Raphie Frank :: business artivist

The New Internet Math

Why better client communications are necessary but all too infrequent

Einstein's ShadowThink of it from the perspective of the client. An out-of-the-box “vanilla” website can be had for $29.95 or so, and a branded brochure for about $5000. To the client’s’ way of thinking, steeped in Newtonian mathematical models as he or she likely is, put the two together and the gross cost of their website should be $5029.95. That makes sense, no? And, because it’s a package all-in-one deal and your client is a business person, one might easily forgive him or her for proposing “Hey, since we’re doing this all together, how about 25% off on the website?”

Laugh at your own risk, because, as much as those within the interactive industry may complain that no one else “gets it,” the truth of the matter is that the industry has simply not done a good job communicating to clients that when it comes to online the old mathematically based media models don’t work. This isn’t Newtonian Math, but Internet Math, a virtual world of every and no dimension where 1+1+1+1 may equal 14 or 15 or 16, or even 32 or 64, but most certainly not 4 with 25% off.

What those those within the industry know that those without do no not, is that even the most basic of “brochure-ware” online marketing initiatives requires nothing less than a complex and interdependent merging of branding, advertising, marketing and 24/7 virtual online space.

What those within the industry know that those without do no not, is that to fuse all these disparate customer touch points not just into one seamless entirety, but into an entirety that also effortlessly synergizes with offline branding efforts, requires multi-disciplinary expertise in, at the very least, account and project management, online marketing, information architecture, graphic design, editorial development, basic programming and quality assurance.

What those within the industry know that those without do no not, is that if you get a little more complex, the contributions of any number of specialists may be needed. Copywriting, motion graphics, flash design and production, original photography and illustration, for instance, all require specialized knowledge and talent on the creative side; and on the technical side issues requiring additional support, just as a start, can range from security and privacy, to database architecture and mining, online software application development, supply chain management and backend integration of legacy systems.

Given all these things that those outside the industry do not know, and that we know they don’t know, and that make it more difficult for us to properly serve our clients and ourselves, you would think there might be an effort made to bridge the communication gap. Unfortunately, far too often the main point of contact with the client, the Account Executive, is as much a part of the problem as the solution. That this should be the case is not surprising, as many, coming from a marketing or advertising background, are not well-versed with the technology and production side of the equation.

While ironic, the conundrum is also understandable. The Account Executive, hired at least in part because he or she speaks a language the client can understand, also shares the same Newtonian limitations as the client and so prone to the same mistake: to disregard Marshall McCluhan’s essential maxim that “the medium is the message.” If the medium changes, but implementation methods remain constant, it follows that the messaging will shift. Or, put another way, you don’t show pictures on the radio and you don’t talk in a photograph.

In the case of the Internet, where film, photography, music, publishing, commerce, community and software application all come together, and where users control their own journey through that potpourri of sensory input, the degree of necessary “implementation shift” grows to an almost exponential degree.

Compounding the problem is the natural inclination of the Account Executive to regard the word “no” as just this side of the Bubonic Plague. I know what I am talking here because I have often worked on engagements where I served in simultaneous roles as both Project Manager and Account Executive. As such, take my word that I know all too well the extra work I am creating for myself and the team as a Project Manager by saying yes to the client as Account Executive. Far too often I still say yes.

Obviously, it’s a judgement call. I make the determination that it will best serve both the client and my company’s short and long term interests to say “yes” rather than “no” or “yes, but…”; but it would be intellectually dishonest to say that I have always made the right decision. Knowledgeable as I may be regarding many aspects of the process, I am not expert in all aspects of it, and I have made more than my share of mistakes, although, thankfully, I have been right far more often than wrong.

Now, consider that if I make mistakes even knowing what I know, then pity the poor project manager working with the kind of old economy inclined Account Executive who pops his head into the office and proffers a wide smile, a chipper “hello” and a “heads up” that “the entire color scheme for the website will change next week after the client’s Board of Directors meet in Taihiti while the site will launch last week… if you can possibly manage it, of course” To say the least, this does little to mitigate the Project Manager’s sometimes seemingly rock-up-the-hill-and-back Sisyphean struggle to get all the disparate, absolutely interdependent, forces of a project working together in sync.

And why is that such a problem? Well, that one “simple” color scheme change is not as simple as switching brushes and picking another paint pigment or turning one colored light on and another one off. Design, implementation, review, team and client management are all necessary, a process that requires, at the very least, the involvement of Art Director, Production Artist, Programmer, Project Manager and Account Executive. If dynamic technology such as Flash is involved, the stakes increase even further.

This, of course, begs the question: why should the client care? Isn’t that our problem? That’s a fair question to ask, and, as far as it goes, entirely accurate that it is our problem. The response to that question, however, is easy enough, fair, and also accurate as far as it goes: Our problem is the client’s problem as surely as the client’s problem is ours. Short cuts, inevitably, get taken to make deadlines or minimize the financial impact of uncompensated work on already squeezed margins. Resources get spread thin. Mistakes get made. Design and technical integrity suffers with bottom line implications for the client.

While, as a service industry, we are paid to more readily acknowledge our clients’ problems than our own, reputable companies will still tell their clients all this because their interests and their clients’ are aligned. Sub-standard work is in no one’s best interest. It’s a lose-lose proposition. The client won’t be happy with the result and we won’t get the client’s business in the future.

As a partner at swandivedigital, we always aspired to win-win scenarios. I was party to failed bids on more than one occasion because we made the difficult decision to tell our clients in advance hard truths they didn’t want to hear. There were other times we declined to lower bids to match another company because we strongly felt our work for them would suffer as a result. It is a point of pride that, to this day, not once, have we felt we made the wrong choice, as much as we may have regretted the lost income. Nor have I ever, upon seeing the final product the client received, ever felt the lost client made the wisest decision.

In any case, as much as we wish for the best of all worlds, when push has come to shove, clients who value price over honesty and comfort over quality, were never the clients we aspired to.A film director once famously said, “it takes just as much sweat, blood and tears to make a bad movie as a good one, so you may as well make a good one” Substitute “website” for “movie” and the statement becomes no less true.

June 4, 2006 - Posted by | Business, Internet

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