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Why Internet marketing is so hard for large companies

My wife got a message from the Microsoft Firewall the other day, It was the kind of thing that only firewalls tend to ask about. Microsoft was blocking a program from accessing the Internet, and was asking my wife if that was OK or whether it should allow access. The program? Microsoft’s own Internet Explorer. That made her laugh, but it made me realize how hard it is for any company of a certain size to coordinate its efforts. Back when marketing was a relatively small and centralized function, this coordination problem did not affect big company marketing, but now the Internet sometimes makes big (and often medium-sized) companies look silly on a daily basis.

Why does the Internet pose such a challenge? Because coping with the Internet somehow defies centralization, one of the favorite management techniques for large organizations. The Internet shines a light inside your organization, leaving bare for the world to see all of your cracks, fissures, seams, and foibles.

Other ways to interact with customers have not triggered these problems, or at least not anywhere near to the same degree. Think about it. Your shipping department might always have been blithely wrapped in their internal procedures, clueless about what your customers care about and expect. When customers had a delivery question or problem, they called their sales rep, who promised to get back to them with the answer. That rep might have started a frustrating dance with the shipping department on what happened and what we can do, but the customer saw none of this. Even when you put a call center in place to handle such problems, you trained the call center reps to track down the customer orders in the byzantine internal system, and the customer had no idea how screwed up your internal processes are. They had no way to know that 20% of your orders were delayed.

But what happened when you launched your Web site?

At first you used it as a sales brochure, but soon you realized that you needed to offer e-Commerce. And then you realized that you needed the Web site to instantly communicate the expected delivery date even before the order was placed! And then allow the customer to check up on any order anytime after that, and they weren’t willing to wait the five minutes they did on the phone! Your systems can’t handle any of this.

And the Web team decided that, because there are so many complaints about delays, the order status page should explain in detail what the steps are for customers to take, so that they’ll be less frustrated. Unfortunately, this enhancement to the user experience ensures that customers get the impression as to how widely these problems occur—a tidbit sure to be considered when they decide whom to order from next. It’s one thing to experience a delay, quite another to see evidence that what happened to you is treated as normal by the company.

So now the shipping department is front and center in your customer experience. In the old days, you could centralize the customer contact to your sales force or your call center. You used people to paper over whatever problems you had with processes and technology, to mitigate the frustration your customers experienced. No more.

Now, many departments that never had any customer contact are taking their typical frustrating experiences and unleashing them directly on your customers instead of on their fellow employees. The shipping department, the rest of your fulfillment team, your IT group, and many others are now suddenly exposed.

And it’s not just e-Commerce. Just about every form of marketing involves people who thought they had nothing to do with marketing. I’ve written before about why big companies struggle with search marketing, but it goes deeper than that. While search marketing requires Webmasters to correct their Web servers, know that blogs require your deep company experts to learn how to operate in public, and that one hate site can totally change the job of your PR person. Many forms of Internet marketing require deep involvement of people who are not marketers.

To cope with the Internet, a large company is forced to face the fact that they must coordinate but they can’t centralize. Unlike sales forces or call centers, centralization is not an option—you’ll never have a blogging department. Instead, you must coordinate people scattered throughout your company to become your bloggers.

The problem is that coordination is hard, and big companies have never been terribly good at it. Big companies are good at command and control—they set policies that govern what people do, but they struggle more with jobs that can’t be controlled. (Just try to control blogging and see how well that works.) Internet marketing requires a lighter touch—coordination—through evangelism, mentoring, and other organizational techniques, such as my favorite: Management by Embarrassment.
Challenge your shipping department to transform their procedures to make customers happier rather than merely shaving costs. Get your IT team to see that improving your customer experience gets them the recognition and funding they’ve craved all these years. Exhort your PR team to galvanize the rest of the company to participate in blogging and other image-building techniques, rather than trying to control them.

Be a mentor, not an enforcer. Be a trainer, not a cop. Be a facilitator, not a general. If you can figure out how to work across your company’s silo functions so that you influence what many other people do, you might suddenly find that customers will give you a pass on what still goes wrong, because they can see everyone is at least trying.

If you don’t, expect to see your customers laughing at you, not with you. And expect them to describe themselves as former customers.

Mike Moran

Mike Moran is a Converseon, an AI powered consumer intelligence technology and consulting firm. He is also a senior strategist for SoloSegment, a marketing automation software solutions and services firm. Mike also served as a member of the Board of Directors of SEMPO. Mike spent 30 years at IBM, rising to Distinguished Engineer, an executive-level technical position. Mike held various roles in his IBM career, including eight years at IBM’s customer-facing website,, most recently as the Manager of Web Experience, where he led 65 information architects, web designers, webmasters, programmers, and technical architects around the world. Mike's newest book is Outside-In Marketing with world-renowned author James Mathewson. He is co-author of the best-selling Search Engine Marketing, Inc. (with fellow search marketing expert Bill Hunt), now in its Third Edition. Mike is also the author of the acclaimed internet marketing book, Do It Wrong Quickly: How the Web Changes the Old Marketing Rules, named one of best business books of 2007 by the Miami Herald. Mike founded and writes for Biznology® and writes regularly for other blogs. In addition to Mike’s broad technical background, he holds an Advanced Certificate in Market Management Practice from the Royal UK Charter Institute of Marketing and is a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. He also teaches at Rutgers Business School. He was a Senior Fellow at the Society for New Communications Research and is now a Senior Fellow of The Conference Board. A Certified Speaking Professional, Mike regularly makes speaking appearances. Mike’s previous appearances include keynote speaking appearances worldwide

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