’s lack of a clear strategy was the biggest obstacle to improving the customer experience. Just over a third stated concerns about a lack of understanding about customers amongst company executives.
Superior online experience is hard to define. It succumbs to the Potter Stewart benchmark: you know it when you see it. Nevertheless, it has become the performance goal most coveted by brands online. Often characterized as immersive, participatory, engaging and intuitive, it is less often codified as a business practice. That hasn’t stopped the participants in our study from trying.
Three focal points emerged in the analysis of the management practices of the participants in our study:
Connecting strategy to design and implementation–we found that all of the participants in our study grappled with the challenge of connecting high-level corporate and brand strategy to the rapidly changing needs of digital touchpoints.Creating an organizational structure that caters to experience–all study participants continuously experiment with internal/external staffing and budgeting formulas to balance subject matter expertise with optimal overhead burden.Translating available measurements into valid experience metrics–while online analytics practices have significantly improved, the participants in our study found large gaps in coverage, particularly when applying the measurements to an evaluation of the underlying experience. And in a sea of potential metrics, the participants overwhelmingly craved simplification.
From corporate strategy to digital reality
Most companies struggle with the challenge of linking corporate objectives and high- level strategy to the business activity of operating units. But the challenge is amplified in many companies striving for optimal web experience. In our study, we found that the companies with fewer lines of business had an easier time connecting strategy and online execution. Multi-business companies struggled more. An industry expert we interviewed in the early stages of the study summarized the obstacle.
“Some strategies are very simple and a lot of this stuff comes naturally. Where the strategy is much more complicated, and has a lot of moving pieces that all have to be linked together… those situations require multiple efforts.”
In most cases, the issue exists because of the differences in process. Corporate development and strategic planning are conventionally linear processes that occur in predictable intervals over an extended period of study and consensus building. Even in the fastest moving companies, the corporate strategy process is more formal than the web strategy process, which excels when keeping up with changes in the technology landscape and tracking rapidly with emerging patterns in user behavior.
For the executives charged with building and managing optimal online experiences, the common complaint is the disconnect between strategy and tactics. As the manager of a large online sports site put it, “we have very functional, tactical meetings about what needs to happen today. We do not have strategic meetings. We aren’t capable of having meetings where we tune all of our development resources to accomplish the goals of a broader strategic roadmap.”
But some of the executives shared approaches they experimented with to bridge the gap. Three notable habits surfaced.
Many of the companies we studied described a natural progression within their organizations. It began with senior management apathy and progressed to a process of gradual engagement. The catalyst in every case was deliberate, redundant communications practices and a willingness to satisfy legacy planning systems while staying nimble on the front lines of web development and production. Said one respondent:
“The strategy was crafted by the senior management We, in turn, had to reinterpret it in a way that made sense for us, implement it and then report back.”
The solution to the strategy disconnect was often to create a communications channel that was iterative and repetitive. “It was hard work and often people used to grumble about it.” But the focus on constant communication was cited as the best solution to disconnects in strategy and implementation. And it isn’t always formal. Respondents discussed informal tools such as email blasts, wikis, and quick meetings as vehicles to keep the communication flowing.
“If we’re doing a big project or a big release, we may do email headlines once a week … just to the people working on the web team and senior leaders in the key functions.”
Vertical education and evangelism
While constant communication may be a useful tactic, it is pointless if others in the organization—senior managers and front-line teams—don’t understand the essence of the business strategy or the implications for online experience. The respondents we studied all described their function as a kind of ‘educator-in-chief’.
“I do regular updates with the CEO’s staff, so we have senior champions who keep everyone informed and educated. That group really wants education. The board of directors wants education, too. So, at a very senior level, we continue to educate and ask for help if we want them to do something.”
The effort was not isolated to upward education. Our survey respondents also described a need to frequently educate front-line product managers and developers on the higher- level objectives and the broader brand strategy, to help them prioritize features and functions in the development cycle.
“To break [the strategy] down and to get it to work effectively usually involves active participation–in one way or another–of the people implementing the strategy itself.”
A return to will/skill
Creating an optimal online experience requires more than an informed work force. From the insights shared with us by our panel, companies would do well to revisit the tried and trusted ‘will/skill’ model first introduced by McKinsey & Company some thirty years ago. If the successes of our panelists are a good benchmark, strong online experiences are created when the organization is committed to the task. Key stakeholders must be convinced that the online experience is indispensable to strategic success and they have to have the courage to stick with it when the implementation gets rough. All of the respondents discussed the challenge of gaining ‘buy-in’ as being of equal importance to skill development.
Navigating a sea of ‘permalancers’
How do you best staff an online experience team? Do you build a full-time crew of expert managers or do you parcel out certain tasks to freelance consultants? There isn’t a straightforward answer or rule of thumb. In fact, the lack of an industry standard in this area caused our panelists the greatest source of frustration. The solution many found was equally frustrating—a hybrid staffing approach that created a staffing limbo.
