What has happened to the agile website and how to get it back?

December 16, 2013
Matt Taylor

Having dealt with all sizes of companies and in all sorts of different industries there has always been one consistent rule across all of the projects – the larger the company and the more resources they have, the harder it is to get stuff done!

Taking an agile marketing tool and making it into a brochure

One of the main benefits that websites were supposed to provide was that companies now had a customer facing resource which was always up-to-date, an agile tool to get the message out and bring the pounds in. Gone were the days where companies had print brochures which were potentially out of date by the time they were delivered from the printers. Gone were the days where you needed massive resources, an industrial size printing press, thousands of envelopes and endless proofing checking for the smallest little errors which would be set in stone as soon as the presses rolled. So what has happened to these sites?

Size breeds inefficiency

The simple answer is that as websites became more important more controls “needed” to be in place to run them. In a lot of companies even relatively minor changes need to go through a number of different signoffs, sometimes even to board level, and then built into development schedules. This can take time, especially if changes need to be made to the original recommendations and the entire process has to start again. I have found it is not uncommon for simple things, such as title tags, to take months to change!

The main issues

If you have worked in-house or agency, you will probably be aware of the issues and while some can be unique to individual businesses, there a great many that are common to a number of companies.

  • Endless levels of signoff – as mentioned, some companies insist that all changes are signed-off at the highest level, or at least by a head of department. Just scheduling time to get this done can be a difficult task, let alone then getting consent.
  • The IT department – often the IT department are responsible for the website, just because it is a “computer thing”. Web development is an increasingly specialised area and the traditional IT department aren’t always setup to facilitate making changes to a site as a priority. Additionally, the people in that department may not be experts in the required technology as it constantly evolves. It can also be an issue if a traditional marketing executive is put in charge of the web site as well. They may understand marketing, but web development and digital marketing are specialist skills, in the same way as direct mail or TV advertising are.
  • Lack of in-house skill – a lot of companies, even large ones, farm web development work out. Given the importance of websites to a number of businesses this seems an odd thing outsource. This means that there aren’t necessarily people in-house who understand the capabilities/limitations of the site and it also adds extra layers of communication and organisation into any changes. It also adds a more direct cost implication to any changes.
  • Development sprints – “sprints” are becoming a more common feature of website development. Work is bundled up and then worked for a set period and then the next block of work is bundled. While there is a lot of logic to this, it means if you need a change and you have just missed one cut-off it can often mean having to wait a month at least for the next sprint.
  • Complexity – sites are becoming more complex and simple changes more difficult to make. You no longer can hack around with the HTML for an individual page, as for a start you may not have access to it and any changes could have wider implications if it affects a template. Additionally, you may not be just working with text and images, it could be video, slideshows or any number of different media types.
  • Un-targeted sites – from experience, a lot of companies do not know what they are trying to achieve with their site. They are often stuck with wanting it to do far too much; for example, an ecommerce site shouldn’t also be the corporate face of the company. Additionally, a number of companies are trying to appear to be experts in areas they only having a passing relationship too, rather than sticking to their area of specialty.
  • No KPI measurement or targets – the development of a lot of sites can slow when there importance isn’t recognised. Budget can often get spent on activity where returns are easier to measure. Likewise, if performance targets aren’t in place site development often get neglected as long as some level of sales is coming in.
  • Personal opinion – while there is plenty of room for opinion in business and on websites, you have to be able to listen to a reasoned argument or accept the data proves you wrong. I have been in plenty of conversations where we are told that improvements can’t be made because the MD wants x or the director doesn’t like the way it looks, despite having data to prove that it will have a significant impact on performance and to the bottom line.

Five ways companies can resolve these issues

There are a number of ways which companies can resolve these issues, some of which will be simple, but others would need a longer term investment.

1. Specialist teams

In order to get the most from sites and to keep them from stagnating, it is important that the main skills are contained in-house, even if it is by the same person or a small group of people. The ideal in-house team should have high level knowledge of the following areas:

  • Web development – this is an essential role, without a good understanding of trends, capabilities and technical limitations it will be impossible to get the most from a site.
  • SEO and PPC – you need to understand how SEO and PPC can be properly integrated into a site or other marketing campaigns.
  • Marketing automation and email – email marketing is evolving past simple email campaigns to full marketing automation. Understanding how to properly target advanced email campaigns, as well as how to effectively leverage online resources is vital for turning visits into sales.
  • Web content – an effective team will need to understand how best to present information, be it text, images, video, presentations or slide shows. You don’t need to necessarily create them, but rather know what is required to create them, their strengths and limitations and how best to add them to the site in order to achieve goals.
  • Social media – Knowing how to properly integrate social sharing onto a site, the types of platforms which should be used and the type of content that will appeal to users of those platforms is vital.

