By Justin Glanville, client services director at WG2K
In a business world that is ever more complex in the way companies engage with their stakeholders, particularly customers, digital agencies should be offering up one fundamental solution: simplicity.
In the not-too-distant past, a company’s public face – and its interactions with its customers – was generally quite straightforward. It had a bricks-and-mortar store, it advertised and marketed, and it answered the telephone. Even the arrival of email two decades ago didn’t really affect the way companies went about their business, other than it being a way to both interact with customers and market directly to them.
With the advent of the digital age, however, things have changed immeasurably. At first everyone had to have a website, and that was simple enough. But now there are a bewildering array of technologies, platforms and solutions available such as blogs, mobile, apps and, of course, social media in its various forms. People use desktops, laptops, smartphones and tablets to connect and interact with the wider world in ways that we couldn’t imagine only a few years ago, and with ever-greater ease.
Naturally, each option has its own advantages and disadvantages. For example, your clients may prefer surfing the web on their smartphone, but is your website optimised for viewing on phones? Do you really need a Facebook page, which is fabulous for engaging in a two-way conversation with your audience – but may present enormous reputational (and thus financial) risks by giving negative voices a platform to air their views, fair or not? Your company may use various social media options, but are you able to integrate them seamlessly – and can you manage them on your own?
This is where a specialist digital agency can be vital to the success of a business. Getting one’s head around digital solutions can be a mind-bending exercise for non-technical people, who don’t necessarily even want to understand Web 2.0 or Web 3.0 (loosely, the next online evolution in which the convergence of the virtual and physical worlds open up even more innovation and monetisation possibilities), but they definitely want to benefit from it. It’s a minefield out there, and making a wrong move based on bad advice can be disastrous.
Companies, aware of the enormous potential of digital to increase revenues, reduce costs and improve efficiencies, not to mention the opportunity to engage audiences more directly and personally than ever before, are sprinting to catch up with technological innovation. But while their motive for doing so – doing better business – is a good one, execution can be nightmarish.
Part of the problem, I think, stems from digital envy: such-and-such a competitor has so many thousands of Twitter followers, or an app for the iPad, or its video went viral – and I want the same thing, is what some clients demand. If they’ve got it, we’ve got to have it, too, they argue; but very few ask why, or whether or not it’s viable for them.
Another, related part of the problem is ignorance. Many companies, bamboozled by the dazzling array of options and not having a solid working knowledge of them, ask for solutions that don’t suit them or would require restructuring their business to be effective.
For an unscrupulous digital agency, this is fertile ground for big billing. Client companies invariably cough up top dollar for a complicated suite of solutions that they don’t need, don’t suit their business objectives, are expensive to maintain, and possibly don’t integrate very well.
The upshot is that the client can brag about its digital capabilities, even if they don’t work well and cost a small fortune, but will likely take its business to another digital agency that will have to disentangle its predecessor’s mess. For a further fee, of course. And the client, bruised and out of pocket, will still desire digital solutions but have developed a low opinion (and justified suspicion) of people like me.
This is the difference between cutting-edge, and what we call bleeding-edge: the former speaks for itself, and promises great outcomes; the latter causes more pain and cost than anything else.
But companies can only shoulder so much of the blame through their ignorance and desperate need to be like everyone else, and digital agencies through their desire to make lots of money by providing clients with all the digital bells and whistles they do and don’t need. As far as I am concerned, the way both agencies and their clients approach the task is also problematic, as it tends to put the cart before the horse.
All too often, agencies and clients identify the solutions before the needs. Quite simply, this makes no sense, and ends up with clients having inappropriate and unnecessary digital offerings foisted on them. So I like to approach things from the opposite – and, in my view, correct – direction.
For me to present a digital strategy to a client, it is first necessary for me to understand what exactly the client needs. Sometimes not even the client knows, and so the process of discovery can be a two-way education. I need to understand my client’s business objectives, and I need to sit down with all of the key players to help them fully comprehend what digital can and cannot do for them.
In this vein, I believe strongly in digital opportunity workshops for new clients. In this way we can determine exactly what the client really needs (as opposed to wants – these two concepts rarely dovetail perfectly), and what the projected costs will be. The client, in turn, better understands how they can harness digital solutions to best effect; this has the added benefit of us establishing our bona fides in the minds of the client.
Such workshops also give us the opportunity to determine whether or not structural changes are necessary within the client organisation. In other words, do they need to change the way they do something, in order to effectively incorporate a digital strategy into their day-to-day business? This is a consideration that is frequently overlooked in the haste to obtain digital solutions, yet it has the potential to derail a digital strategy and cause great financial and reputational pain.
By arriving at these learnings with a client, I am then in a position to develop the best possible strategy for that client. Clearly, no two companies are the same, even in the same industry, and a one-size-fits-all solution will never be the most effective option.
And the watchword, to get to the point, is simplicity. It is my job to take a complex challenge and deliver the most useable, user-friendly solution for the client – in short, help them arrive at a point where digital is part of the solution, not the problem. In so doing, I can aid the client’s bottom line, drive efficiencies and reduce costs; and I am able to build a sustainable working relationship, founded on trust and understanding, with the client.
In our time-starved reality, in which we are constantly pushed to do more, more quickly, simplicity in digital is critical for business success. There is no alternative, unless you consider a tangled mess to be a viable option.