“The permalancer population, as they are called … there are so many of them because [senior management] doesn’t like to add people to the headcount… it is such a struggle to get new people signed on. The result is a fragmented work-force that relies upon many different people, most with conflicting incentives and commitment.”
Two factors obscure a clear solution to the staffing conundrum. First, companies are balancing the need for generalists and subject matter experts, and finding it hard to determine which of the two should be full or part time. Second, the complexity of online experience development is placing a premium on project management above all other functions.
Subject matter experts
The once straightforward march to online experience has evaporated for most companies. Optimal customer experience requires more technological skill and user knowledge than a brochureware exercise. Online brands need people who understand the dynamics of customer loyalty and retention as strongly as they require coders who can implement web 2.0 functionality. Moreover, they need people who understand the relationship between the two.
Increasingly, many companies are staffing a few of the most important subject matter experts full-time, in-house as part of the experience team, while outsourcing the more transient functions that require specific expertise. This approach appears to resolve mission critical issues, but it leads to some challenging consequences, particularly because most of the organizations we studied do not have endless supplies of budget or human resources to balance specialty needs with basic operating requirements.
“We build areas of expertise within specific content—a great set of java developers, a great set of HTML developers, a great set of designers—and those are all shared services. The weakness is it’s difficult to manage from a project focus…You get into this situation of having a matrix environment where you need to support the project team, but then you also need to support ongoing operations.”
While the approach may be suboptimal, many companies are finding the benefit of retaining a select group of subject matter experts outweighs the cost of matricing the organization. As one respondent put it, the things that “really require deep subject matter expertise are things that are impractical to replicate across multiple business units.”
Project management has become the leveling device to companies that opt to build a focused set of subject matter expertise in-house, and this function is increasingly viewed as a “must have,” in-house and full time.
“We’re looking for people who can manage a project in the sense of they have a methodology of ‘who’s my customer? What’s my product? What I know about it or not know about it?'” Many companies find it hard to go outside the organization to find people who can ask and answer these questions, which have become the foundational value of good project managers.
With few exceptions, our panelists were willing to sacrifice subject matter expertise for the dedication of in-house project managers. Interestingly, the trade off was often made on the basis of influence. Internal project managers can be more trusted to look after P&L issues, while external subject matter experts can often add credibility to new approaches. Said one respondent:
“We contract with outside subject matter experts when we really need some outside validation of a potential strategy … there’s a tendency to say, ‘if Siegel+Gale or any outside firm says this is what it should be’, it has credibility.'”
The budget challenge: SME or PM?
Regardless of the ratio of subject matter experts to project managers, in-house or freelance, respondents have yet to find the winning budget rationale. There was a surprising lack of consistency between the industries we studied. Some practiced zero- based budgeting while others clamored to secure capital on the basis of the previous year’s budget. Online experience appears to account for an average of 10% of the marketing budget in the organizations we studied, but all respondents sensed they should be spending more, and expected to do so over the next 3 years.
Plenty of measurements, few solutions
Web metrics have exploded in recent years and are now more available, at lower cost, than ever before. But, as so often is the case, more is not necessarily better. Respondents in our panel decried the lack of a silver bullet. Instead, most companies are employing a dashboard approach that combines key metrics to give a pseudo- snapshot of performance. The trouble is that few believe this dashboard adequately captures the nuances of optimal online experience. And respondents question how to tie many of these metrics to strategic objectives.
“The things that resonate within our organization are how many people are coming in the door and what happens to them once they get in. It’s not so much our page views or how long they spend on the site–that’s not very interesting.
Additionally, respondents struggled to find a metric to tie the depth of the online experience to brand impact. How much did the online experience contribute to preference and loyalty? What qualities of the experience resonated the most? How did these qualities align with other brand touchpoints? While our panelists would love to know the answer to these questions, they agreed unanimously that the existing tools that might measure such qualities are either absent or too complicated to utilize.
The measurement gap has a cascading effect on the other experience practices. Without simple, credible measurements, managers have a harder time linking high level strategy to online tactics, and they find it harder to justify investments in personnel and subject matter expertise.
The optimal online experience formula
As others have noted, our study validates the importance of the online experience, particularly for brand-focused companies. Few take issue with the significance of innovative and credible online experiences, but the way to create that experience is often the subject of controversy, and is rarely uniform between companies and industries.
From our study, the critical drivers of a successful online experience are rooted in three areas:
The experience must be linked to the higher level business and brand strategy. Facilitating this link requires constant communication, proactive education efforts above and below the functional business unit, and an equal focus on will and skill. The team delivering the online experience requires a balance of subject matter experts and flawless project management. Increasingly, many companies are achieving this through a coordinated strategy of in-house project management staff and outsourced subject matter experts; however, some companies are finding it beneficial to retain a select few ‘mission critical’ subject matter experts in-house. Building the optimal online experience requires clear, credible measurements to validate the investment and refine the approach. Unfortunately, few existing metrics provide complete answers, which is why many companies have assembled complicated dashboards.