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#section2

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#section3

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#section4

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#section5

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#section6

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#section7

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#section8

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#section9

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.

About the Author

Aaron Mentele

Aaron Mentele is a partner at Electric Pulp, a web and mobile consultancy located in sunny South Dakota. He's been at this full-time since 1997 but doesn't look a day over 27 or so. You should probably follow him on Twitter. First month is free.

18 Reader Comments

  1. Some really great points in here!! But even when you consciously plan to continue to help, post-launch work almost always winds up on the cutting room floor until they realize they need it.

    In my experience, this almost always results in a change order, or an entirely new engagement. Thinking about a retained service in the height of a major rebuild is tough for most clients. They can’t see that far out to know they’re going to need more help than they can manage in house.

    If we can figure out how to make this bundle work all the time, it will be a much nicer web for us all. 😉

  2. It’s been my experience that any client who hasn’t learned the hard way embraces the launch-and-run strategy for reasons of upfront cost.

    Eventually, a stakeholder wonders why a competitor is drinking their milkshake, or (as suggested in the article) conversion targets are missed like the broad side of a barn. At that point, the lesson is learned… the hard way.

    As for SEO… well, I invested a small amount of energy into resenting SEO practitioners because… well, somehow, I don’t think I have to defend that position here.

    Several months ago, however, I realized that genuinely good SEO sets the scope of content strategy and, done right, is about as user-centered as a web discipline can get.

    The caveat to that is that a site getting the most from SEO requires ongoing care and feeding, not just new content shoveled on whenever the client tumbles to bounces on search terms they hadn’t expected.

    The challenge I see is not in the work, but in setting clients up to pay for it without slipping into a steaming bath of resentment…

  3. We’ve had pretty good success bundling the ongoing service at the time of the initial proposal. Typically, the goals of the project line up very closely with post-launch work, so we give specific rationale rather than add a blanket line-item (and only if it makes sense). If nothing else, it lets the client know we can help if they come to the realization that they need it down the road.

  4. The market I work in is light years behind all these kind of problems, so my questions is kind of off-topic. How much traffic do you need to be able to run a decent A/B test?

  5. As a digital strategist I’d just like to say, “hear, hear!”.

    Too often I find that companies, especially small businesses, refuse to look at the long run strategic digital approach because of a) smaller budgets and b) the need for immediate and measureable ROI. The problem is some of these programs take a little time, but have major positive outcomes as you illustrated above (and don’t get me started on the SEO thing; well, just read my blog post for details: http://www.deco-dig.com/dig-it-blog/2013/7/15/i-dont-do-seo-heres-why). ‘

    Anyway, a hearty thanks from a digital strategist for hitting the nail on the head with this post.

  6. Excellent article and some good points made and strategies shared! We are struggling with the exact same scenario, and after feeling like we were leaving our clients hanging high and dry post-launch, to muddle through Google analytics by themselves wondering if the website was working, I decided to make similar changes.

    I have the same reaction to the letters SEO from my team as you described, but we are changing our mindset as we become more educated. And, I reached out to many of our larger and “want to keep the relationship alive” clients about their feelings regarding post-launch strategies and SEO in particular, and they were all, in unison, saying “yes please”. They were dying for a web agency to be willing to stick around, and provide that kind of support.

    It’s strange that web agencies have built up this animosity towards SEO, and sometimes I wonder if it is born out of a resistance to establish a long term relationship with clients. As web people we know, the longer the site is out there, the more things break. The longer the site is alive, the more we want to go back and do it “the new better way”. Developers HATE having to dig back into older projects, and designers want to move on to the new work, not mess around with projects that have seen their moment in the sun.

    However, as a business that is delivering client services, we are missing a huge part of the challenge if we don’t stay engaged. Even as we struggle to figure out how to manage post-launch work, and juggle an ever-growing list of clients (most good some not good), we know the real goal is to build better and better relationships, and you can’t do that if you hit the road after every launch.

    I’d also say that there is a resistance to “data” from a creative crowd, as nobody wants to see their new innovative idea get squashed because it doesn’t test well. It’s a tough lesson to learn, but data has to play a role. Not to mention, it’s fantastic information to share with the client, and base decisions on – when tested properly. I think one of the biggest benefits the web offers businesses is its ability to provide data and analytics. There is power in that data, and we are foolish if we disregard it or consider it an afterthought.

    Thanks again for a though provoking article, and for all the support as we go through some of the same growing pains. A parting thought, nothing lets me sleep easier at night than knowing I’ve got revenue coming in from annual contracts alongside the fixed bid, project by project business.

  7. In our agency we always say that the success of our customers is our success. It’s useless to create a spectacular website, if then the client will not know to use it. For that reason, you must train the clients, teach them to use programs like Google Keywords, Google Analytics, etc.. As the article says, this is not just for the customer to make more money, but that the project team can also see how your design works and how you can improve it.

    A question to the author, How long estimated to be providing this service post-launch?

