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10 neglected interactive marketing best practices

10 neglected interactive marketing best practices Fred Brown

Writing an article about 10 often-neglected interactive marketing best practices assumes that there are 10 best practices to begin with -- let alone 10 that we manage to neglect. In an industry that started not so long ago -- and one that changes radically in the time it takes my iPhone contract to expire -- best practices are a hard donkey on which to pin the tail.

But luck is at hand. Mike Yapp, executive creative director at Carat Fusion, gave us 10 best interactive marketing practices on this very website. If I were to undertake a review of Mike's top 10, I could easily find examples of marketers failing to listen to his (very good) advice and be home in time for tea. However, Mike's article was written back in January 2006. Since then, social media and mobile have crashed the party and taken over the DJ's booth; everyone's dancing to a different tune now. And some people are not dancing at all. Rather, caught like rabbits in the headlights of the interactive marketing juggernaut, they're just wondering what to do next. Some don't even realize it is not 2006 any more.

I remember working in New York in the late 1990s. Mary Meeker was the prophet, and we did Prince proud -- "Tonight I'm gonna party like it's 1999." And then it all went horribly wrong. We were put back in our boxes and FedExed back to wherever we had come from. Lots of people still feel neutered by the experience. Confident 20-somethings have become cautious, risk averse 30-somethings, eyeing the interactive marketing behemoth with suspicion. But this time, it will not crash into the dotcom barrier; it is fuelled by high-octane ROI and pulled along by consumers. We are at (some of) the controls.

With that in mind, there are certain levers in front of us that we are not pulling nearly as commandingly as we should be. Here are my top 10 tips for getting back on track.

Take risks.

We should take more risks -- like we used to when it all began. When the right opportunity beckons, go for something exceptional over something that will tick all the boxes. Our time has come. The spotlight is on us, and 99 percent of what is created online could have the logo swapped out and the customer wouldn't notice. With the possible exception of the nuclear sector, best practices in any industry involve taking risks to achieve progress. Be bold. We don't all admire Apple because it is mediocre.

To see mediocrity where excellence is deserved, just look at Boeing.com. In fact, don't look -- because it is dreadful and will spoil your day. I love this company. The 747 is my transport of choice -- so much sexier than the A380. It has presence -- and a soul. I am writing this article on one right now. How can the company that created this majestic airplane (and that is leading the world in advanced composites with the new 787 Dreamliner) have this as its website? It should be amazing, and it is not. Very naughty.

What Boeing does have is a research and development department, something that doesn't seem to exist in the marketing lexicon. Which leads me to my next point.

Invest a portion of the marketing budget in marketing R&D.

If you want to capitalize on the new opportunities that social media and mobile provide, you need to invest some time in exploration. If I had a dollar for every middle-ranking marketer who wants to try new things but has a boss who "doesn't get interactive," I would be on a private jet right now. Authorizing an R&D budget over which someone who understands interactive has purse-string control will enable the experimentation that can surprise everyone. "JetBlue and United give Twitter a try to sell airline seats fast." That's the ticket. Better to cannibalize your own marketing channels than have a competitor cannibalize your entire business.

Boeing also has a department filled with engineers, for whom I have a great admiration; before I earned my crust in interactive, I designed radiation monitors and engineered (slightly smaller) aircraft. At the time, I thought we had challenges -- but this industry is harder. It looks easy, but it isn't. Anyone who has tried to get a website working in IE6 will agree. It is no accident that engineering terms are everywhere -- wireframe, QA, version control. But I don't think the interactive engineers (usually called "geeks") get the attention, respect, and resources they deserve. And I don't think they have enough resources to make things work properly. If you need an example, try printing a statement from HSBC on a Mac and see what happens (or doesn't happen). Either the company's technical specification ignored Mac users, or its QA process doesn't work. Which leads us to best practice No. 3.

Think about people.

Sadly, people are often forgotten all round -- it's far easier to call them "users." Why else is it that we have functional specification documents an inch thick but not an emotional specification? We spend all day thinking about what people can do online, and far too little time thinking about how the experience makes them feel. Traditional advertising never made this mistake. Thus:

Take lessons from best practices in more-established communication disciplines.

The more-established communication disciplines have a lot to offer the digital space. Traditional advertising has always pursued the big idea. Big ideas are memorable long after an endless stream of web pages is forgotten. As an Englishman, I was expecting rather more from your eponymous bank. But if there was an emotional specification for the Bank of America website, then it must have said: Don't show any.

