Great dreams may stay in dreamland if you don’t get buy-in from management, and get it early. Here’s a real-life story from a recent experience of ours. It includes our successes, and some of our key learnings.
The Story of Client B
Disclaimer: This case study is for a business that actually exists. The situation, metrics, and details are true. The customer payment system is as close to the real situation as possible. I have restricted names wherever possible to remove identification. The story is worth reading. I’ve posted this while the project is winding down, because I wanted to share what I’ve learned, in hopes that it will help other people too.
Towards the end of 2013, Brutal Pixie was engaged to help out what is a fairly large business to optimise their website. Let’s call the owner Mr J, our contact Mr D, and the business Client B. This client works in fitness and wellness. Their customers pay what is essentially a subscription fee per year to enjoy the benefits of what the business offers.
The client’s website was fairly new (it had replaced an old site a month prior). Mr J didn’t feel that it was performing well enough in search results. He used to do some SEO years ago and has an appreciation for this work done well. He didn’t, however, know too much about working for relevance instead of keywords. He also didn’t know much about the latest changes to Google’s search algorithms. He was excited to meet me, and gave me five pages of keywords he thought we could use on the site, to get us started.
Now, if you’ve read the scope of what we offer, SEO is part of it but it isn’t one of my specialties. My SEO wizard is from a preferred business partner, and not embedded here. They wanted someone in-house, and they were ok with my stated position as being a ‘content person, not an SEO person’. So, I moved in for a while and things started moving. I was able to identify that even though the site was running on WordPress, there were no SEO plugins in place; so that’s where I started. I put in place that old favourite (and fabulous) SEO Yoast, started researching and adding keywords, putting meta descriptions and alt tags in place, through tens and tens of posts and pages. It took an absolute age.
At the same time, though, it was a great way to learn about the business. I quickly identified styles, authors, posting schedules, approaches, and existing images and media. I also very quickly identified those places where improvements to workflow, scheduling, curation, and resourcing could be made.
The business is fairly large: Its IT and Marketing team was 5 people strong, and all the other departments were also manned by between 5 and 20 people, from sales to personal consultants. Maybe more. Having never been there before, I was quite taken aback by the sheer scale of the place. Mr D was the main person I was dealing with; and he is young, enthusiastic, and really keen to take Client B to the next level. For the record, enthusiastic and driven people are my favourite types of clients.
Over the long lifecycle of this business, Mr J’s marketing tactic had been push marketing, exclusively. Mr J’s perception is that this is the way to continue to achieve growth in terms of the client base. Much of this resulted in copy and advertising that created urgency through a sense of looming sale-end dates.
Interestingly, while the business made statements about its fabulous customer service, there was no measurement for it. There were no contact KPIs, no real customer care flow. So, without benchmarks and KPIs, I could fairly accurately assume that the statements were made without the service levels being measured. The question is, if claims of great customer service don’t have any data behind them, are the claims real? The feedback that I was starting to see was mostly disgruntlement, from unhappy customers. There were a few good comments (and what was good was really good!), but much incoming commentary that I saw was mostly unhappy.
When I got into the meat of the job, it became quickly apparent that the customer perspective was largely missing. So was the bigger picture. It affected the flow of visitors through the website, and the choices that had been made about menu items and calls to action. But it also impacted on how the business approached its social networks, all of its messages, and its approach to all types of marketing and advertising. There had been half-hearted attempts to deliver what the customers and audience wanted, but it was not understood on a deep level.
Clearly there was a need for a more informed conversation with the business’s market, especially on a digital level. I started to offer some suggestions for how the brand could start to be more engaging for its audience.
Meanwhile, after a bit of work, and lots of discussion with Mr D, we put in place meta information on all pages and posts, introduced a new page structure, changed the architecture, managed to get the site close to 100% visible in mobile, and found that the visitor metrics started to follow defined channels. Prior to these big changes, the flow was a mess: It showed visitors leaping around from page to page, like they were confused. They probably were! Making the responsive version of the site 100% visible was becoming really important for Mr J’s business: Most of his customers were using tablets and mobiles to go to the site.
Pull marketing is a new thing for this place. Gradually, with the successes in changing the site, I started to introduce basic notions of pull marketing and engagement, and the marketing team loved it. Notions of content and channel started to make sense for them, and all fall into place. They started to see how one good piece of content can be repurposed, so it takes less time (and hence, less money) to create and publish.
Mr D and I started to build tiny elements of helpful strategy. Things like key messages, and who to target. We did some simple audience research, to find out what they would find valuable. We began to develop audience engagement initiatives, and started having some cross-departmental discussions about how all of this could happen. We started to collaborate on workflow methodology, to improve the business’s use of its people.
