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Strategy Is Fun Too, You Know (Well, Fun-ish)

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In this article, you'll learn...

  • Five important elements of a website redesign plan
  • Why a thorough discovery and strategy-development process is essential before a website redesign

I have some friends who are Web designers. I hate them.

OK, not really. But I am jealous that they produce beautiful work over which clients unfailingly "Oooh!" and "Ahhh!" I, on the other hand, produce stuff that by comparison resembles a tooth extraction. It's not fair.

And it never fails that as soon as I get a new client, the first question the client asks is, "When will we actually be able to see something?" Ugh. Enter yours truly, the strategist, to talk about data, analytics, and user behavior. I'm like the teacher in a Peanuts cartoon: "Mwah, wah, wah... strategy... wah wah wah... analytics... wah wah wah... user behavior."

Even if it's boring to go through a discovery and strategy-development process, plunging headfirst into a Web redesign without doing so can result in solving the wrong problems—an expensive and time-consuming outcome. What's more, it leaves fewer resources for solving problems that could have a significant positive impact on your organization.

So, I do my best to get new clients through discovery and strategy development and on to the fun part (i.e., design) as quickly as possible. (I'll try not to let the door hit me in the strategy on the way out.)


The first step is to have a new client—usually a marketer like you—provide me with a variety of data inputs that will help me formulate a clear picture of the client's organization and its key business drivers. I creatively refer to that phase as the "documentation review" phase.

You can actually help expedite things by packaging some things for the project team in advance. (Try not to yawn while you're doing it; it might hurt my feelings.)

1. Your Strategic Plan

Your strategic plan is probably a total snoozer to read... but it does tell me the direction in which all your people are (in theory, at least) rowing, and why. The digital strategy we develop, therefore, should align directly with it, and each tactic of the digital strategy should contribute toward one or more of your key performance indicators (KPIs).

What we really want to know is the following:

  • What are your organizational goals for the coming year and for the next five (or so) years?
  • What are the most important business drivers for your organization?
  • How will the KPIs you've identified be predictive of your success?
  • What are the specific metrics (i.e., numbers) for each KPI that, if reached, will indicate success?
  • How are the various pieces of your organization lined up to collaborate in meeting those numbers?
  • Are there major organizational changes on the horizon? New leadership? Financial shifts?

2. Your Brand Strategy

This is what some people refer to as the "touch-feely stuff." Personally, I find it somewhat less Lunesta-eque to read your strategic plan. It tells us how you have packaged your organizational aspirations, your relative positioning in the marketplace, and your mission for public consumption. It typically includes a brand statement referred to as your "promise" to your customers. The pertinent questions to ask include the following:

  • What is the story of your brand promise?
  • What are the points that resonate most with each of your key customer segments?
  • What are the proof points we should use to illustrate how your brand lives up to its promise?

3. Your Marketing Communications Plan

Like your strategic plan, this document is not exactly beach reading. A marketing communications plan is typically a combination of strategy and tactics, focusing on the relative near-term (12-18 months). It may include direct marketing, SEO, social media, pay-per-click campaigns, TV, radio, print, and so on. Here are the key questions to ask your client:

  • What means do you intend to use to promote your organization and its offerings considering your strategic plan?
  • What aspects do you prioritize and invest in most heavily considering your strategic plan?
  • Have you considered how your key messages and proof points might be brought to life across various media considering your brand strategy?
  • What media channels have historically been most effective in promoting your organization? Are you considering new options?

4. Market Research and Business Intelligence

It's sad, but I actually like reading market research. (Then again, I'm no designer. So what do I know about a good time, right?) Market research helps me learn what you know about your customers, your industry, and the market in which you are operating. 

If you have enormous amounts of business intelligence data, focus on the following important issues:

  • What do you know about your customers? Who are they? How are they grouped, and do you have a segmentation strategy? What issues and "tasks" are most important to each group?
  • What do your Web analytics indicate? Are there trends in site usage? What are your conversion rates?
  • How satisfied are customers with your offerings? Have you ever used focus groups to get more qualitative feedback on what your customers think? Do you have quantitative data such as numerically rated survey responses?
  • Who are your competitors? How do they compare?
  • How do people use your products/services after they buy them? What is the current lifespan of your customer engagements?