Perhaps writing the technical specification and functional specification is taking us all so long we don't have the time for emotion. And when it comes to the build, would any other profession put up with having to comply with eight different standards, as we are required to with IE6, 7, 8, Firefox 2, 3, Safari 3, 4, and Chrome? That leads me to my fifth neglected best practice.

Get on the same page.

As an industry, we have not put in place the foundations of a profession, with standards that we work to. Perhaps the pace of the industry means formalizing today feels like a waste of time when tomorrow will bite us on the backside if we aren't careful. But this is costing us all a fortune, and that's not the kind of job creation we need. Not to mention, history is set to repeat itself with mobile phone browsers and applications. .Net magazine is running a campaign to end IE6. It is a start, and I salute you.

We need a gun for past standards and a crystal ball for the future.

Equip yourself with a range of tactical responses to what the interactive future might hold.

In order to be a thought leader, you have to have a thought that sounds right and is (more often than not) proven to be right. But if any of us knew with any certainty how the digital landscape will change in the next five years, we would be shareholders in the companies that don't yet exist but will have market capitalizations to rival the GDP of countries in 2015. Last Exit partner Nuri Djavit is fond of "The Art of War." Chapter 8 deals with "variation in tactics" and the need for flexibility in your responses. It explains how to respond to shifting circumstances successfully.

We need to equip ourselves with a range of tactical responses to what the interactive future might hold. History is littered with companies that didn't adapt quickly enough -- something that some competitors to the iPhone and Blackberry will soon no doubt be experiencing first hand.

One very good source of information about what people want is our customers. The internet is awash with opinions on almost anything by almost everyone, and yet far too few companies tap in to that in order to inform their marketing approaches. Which leads us to my next point:

Engage with your customers at all stages of the relationship -- before, during, and after the sale.

If we listen, they will speak.

Speaking is something we don't seem to be doing too well to each other in the marketing industry. In such a rapidly evolving landscape, you would think we would all club together and share knowledge like crazy. But I am not sure that we really do in the one area that matters most. In every new client meeting, the question that is asked with the most interest is "How much does what I want cost?"

In this sense, we need to:

Have a clear understanding of what can be achieved with the resources available.

The thing that would help most marketers (and agencies) is an established sense of what can be achieved at what price. The automotive industry is vocal about what it costs to develop a car (typically $500 million and up for a new model). The aviation industry is the same (about $1 billion for a regional jet). And yet how many marketers set out on a path to deliver the quality, functionality, and scale of the Apple website with no clear idea of how much that costs to do? And if you think the answer is asking an agency, then I assure you they are learning the hard way too. The lights are not on at night because the people prefer working at their Macs to being at home watching "The Wire."

So often, marketers do not have a clear understanding of what can be achieved with the resources available. Rome wasn't built in a day, and neither was a cross-browser perfected website that integrates with XYZ in 10 languages.

Know your real goals.

This point is all about the numbers. All too often, marketers set out with what they want to do, rather than what they want to achieve. We want a website. We want to be in social media. We want to be in mobile. No doubt you do, but what do you want your business to achieve and how can interactive marketing help achieve it? Make the business case, show the ROI criteria, evaluate, and improve. The tools are readily available to help you.

So, we need bigger ideas and more tactics up our sleeve, a better grip on resources, and established professional standards. We need to be bolder. We need to respect the engineers, invest in marketing R&D, and listen to customers. And then we need to leave a legacy.

Pay attention to the digital contribution to your brand's heritage.

Heritage is a part of the brand's story that we can tap into and take home with us. There is a new Audi showroom in London on the way into town from Heathrow airport. It is supposed to be the largest in Europe, and I have no reason to doubt it. There are many floors, all full-height glass and displaying some very fine metal indeed. One floor is dedicated to the brand's glorious past -- the Quattros that ruled the rally world before they were banned for winning too much. It has been set at the perfect height to be visible when you are driving past on the elevated motorway next to it. The showroom causes a traffic jam, as drivers slow down to gawp -- and deservedly so.

How many marketers consider what happens to their interactive communications when they are (inevitably) replaced? We are throwing everything away. It is sad. In 20 years it will be fascinating to see a brand's digital journey, but all that will be left are some servers with a long history of deleted files, and whatever the Wayback Machine managed to preserve. We were the kids who could program the video recorder. We should leave a legacy that shows the evolution of the digital revolution.

Fred Brown is a partner at Last Exit.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

Fred trained as a product designer, graduating with a 1st Class Honours Degree from Southbank University in London. Whilst organising and running the degree show event for his course he made contact with PDD, Europe’s foremost product innovation...

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