If you don’t have these skills in-house it is difficult to understand the issues affecting your site and how improvements can be made. Additionally, when you have these skills in house decision making and development can be streamlined enabling site changes to pushed through quicker. It is important to remember, if you need to outsource you should not be outsourcing decision making or strategy, only the implementation.

2. Expert decision making

Decision making should be based on expertise, not by seniority. For example, if you are deciding on a new CMS system, it shouldn’t be the marketing director or the CEO who makes the decision, it should be made by the developers and the people who are going to use it every day. These are the people who will understand what you’re trying to achieve and the best technology to do it. This is a difficult one to implement as it will make a lot of people uncomfortable. In order to offset this, you need to set appropriate guidelines, targets and budgets and ensure decisions fit in with the needs of the business overall.

3. Resource split

Whether your resources are in-house or external you need to make sure that they are split appropriately to facilitate effective working. While it may be useful for the dev team to work in sprints and focus their resources on a set amount of problems, there should also be a certain amount of their time or a certain number of staff who concentrate on issues as they arise. This way you can still make the agile changes you need to, without delaying the overall project.

4. Conquer one area at a time and stick to core areas

You should focus on becoming an expert in areas where you actually are experts, not in all related areas. Once you have built a presence in that area, then move onto another if you need to. If you stick to what you know, you will be able to develop useful content quicker, allowing for more frequent updates to the site. In turn this should lead to better, faster results which means that it is easier to demonstrate the importance of developing the site.

5. Focus on data and deliverables

In order for a site to be truly valuable, you need to break down the businesses overall goals into their component parts and come up with sensible measurable deliverables for each. It’s no good basing strategy on the top level performance you are trying to achieve, you need to work out what goes into it and then work out how to achieve mini goals. If you need to achieve an xx% increase in web leads, you need to work this back to visitor numbers and conversion rates and potentially from there into things such as the number of new pieces of content required to achieve it.

This should allow you to keep your site agile as you are no longer going for one big improvement/development, but rather smaller individual tasks which are easier to find the budget for and simpler to implement.

Five ways agencies can manage these issues

Luckily for us, a lot of medium to large companies will make use of agencies and so it is important to know exactly how we as agencies can minimise the effects of these issues.

1. Understand limitations

It is absolutely vital that you understand the limitations, time constraints, deadlines and internal politics as soon as you get onto the project. This way you are able to effectively manage your clients and your internal teams.  I like to use comprehensive kick-off questionnaires to ensure I know exactly how one of my client teams will work. Once you have that information you can then design your campaigns around them.

2. Be efficient

Never be the people that are holding a project up, always be the people who deliver on time and the ones who are active in chasing and following up. This is a good rule for agencies generally, as being an external resource you are quite easy to be made a scape goat for a projects failings. I find working with a client at their office can help massively. Being in the same location as a client means that neither of you have to wait for responses and you can also get in to their internal meetings, allowing decisions can be made there and then. This helps you to become an extension of their team rather than an external supplier.

3. Use your own contacts

If your client doesn’t have the resources available suggest using your own. If you need a certain resource and the clients’ internal resources are stacked, then there is nothing wrong with suggesting you create it instead. I’ve worked on projects where we have installed a WordPress blog for a client because there developers wouldn’t have had time to do it for months.

4. Think around problems

There is always more than one solution to an issue and being able to suggest alternatives will ensure that any project keeps moving and the site remains up-to-date. Having worked with a number of financial services clients I know that compliance rules are often the stumbling block to rolling out new content. Ensuring that you know what the likely issues they will have with content and being prepared to change the angle or come up with a completely different format could save a significant time. For example, instead of using your own data in an infographic, you could use data from a number of third party sources instead.

5. Be the experts and build strong arguments

The key way to help ensure that sites remain agile is to know how to present a strong argument. This helps decisions to be made quickly and efficiently. The most compelling argument will always relate back to the internal KPIs of the client or a simple ROI.

One simple overall rule – don’t be afraid to make mistakes!

The main reason for the loss of agile sites is that companies or staff are afraid to make mistakes. Invariably, no matter how many checks or how long you take to develop something, mistakes will be made. The beauty of a website, unlike an old school brochure, is that mistakes can be fixed. If you roll something out you and it doesn’t work, you can always roll in back. If you do make a mistake, fix it and move on! The risk of occasional mistakes is usually far outweighed by the benefit of having an agile and effective site.

Do you have any tips for how to get back to having an agile website? Have I missed an issue? Add them in the comments section below.

 

Image credit: deanmeyersnet