5. Industry Benchmarks

And we're right back to Sleepytime Tea with this stuff. Benchmarks show how your organization performs relative to the rest of your industry vertical. In particular, we want to know the following:

  • If you aren't scoring as well as you would like, have you identified where the gaps are?
  • Do you have a reputation within the industry for specific brand attributes? Are you more exclusive? More cost effective? More friendly? More innovative? More diverse?

* * *

Bottom line: OK, fine, strategy is boring. But don't let your eagerness to get to the fun design stuff overshadow the benefits of a thoughtful discovery process and a strategy based on data.

Get that important information packaged for your project team so you can move on to design... and so my designer friends can show me up yet again. Grrr.


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Pete Gaioni is strategist at iFactory, a provider of innovative, inspiring, and intelligent interactive solutions to the world's leading institutions. He can be reached via pete@ifactory.com.

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  • by Lisa Wed Jan 18, 2012 via web

    Pete, I LOVED your article. The beginning put into words exactly how I feel about being a strategist - that the client can't wait for me to shut up so they can see what the designer's got to show. And every time that happens they end up with a pretty site but not one that's going to get them closer to their business goals.

    You checklist of questions to ask is awesome and I will bookmark for my next project. My problem though is that most of my clients are unable to really identify business goals, or separate them from website goals. In fact my small business clients will have a tough time answering many of these questions. If you have any experience with the small business (or in reality micro-business) and developing strategy for them, please consider sharing your thoughts about how to coach these people to answer these fundamental questions.

    Thanks!

  • by kbacot Wed Jan 18, 2012 via web

    Pete, thanks for a great article. But don't forget to tell folks WHY you have to do the "boring" stuff. At the end of the day, the website needs to perform a business function.

    Customers want to perform tasks online. Each page of your website needs to have a task for users to perform (user goal) that leads to meeting a goal for your business. Strategy is figuring out the "What is the purpose for this page?" I think that part is fun, too!

    Because at the end of the day, you don't want a pretty website that doesn't perform for your users or your business.

  • by kbacot Wed Jan 18, 2012 via web

    @lisa: I attempt to get them to submit a creative brief or work with them to develop one. Then we populate their content in a wireframe and when the content is vague, I make them tell me what the goal is for each page. Then we add functions or delete pages.

  • by Pete Gaioni Wed Jan 18, 2012 via web

    Lisa,

    I'm so glad you found the article helpful! As you rightfully point out, small (or micro) businesses are unique in terms of discovery work, in particular. In my experience, much of the "documentation" exists only in the mind of one or a few key stakeholders (like the CEO). And the data they have (if any) is often quite limited.

    Hmmm.. I think you've given me my next article idea... :)

  • by Laurie Wed Jan 18, 2012 via web

    Well said - thank you.

  • by Lisa Wed Jan 18, 2012 via web

    I would look forward to that article! :0

  • by Alan Belniak Wed Jan 18, 2012 via web

    I, for one, do not find this kind of work boring at all! So, if you, the reader, do,. let me know! Picking working partners/business partners is like picking tennis partners: match a strength to a weakness.

  • by Pete Gaioni Wed Jan 18, 2012 via web

    kbacot,

    Well said! Without the discovery work and strategy formulation (aka, thinking) time, the new site might be pretty but it won't necessarily meet the client's key business objectives.

    I find that some clients need more hand-holding than others in completing the strategic brief - I think it's especially true for small businesses where stakeholders often provide answers with ease once I've explained the questions in detail and in layperson's terms. Do you find this as well?

