A List Apart


Illustration by Kevin Cornell

Following Through with Post-Launch Strategy

The best and worst part of the web development industry is that we get to make up all the rules. The jobs we’ve created for ourselves let us focus on our craft, and most of us have had to make very few promises when it comes to ongoing “marketing.” Even so, our expertise as consultants is always going to be tied to the success of our work. And if that work is underperforming, we’re encouraging clients to leave.

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The uncomfortable truth is that, left on its own, our work is almost always underperforming.

So we hired an SEO…kind of

We’d known for years that our clients needed more help post-launch—mostly because they were on the phone asking for it—but the help they needed didn’t seem to fit into the services we wanted to provide. The underlying issue was that we’d drawn an ethical line in the sand. On our side, SEO meant informative code and compelling content. On the other side, there lived people who would email at 2:00 a.m. looking for FTP access to the production server. The glimpses into their world gave us a false affirmation that SEO (which, to us, somehow enveloped post-launch marketing) was about gaming the system.

Eventually, though, it became clear that the legitimate demands of our clients had outpaced our willingness to adapt. So we hired.

When we posted the job, all we really knew is that we didn’t want the kind of SEO specialist we were familiar with. We fought the SEO title and made a joke about link farms. We figured we’d work out training and service contracts and all the foreign things related to the position if we could just find the right person.

We got lucky. We found someone able to consult and help implement honest solutions right out of the gate.

It only took one client meeting with Christopher, our new digital strategist, to realize how wrong we’d been to exclude post-launch efforts from our craft.

We’d been working with that client for years. When transactions or conversions started to go flat, we’d hit it with our design hammer. But now, with Christopher focusing on new angles, we were able to back up our development recommendations with data and suggest ongoing work that could greatly enhance our design work.

We scheduled A/B interface tests. We explained all we could be doing with retargeting. And, yeah, we did an SEO content audit. Each of these efforts was straightforward and accountable.

When we implemented conversion optimization with A/B interface tests, we could clearly see whether the challenger was outperforming the champion. When we ran the retargeting campaign or email promotion, we knew how much revenue it drove. And when we focused on on-site optimization for search engines, we reported actual effects.

Our negative preconceptions of post-launch marketing went out the window. We didn’t have to resort to keyword stuffing or farming out links or whatever we thought we saw the sketchy consultants implementing. We simply found profound complements to our work.

Having a digital strategist has allowed us to address specific plans to improve traffic, conversions, and revenue. We’re able to detail how our clients can make money, not just spend it. It feels good.

A walk on the business side

Maybe you’re somewhere in the “Do I need to hire a digital strategist?” decision tree yourself. I can give you a little perspective as an owner of a small consultancy.

Retaining clients

In the past, we’d been kindly abandoning clients at launch. We were around, of course, for tweaks and updates, but mostly we handled these in response to a client’s request. If we were lucky, we’d get pinged when they had a new project, but this was random.

Even if we could have convinced you that our “launch and run” model was working well, we couldn’t have explained the hole in our services. A lot of our clients are retailers, many of whom need help with monitoring, A/B testing, retargeting, search, etc. But since we weren’t there to lead through these needs, our clients were left to take it on themselves or bring someone else in. In either case, we were more or less encouraging the client to eventually drift away.

With a digital strategist on the team, we’re talking with some of these clients almost daily, either through scheduled, weekly status calls or ongoing phone and email correspondence. We know what they’re up to at all times, and we know how their sites are performing. Long story short, clients don’t drift.

Okay, some do. We definitely had our share of clients who were pretty far gone by the time we figured this out. Each was sure the sum of the work we were willing or able to produce had already been done.

We were able to win a few back, though. We took on the post-launch work they were struggling through on their own (always pay-per-click and SEO) or had given up on entirely and graduated them up to new, more rounded strategies.

It took some time to prove ourselves, but it wasn’t hard. Turns out traffic, conversions, and transactions all go up when you tend to them. It also turns out clients are happier when they’re making more money.

Driving revenue

I don’t want to lose anyone this far in, so I should mention that this position drives direct revenue as well.

Typically, we structure service retainers for a fixed number of hours over three-, six-, or 12-month terms, depending on client needs. We outline the actual plans we’ll be implementing (search, A/B testing, monitoring, retargeting, etc.) and re-evaluate priorities each month to make sure we’re devoting the appropriate effort to each channel.