  8. @Manuel – I’m no CRO expert, but I do know 100 visits to the page your testing is super bare minimum. Ideally you’d aim for that volume in as short of a time period as possible, say 1-2 weeks, as other variables could change which could skew the test. If volume isn’t there, you could always try to buy traffic too, but the quality of paid traffic vs. non-paid will vary as well. I’d venture visits 500+ and beyond are much more robust though.

    @Aaron – Thanks so much for writing about this. Although I’m an SEO consultant, I can speak fairly objectively – since I both am relatively new to the SEO industry (3 years) and started as a self taught DIY (little bit of everything – dev, design, etc – and importantly business owner first).

    SEO gets a hugely bad reputation – and I’ve seen this from as much the view of an outsider as an SEO myself.

    I wish MORE developers and designers would speak their thoughts and have a constructive conversation with us, rather than just writing it off because of a few (ok… a LOT) of bad apples. But the industry is maturing very quickly.

    I myself try to keep learning as much about dev as possible – just last week I attended a MeetUp about Twitter Bootstrap and LOVED it. I also have a huge passion for really nice design – one example being the Electric Pulp site – it’s stunning in my opinion.

    And I think we can do more all working together than not. Despite a lot of bad SEO companies, scam artists, etc – there’s a lot of good ones!

  9. @Manuel and Dan
    To get a statistically significant A/B test, or a true result, it involves a lot of math. Luckily there are apps like Optimizely that do all the complex math for you, so you don’t have to pull out your old college Stats book. But, it basically boils down to making sure you have enough people taking the A/B test to ensure that your percentage of improvement is greater than your margin of error.

    How many page views you need really depends on the test and the magnitude of how successful the test is to be able to say with statistically significant confidence that A version is better than B version. For example, when using the conversion rate as the measurement of success, it usually takes 25 – 50 conversions, or completed checkouts, which is usually around 5000 people taking the A/B test, to decide a winner.

  10. Thanks everyone for the fantastic comments.

    @Manuel, I expect Chris got you what you were looking for. He’s smarter than I am anyway.

    @Phil, I was excited when ALA expressed an interest in the topic. I think it’s a huge stage of necessary evolution, and I think we’re already behind the curve on it. As far as budgets go, most clients are already spending much more through traditional marketing channels. We’re simply a better buy.

    @Tracey *hug* It’s good to know fastspot is going through so many of the same things we are. Your comments are great. You hit a few points I missed. ALA needs to put you on deck for the next edition.

    @Manya, everything depends on the specific case, but most of our relationships are ongoing rather than just setting up 3 month kickstart contracts. The latter probably have their place, though.

    @Dan, my pleasure. You’re right. SEO gets a bad rap. The space is so flooded with so many bad (not just bad, really bad) seeds that it just kind of permeates the air. We all know there are good consultants out there, though, and the more we integrate post-launch work, the more obvious it becomes.

    @Chris, hello.

  11. Thank you Aaron for the interesting article.

    Do you have any other results to share from your usability testing? I’m curious if there’s much that runs counter to current ideas/best practises.

  12. Hey, Jylan. We don’t have specific counter-intuitive discoveries that are widely applicable. Most of our general testing has been related to mobile optimizations (e.g.: http://electricpulp.com/notes/you-like-apples/) and they all seem to follow intuition.

    The one counter-intuitive generalization that we could make is that certain audiences prefer clutter if it comes in the form of endorsement. I.e., adding guarantees and ‘secure’ badges and testimonials and accreditations seem to help even though they can really screw with design integrity.

  13. Just want to say how much I love this article. We (Newfangled) came to the same realization around the middle of last year. While we’ve always had some post-launch consulting done by our project managers, we did not have a dedicated resource to lead this initiative.

    Once we started offering marketing automation training and consulting, that gave us the boost we needed to create a new department at Newfangled for post-launch consulting, where we work with clients on the things you have mentioned, as well as their marketing automation strategy (where applicable).

    So far, things have been going quite well, and we now have TWO strategists consulting clients after sites launch. So obviously we think this was a great decision and I’m glad to hear that it is working out for you all!

  14. This is the problem I have argued for years now. As a UX practitioner, how can you justify your worth if you do not measure your success? Furthering this thought, we have been collectively pushing the beliefs that you launch, learn, launch again in an infinite loop.

    My feeling has been because agencies are looking for work on the whole and don’t always have the right people in place who are selling in the understanding that this isn’t a one night stand or a summer fling it is a long term relationship – we want to go steady and if all you want is wham bam thank you man you need to find another team.

  15. @Chris thanks for the comments. Love hearing that others are having success in this area. Post-launch is such a neglected topic, which seems at least a little strange considering how much we all love to extend our discovery, design, content, build and QA processes.

    @Andy yeah, having tangible data to feed design intuition is powerful stuff. We do a lot of work with ecommerce and financial applications, so it was an obvious conclusion – the data was in our face. That’s not to say we handled it as well or as soon as we could have. We probably have some making up to do.

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