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Losing the web standards war? Tools, not rules

I talk to many large companies that struggle with Internet marketing. They know that they must get everyone to do things the right way. They’ve written their corporate standards that describe the corporate look-and-feel and all the required HTML tags. They have a procedure for how an employee can start a blog. They’ve written down rules for everything, but the rules are ignored. What should they do?

The problem isn’t your rules—they’re probably just fine and very reasonable. Perhaps they are even well-written. The problem is human nature.
Some people just don’t care about your rules. Their attitude is “catch me if you can.” You’ll have to set up some corporate policing function to send them to Dilbert jail without parole. Until then, they’ll do the least work possible.
But most people are not so callous. They might not know about your rules. They asked a few people how to perform their task and got incomplete advice from folks trying to simplify the task with just the minimum steps. Your rules didn’t make the cut.
Other folks know about your rules but are just too busy to follow them. They might even follow them sometimes, but when crunch time hits, they jettison anything they can to make the deadline.
So, given that people are sometimes lazy, ignorant, and busy, what can you do? My answer is to focus on tools rather than rules. (And, no, that doesn’t mean to bash them with a hammer until they comply.)
For every situation where you have a rule—a standard, a policy, a process, a procedure, a checklist, or just about anything that requires compliance—see if you can substitute a tool instead. Here are some examples of perfectly good rules that could be replaced by tools:

  • Make sure you have appropriate search keywords in the title and the body of each page. Instead of making this one more item on your copy writer’s long checklist, can you set up your content management system so that it prompts writers for the right keywords? And checks to be sure those keywords are in the right places?
  • Follow the look-and-feel standards so all Web pages have the same visual design. Could you instead provide a standard style sheet that ensures that pages resemble each other?
  • Any employee wishing to start a blog must follow the corporate blog initiation policy. Instead, could you provide a set of Web pages on your intranet that incorporate the policy? The employee could fill out a template that sets up the blog and requests manager approval. Perhaps your tool can even offer an online training course that certifies that they know how to blog in an appropriate way.

What each of these techniques have in common is that they make following the rules easier than ignoring them. If you take care to ensure that following the rules is always the path of least resistance, then you’ll suddenly find that lazy people have time to do it, because it is less work. Ignorant people will be told about the right tool because it’s a simpler explanation then laying out each step. Busy people will use the tool, because it takes less time than doing the job from scratch.
Even though we all complain about the red tape and bureaucracy we deal with every day in our jobs, when we are put in charge we nevertheless tend to make still more rules. The reason we do so is that it seems easier for us (see a pattern here?) than creating tools. But it’s a false economy, because you end up not solving the problem, or you must spend lots of money to police people and get them redo the job once caught.
In the long run, tools that embody standards are cheaper for everyone and far more effective than any set of rules, no matter how well-executed or well-meaning. Do you run your Web site as a police state where most contributors bend the law? If so, perhaps it’s time you took a different approach.

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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