I had to do a lot of the work from scratch, because Mr J’s business does not make data available to its broader team (or maybe it does, but just makes it difficult to find because of infrequent analysis). The sort of information that was missing included:
- Customer service KPIs
- Sales KPIs
- Return on Investment information for marketing and advertising activity (from banners to CPC ads)
- A breakdown by percentage of how much each subscription earned the business, once operating costs and acquisition costs were factored in
- Customer lifecycle information
- … and so on.
Some of the information was only available to certain managers. Other information was only collated yearly. In questioning where the information was, who had it, and what is done with it, I sensed that I was probably the first person to ask these questions.
Experience started to tell me that the website was symptomatic of a more complex issue, one that was affecting the business as a whole. It also started to dawn on me that while the small pieces Mr D and I were putting in place, it would have little effect in the long-term. The work would need the active support of senior management. It was becoming obvious that this support was either not present or was being withdrawn, because we started to trip over roadblocks.
Successes were quick and significant
The fun thing about this project is that there were three key changes to visitor traffic that indicate successful change. Especially given the changes were in place for less than a month. Those were an increase in visitor engagement (both in terms of page depth and time on site), and clarity over visitor flow. The bounce rate also started to drop. It’s a small drop, but it’s a drop nonetheless.
Where before there were key sub pages that visitors would go to, before bouncing back around the first two pages, they now had a definite home > sub-page > checkout flow to them. Getting this flow right required changes to navigation points, inclusion of calls to action at expected points, and renaming of other calls to action. I created defined paths for each visitor, rather than letting them dictate the path to the business. Without the ability to spend much time in user research beyond some basic testing, I had to guess — and my assumptions paid off. It’s not ideal, but it worked.
Interestingly, Client B has a very high number of returning visitors, and there are definite peak days. Class timetables had high traffic rates, always on Mondays. This raised the question: How can we capture that, and make those existing customers feel welcome? The decision made was to move away from text that assumed people had never been there before (sign up), and to create calls to action that recognised existing customers (extend your subscription). The flow we put in place therefore looked different to the end-user, but resulted in the same thing. The audience didn’t know that, but we did — and we could far more easily track which type of sales were being made. This data enables further refinement of key messaging.
We found out that the majority of visitors were using some kind of mobile device. I tested the site — pre-changes — on my phone, to see what the experience was like. Alarmingly, up to 80% of the content was hidden. The lovely menus on desktop didn’t drop or extend on mobile, and there were no navigation points on the responsive site. This may have explained the bouncing, confused visitor flow!
The first step was to put in place separate pages for every class. Each one was formatted exactly the same way, so people would know where to find what type of information. Consistency is crucial. The pages contained specific details about what to expect in a class, a description of what it was about, level of difficulty, and so on. Then, the top menu item we renamed to ‘services’, and used it as a landing page. At the top of that page, in the prime real estate area, we created an in-page menu with links through to the deeper elements of the site.
I did the same thing for other elements of the site that were not visible on tablets or mobiles. We also started to see a change in the nature of the traffic, with improving conversion rates.
One off-shoot result of this activity is that the sheer extent of the business was becoming very clear to website visitors. Desktop users would see long sub-menus; mobile users would see the extent of services laid out in front of them. We were using the content itself to prove that the business has a lot to offer. It’s that old adage, just with a different spin: Show, don’t tell.
For email marketing, we did a month of split tests, and asked for subscriber feedback. What did they want to see? We gained enough information from testing and user preferences to segment appropriately, and to write a guide to email marketing, from subject lines to content. We raised open rates to over 40%, and click-through rates to over 10%, when previously we’d seen open rates in the low teens and click- through rates below 5%. It’s amazing what happens, when you send people things that they want to read.
By watching Twitter feeds, and how people interacted with the business on Instagram, we started to formulate guides for posts. What to post, when to do it, what tools to use and why, the language to use, and key pointers about creating brand advocates through conversation.
With the implementation of an online contact form, I helped Client B to gain visibility over the customer experience, at all levels. What we found was that the IT department started to get information about problems with the online store, and could fix them before complaints hit management or membership. Previously, all contact was just to an individual email address. The challenge with driving people just to an email address isn’t just with spam (which people tend to assume). The challenges are also with site updates (making sure all emails are captured), people going on leave, and things getting missed. Accountability for customer contact and customer care started to become a reality.
Much of this we achieved by working together and really driving audience advocacy. We started to see that the nature of the interaction was changing: From the business outwards, into more of a conversation. Feedback loops were starting to become possible. Suggestions for engagement campaigns started to fall on curious (listening) ears.
It’s exciting stuff! Formulating all of these things takes time, however. And in a very large business, one that likes things to happen yesterday, and which makes fast decisions, making such changes is a bit like trying to re-orient a supercharged tanker. Especially when it is used to a hard sell line in everything that it does.
