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Successful digital marketing means setting your priorities

I am often working with companies and individuals on improving their digital marketing skills and I like to remind them that merely upgrading their skills is not sufficient. Your company won’t pay you any more because you are smarter. Instead, they will pay you more only because you are making them more money. No one pays for knowing something. They pay for doing something. That’s what makes it harder, because nobody’s making any more time. You need to stop doing some of the things you already do.

I remember almost 20 years ago when I was made the manager of IBM’s Digital Analytics team. Okay, okay, that’s is what they would be called now. Back then, they called it web metrics. I was excited about this new responsibility and when I brought my team together, I started asking them questions:

  • How do we know which campaigns are doing better than others?
  • When we change the web pages, which kinds of changes seem to improve our results?
  • Are some types of changes working better in some business units than in others?

You get the picture. I had a lot of questions and I wanted to start using the analytics (okay, metrics), to help us make better decisions, improve our marketing results, and drive revenue up even faster.

Unfortunately, they just looked up at me blankly and eventually said, “We have no idea.”

Well, that was disappointing on the first day working with my new team, but that’s okay. I recovered nicely and then asked them how we could get started answering one of those questions.

More blank stares. The lead person shuffled uncomfortably in his seat and finally said, “I don’t see how we can answer any of these questions. Each one would take days to research, and we don’t have the staff or the time to do it. Everyone here is working flat-out.”

Again, not the answer I wanted to hear, but okay. So I asked the pregnant question, “Well, so what are you spending all of your time doing?”

At this point, they rolled their eyes at the stupidity of their new boss, who was too clueless to understand that they spent nearly 100% of their time generating the metrics reports that were shipped to all the executives. Now, today, you don’t need any specialized people to pull reports, but back then everyone assumed that was how it was done.

So I naively said, “Okay, so let’s stop doing the reports so we can answer these questions.” The reaction from the team seemed as if I had said, “Let’s drop babies from skyscrapers.”

“We can’t do that!” they screamed as one. “The executives get these reports. If we don’t do them, we’ll get fired!”

They dragged me through an inventory of reports on traffic and page views and monthly comparisons and top pages and subdomains and countries and, wow, there were a lot of reports. It was entirely clear that they really needed to spend all of their time creating them. And they were all sent in the first couple of weeks of the new month to show last month’s numbers. No one was allowed to take their vacation on those days.

On the day I was speaking with them, it just so happened that they had just sent last month’s pile 0′ reports out and they were now busily updating all the reports to reflect the changes from reorganizations and product launches and new pages and—there was a lot to do, all of the time.

So I faced a dilemma. Would we keep doing the reports or would we actually answer some of these questions and make better decisions, which is what I assumed the metrics were for. I didn’t think very long before I answered, “That’s okay, I will take the blame. They will fire me.”

There was still an aftershock of grumbling and complaining because they were sure that I had no idea what I was doing. It’s understandable:  because if I was right, I was basically telling them that what they had been spending their lives doing was worthless. I hadn’t really thought about that at the time, and I probably could have been more tactful, but I wasn’t going to change my mind about this. I strongly believed that analytics have no power unless they are used for decisions, and I couldn’t imagine how these reports led to better decisions—or at least far less often than answering questions would.

But I stood fast. No updates to the reports. I don’t care what the reorganizations were. There would be no time spent “pulling” reports in the first couple of weeks every month. My team was utterly unconvinced but they listened to me, God bless ‘em.

I sent them on a hunt through the data to answer a few questions. Many of them were wild goose chases but just as many had real value and produced true insights that we started to publicize inside the company to alert marketers of some better practices that might lead to better results.

Before we knew it, the calendar had flipped to the next month and the days passed. Each day another missed deadline where no report was going out. There were over 200 people on the distribution lists for the reports. And you’d expect that at least some of them would complain, “Where is my report?” And they did—four of them.

So I directed my team to get those four people logins to the web metrics system and to offer to train their staff to pull any report they wanted at any time—they would no longer have to wait until the end of the month. I promised that they could call on us to help them answer their questions at any point. All four were at least mollified—one of them thought it was great—so I didn’t get fired.

I kept pointing my team at the higher value job of finding insights, answering questions, and increasing our business value. It might be hard for you to appreciate this story today because it seems plain as the nose on your face that this is what digital analytics teams do. But that’s only in retrospect. At the time, this seemed very controversial, just as today there are controversies inside your job about how to spend your time. I implore you to focus on business value rather than what is expected of you. The old stuff is always expected but it is not always valuable. You probably won’t have to make as dramatic a turn as I did—and I probably didn’t need to do it as starkly as I did—but you have to decide every day how to use your time and maybe that of your team’s.

Don’t blow your chance to do what is valuable by merely doing what is expected.

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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