Digital Strategy Failure

Episode 20: What To Do When You Get It Wrong – The 6 Step Digital Strategy Recovery Plan

To listen to podcasts and read blogs on the subject of digital strategy, it’s easy to get the impression that this is a straightforward business, where everything is awesome, or at least it would be if pesky clients could only grasp the wisdom of your words and if we applied the ‘7 rules for success’. But what happens when you get it wrong? I’m not talking about marginally missing the mark, but rather catastrophically, spectacularly failing. What happens when you realize that your well considered, intricately planned strategy that you worked so hard to pitch and convince various levels of stakeholders that this is the answer to their dreams, just doesn’t work? What do you do when you get that icy feeling in the pit of your stomach and you think to yourself ‘I. Am. Screwed.’? Here’s your 6 Step Digital Strategy Recovery Plan. By the way, you can listen to the podcast in iTunesStitcher or Soundcloud or below now.

  1. Recognize that you are not alone. Here’s the dirty secret of the industry; everyone has failed at some point in their careers. Anyone who claims otherwise is there simply to prove that denial is not just a river in Africa. I can think of a number of occasions in my career where I have missed the mark in a big way. Recognizing this fact will help you focus on figuring out a solution.
  2. Understand what went wrong. Before figuring out the path forward, you need to pause and reflect on how you got into this situation. This isn’t about apportioning blame or starting a witch-hunt, but rather it’s a moment of honesty and clarity to figure out what caused the gap in performance. This is the most important step in the process since it will not only help you figure out what to do next, it is also your opportunity to learn a valuable lesson with applications for the rest of your career. Generally speaking, the reasons for failure of a digital strategy are:
    • Poor Research: Either you didn’t use any research to build your strategy, or the research you did use just wasn’t very good. A few years ago I developed a direct response focused digital strategy for a national auto body repair brand. In doing so, I fundamentally misunderstood the nature of the business and the fact that it is generally an insurance driven decision as to which bodyshop will be used, and that direct response is not the best vehicle for this sector. Two months into the campaign and with a handful of leads generated, I had to eat some serious humble pie.
    • Bad Math: In calculating projections, did you just make a mistake? This is more common than you would expect; the key consideration is just the size of the mistake. I once saw a projection error that involved a misplaced decimal point. In other words, we were off by a factor of 10. If it’s any consolation, rocket scientists make these types of mistakes too.
    • Mismanagement of Expectations: Stop me if you’ve heard this one before; in the rush to secure a contract, you overlook, ignore or otherwise minimize issues in expectations of what a campaign is going to deliver or what is really required to make it perform. A few years ago I designed a content marketing program for a major national insurance company. The idea was sound, and the strategy was innovative. The problem? The client insisted that the content we built needed to be housed in a totally new website with no interlinking with their own main site. They were not going to send any paid media to our content. All traffic and revenue that this program was to deliver had to come organically. Oh, and we had 3 months for it to deliver a positive return on investment. All this in one of the most competitive industries online. I said yes. And then I failed spectacularly to deliver. I carried greater responsibility for this failure than any of my peers since it is a core responsibility of the digital strategist to manage expectations.
    • Executional Failures: Now it can happen that the strategy is sound, but the executional team simply didn’t deliver either on what they were supposed to do, or in the way it was supposed to be done. While as the strategist you can argue that you did your part, remember that the client doesn’t (and frankly shouldn’t) care about your org chart. All that matters is the outcome. It is the role of the strategist to help identify the failures and chart a course for recovery.
  3. Take responsibility: You have 2 choices when you understand what went wrong and why; you can form a circular firing squad and waste valuable time squabbling over whose fault it all is, or you can be a leader, take responsibility for the outcome and point the team forward. In my experience, the only way you can recover from failure is to do the latter. Not only does it focus the team on doing the right thing, it also gives you the only way to recover from failure.
  4. Identify the solution: You were hired to put together a plan for success, so if it isn’t succeeding you need to determine what needs to happen in order for it to do so. Solutions can vary from bringing in more or different resources and skill sets, all the way to simply recognizing that the strategy you built is so fundamentally flawed that it would be best to stop it altogether. What is key is to understand clearly what your next steps need to be and how to articulate the outcomes.
  5. Own up to the failure: There’s a good chance that clients will accept and forgive failure. What they will never accept, nor frankly should they, is covering up or ignoring this failure. I believe that people are fundamentally good, and that they want you to succeed, because your success means their success. What’s more, remember that the client has had to convince someone else that their investment is safe with you. Make sure you make them aware of your mistake, take responsibility for it, and lay out the solutions or options for next steps with clear and rational reality based outcomes.
  6. Get there quickly: And this brings us to the final element of our 6 step digital strategy recovery plan. Do all this quickly. Identify the problem, develop the solution, take responsibility and discuss with the client as quickly as possible. You never want to be in a position where it is the client that is doing all these things. Doing so basically undermines your entire raison d’être. Remember that Darwinism is not about survival of the fittest, but rather of the fastest to adapt. Don’t let ignorance, inertia or fear slow you down.

Digital media and marketing are unpredictable and difficult. It’s OK to fail. It’s better to recover. It’s best to learn so it doesn’t happen again.

Next week on octopus, we will continue to explore the role of the digital strategist with our next guest. Please be sure to comment below. I’d love to hear from you. Please subscribe for alerts about new episodes and content. Thank you for listening to octopus. I’m Nasser Sahlool.

Listen to the podcast in iTunesStitcher or Soundcloud or below now.

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