But we learned things, too. It’s not all fluff and sparkles.
One of the reasons why I love my job is that it is educational. I am always learning things. This particular job had some really specific outcomes that I want to share with you. These outcomes are really important if you are in marketing and want to change the direction of the business you work for. They are also really important if you are at CEO or Founder level and are thinking about the nature of your business, and the nature of your marketing.
Lesson 1: Getting buy-in from management (or partners), and getting it early, is essential.
It’s a tricky thing to get buy-in from the most important decision-maker, when you don’t have access to that person. I worked with Mr D, and not at all with Mr J. In fact, my communications with Mr J were shut off very quickly after a rather abortive attempt at obtaining his input into a decision. So, I was relying on my ability to educate Mr D, and trusting him to introduce change, stand by it, and be strong.
Realistically, I didn’t know the dynamics of that relationship; so my ability to assist with change management was very limited. Sometimes, pressure from management not to move out of the comfort zone can be extremely strong, and can cause internal conflict, and stress, for the next person down the line.
Setting mutual expectations is important for everyone in a business-consultant or business-agency relationship. Because my collaborative relationship with Julian was so enthusiastic and driven, it always surprised me to see things roll back the other way.
There was obviously something in the background that I was missing. That piece was management’s resistance.
Lesson 2: Resistance is normal, but it needs to be recognised and dealt with
Dealing with key items of resistance is so important in managing any change. Bringing in a new way of working, even just in the creation and management of messages, still needs to be effectively change-managed. Remember, it is introducing a new way of working, and it’s people who have to do that work. Change always happens at a personal level. Even though Mr J didn’t have to do the work, he had built the business in a particular way — and done it successfully. He has every right to be proud of what he has achieved so far. Change would therefore be potentially threatening, because we were introducing unknowns.
It’s possible that by introducing new notions too quickly, Mr D I started to make Mr J feel challenged — so he went back to his comfort zone. And how! In doing so, she started to shut down some of the engagement work we were driving. Words like ‘superfluous’ started to be used, which also indicates that he either didn’t understand the value of conversation marketing to her brand, or didn’t feel it would return value quickly enough. Not being an expert in the field, and possibly also concerned about keeping his position, Mr D agreed with directives and did as was asked.
It’s easy to assume that resistance will be dealt with by your key people in any organisation, but often it’s avoided. Nobody likes a difficult conversation. In fact, Tim Ferris famously stated: “A person’s success in life can usually be measured by the number of uncomfortable conversations he or she is willing to have.”
If a business culture is very directive, then addressing resistance to change is even more difficult.
What I should have done is talk to change management on the first day. From that conversation I would have been able to assess whether or not making any sort of high level change was going to be appropriate, effective, or possible. Lesson learned.
Lesson 3: Do what they ask, not what you know they need to do?
In some businesses, it’s true, you need to just do what you are asked to do. But for me, this is a question, too. If you engage an expert in a field to come help you with your messages and content, do you tell them what to do? Or, do you want to learn from them? Or, perhaps you want them to really rock your boat?
I am not someone who will hold her tongue if what you are asking me to do will give you small benefits, but a bigger change will give you larger, longer-term benefits. If there is one thing I’ve learned in my career, it’s that opportunities for improvement should always be pointed out. When you’re in a business all the time, it’s so easy to miss the forest for the trees.
My suggestions are not always taken on board; but I will not be quiet about them. Some would argue that it’s because I’m actually the devil. (I’m not a Brutal Pixie for nothing. Ha!)
In glorious retrospect, our client may have made a decision in favour of more strategic change if I had simply kept to my original scope and given her a document of suggestions for long-term improvement. It’s possible that by letting Mr J read it in his own time, and digest it and and understand it, the ideas would have been embraced. Of course, the problem with retrospective vision is that this may also have gone completely the other way, too.
Case Study Summary
- Audience advocacy is essential. Sometimes, it’s not just your SEO causing poor performance; sometimes it’s the way your site is built.
- SEO is a tiny piece of the pie; it’s important, but other things may be more important
- Bringing in a third party with fresh eyes to rethink your website user flow can be enormously successful.
- Responsive design is only one tiny piece of the mobile picture. Check to see whether 100% of your content is visible on all platforms.
- Customer-centricity is important, but so is clarity and visibility over the customer experience, in making positive change.
- The nature of your marketing & your content is a reflection of the nature & culture of your business.
- Conversations are important: Conversations with your customer, conversations with your team, conversations with your management.
- Change management needs to be brought to the table on the first day, and expectations established.
- Resistance to change is normal; how you deal with resistance can make or break a project.
I’ll leave you with this lovely quote that I found here. It is rather apt, at the conclusion of this piece.
“While these activities are important, one must never lose sight of what truly drives success — individuals adopting a new way of doing their work.”