    And I don't really think strategy is "boring"... ;)

  • by Ford Wed Jan 18, 2012 via web

    Pete - Good stuff! Way too little attention is paid to strategy before diving into tactics, digital or otherwise. Strategy first, then tactics...what a concept!
    Market research often entirely misses what's really going on or what opportunities may exist and that customers often have utterly no idea what's needed or what they can use. If this sounds like Steve Jobs talking, its not an echo. Suggest reading Youngme Moon's "Different - Escaping the Competive Heard" for more convicing info on this perspective.
    Frankly, I find developing strategy to be the most stimulating part of my work because having a clearly differentiated competive strategy creates a far greater likelihood of campaign success, as opposed to just running off and doing some cool tactics and wasting lots of time and money.

  • by Pete Gaioni Wed Jan 18, 2012 via web

    Alan,

    I'm so glad to find folks like you rallying to the cry, "It's not boring!" And you're completely correct - the chemistry between client and strategist matters greatly. This job is a good part psychologist, particularly during discovery.

    Moreover, I think I'm immensely entertaining, just speaking personally. Therefore, i believe my work is fun by association. lol.

  • by Pete Gaioni Wed Jan 18, 2012 via web

    Ford,

    You are a kindred spirit. I'm going to read Moon's book. Meanwhile, have you read, "Blue Ocean Strategy"? Wonderful book with a similar premise - red water is where all the sharks are swimming and cannibalizing one another; blue ocean is where you can "play" without worrying about the sharks.

    How awesome is it to find all these strategists posting stuff here?! The web strategist's new brand position: "We are totally fun AND we make sure you're doing the right stuff."

  • by Pete Gaioni Thu Jan 19, 2012 via web

    Laurie,

    You are very welcome. And thanks for the positive feedback.

  • by Steve Thu Jan 19, 2012 via web

    I have discovered that it is important to get the client to "fail" first (and I mean this in the nicest way - not as a way of tricking them). They have to fail, to realize the importance of defining goals & the strategies to reach them.

    It is usually best if they fail with someone else, then you can ride in as the savior, lol. But if you find yourself preaching strategy, but all they want is eye candy, offer them a test. Do the eye candy and see if it increases sales in 30 days. If it does not, they must agree to take the path of defining their strategy.

    Some will try this test, others will decided immediately that they can't risk the failure and will do the strategy. The people who won't do it? - You've just saved yourself the headaches and risks of never getting paid.

  • by Steve Thu Jan 19, 2012 via web

    Hi again Pete. I re-read this article to a colleague during lunch and I would like to share some (hopefully) constructive criticism...

    1st, she wondered why the article title did not explicitly say it was for website strategy, i.e. something to the effect of "strategy before web design". She felt that the strategy discussion was a bit too broad for a website, i.e. it covered overall organizational goals, but a website can be better planned out if it is looked at as a tool that can help achieve corporate goals using specific tactics: sales leads attraction, conversion, point of sale, and customer support. Specifically the last 2 questions under #1 strategic plan, didn't make sense as to why these would be considered for a website, unless the site was being used as a software service that helps the business operate, and various depts interact through it...

    2nd, she thought you should be starting with #4, market research & business intelligence, because part of your value that you bring to the table is to use your experience and expertise to help the client use the best strategy. As Lisa's comment points out, many clients don't even know how to plan strategy, if they even have any measurable goals defined yet.

    That way you could look at their market research, determine if it is done well, or if you need to redo it.
    Then you can see the distance between where they are and where they want to be, and help them plan a route to their goals using a strategy.
    Then figure out communications, tactics, brand promises, and that entire deliverable becomes their strategic plan.
    Then the website can be architect planned as a series of tactical tools that accomplish mini goals of each website user type.

    We may have been reacting incorrectly to the article after too many Martini's, but would like to hear your thoughts after our nap is over. thank you.

  • by Dave Jensen Tue Jan 24, 2012 via web

    Well said, Pete. I just wrote an article on my blog about clearly defining strategy and tactics. I wish I would have read this post first. You provide some pretty compelling question in the marketing communication section of this article. I would be interested in hearing how you would respond to those questions.

    Thanks for the valuable information!

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