Did I mention we’re a fixed bid shop? It’s hard not to get a little excited about recurring billing.

Your mileage will vary here, of course, but it only took a few months for the position to pay for itself. By now, it’s doing a lot more than simply washing out the expense. It’s hard to remember the reasons we dragged our feet in the first place.

Forecasting further

We’ve always had a few clients asking us to help them plan for growth. We’d built enough trust in these relationships that we could help put together long-term road maps for site enhancements, campaigns, and ground-up redesigns. These were, of course, our biggest clients in terms of billing and, for a lot of reasons, also some of our favorite clients to work with.

We thought finding similar relationships meant finding new clients. With our post-launch services, however, it’s become clear that we already knew them. We just weren’t talking to them.

Now that we’re planning ongoing site enhancements and campaigns within our digital strategy retainers, scheduling for larger projects just falls into place. And I probably don’t have to tell any of you that being able to plan is huge for a small consultancy.

We typically know a lot more about budgets and goals now as well, so we burn a lot less time negotiating through unknowns. We aren’t waiting for RFPs or trying to guess how much a client wants to spend. We’re getting good work on the calendar sooner, easier.

We’ve gone from a few of these types of relationships to a handful. I’m not sure what comes after a handful—a gaggle, maybe—but we’re hoping to get there soon.

Leveling the field

Having a digital strategist on our team also gains us a better foothold with new work.

It’s not uncommon to find ourselves in a competitive bid situation against a much larger agency. The clear advantage they’d have over us was a more complete skill set. Their proposals would detail ongoing services, and ours would detail a product. We’d be characterized as the “boutique design shop,” and it was often up to us to be so much cheaper that the client would give us a shot.

Now we’re able to involve our digital strategist right from the initial meeting. It allows us to make sure we’re asking the right questions about traffic patterns and sources, conversion and transaction goals, and related marketing. All this gets fed back into our proposals along with specific plans to address and improve overall performance.

You can still call us “boutique” if you’d like, but our proposals should make it clear that we provide end-to-end ecommerce work as well as sophisticated post-launch strategy. We’re able to articulate that we understand specific goals the potential client is trying to accomplish and that we care enough to help them get there. Throw in some nice design work as spec, and we’re right on par with the big guys.

Just kidding.

Adding to the arsenal

For those of you keeping count, this one position has helped us retain clients, develop residual income, and drive new business. The part that surprised us, though, is how the new role has actually helped to inform our design decisions and improve our craft.

For one, some of the basic tools we use in post-launch campaigns can easily be plugged into existing sites before we even start working through design. Heat maps, for instance, give us great data on visitor behavior. Anyone can make a guess about what’s important to site visitors, but with a little extra data, nobody has to. Intuition plus data beats intuition or data.

By now, we’ve accumulated ten months of data testing usability variables and messaging, and the takeaway is that our decisions aren’t always right. Some of the things we might have previously defended as a best practice or design principle just don’t perform. Not including the auto-play video, for instance, isn’t always going to be backed up by conversion data. Don’t worry, I’m not going to spin this off into a “sometimes ugly converts” proposition. The point is that we’ve learned a huge amount by constantly testing, something we never devoted enough time to prior to having our digital strategist.

The data isn’t always inconvenient. Take responsive web design. We’ve run enough tests now to say that it really does work. So when we tell that client they need a responsive website, we have anecdotal data from multiple tests to support our recommendation. We’ve even gone so far as to calculate potential revenue increases for ecommerce stores based on percentage increases from similar test cases.

Whatever the recommendation, we’re able to test the specific implementation. We can even A/B test making the logo bigger if that’s what you’re into. It’s a brave new world.

I have a small dream

The benefits we’ve reaped from our digital strategist go on and on, but I still feel like I’m trying to convince you that none of this is weird. The web development industry has been squared off against the SEO industry for so long now, we barely know what the people are like over there, or why they’re “over there” to begin with. What I can tell you with certainty, though, is that we’ve developed some strange prejudices.

We’d all do well to stop thinking of post-launch strategy as a bundle of SEO tricks or otherwise brand it as marketing excluded from our work. There will always be unqualified or unprofessional consultants willing to sneak in and pick up where we leave off, but that doesn’t mean the need itself is somehow suspicious. There’s a huge amount of value in becoming a more rounded craftsman inside a more comprehensive industry.

Remember, we get to make up all the rules.

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