It was an exciting project. One of our favorite ever, I might say. Everything about it fit perfectly into the template of our perfect client: a small tech startup with a great idea, with a huge market for their offering and several significant success stories to validate them. “A match made in heaven,” I said to myself and enthusiastically prepared to be part of the huge success this company was destined for.
The Tech-less Tech Company
They were referred to us by a friend and long time client. I met with the owner & CEO, who brought up their challenge: “Our website isn’t responsive,” he said. For a tech company, a website that’s up to date with the web’s best practices isn’t optional, it’s a requirement. Mind you, this story takes place four years ago, when Google wasn’t penalizing you for not having a responsive website yet, but considering that the object of my new client’s system had much to do with mobile connectivity, it’s safe to say that their clients were judging them by their ability to be (and look) high tech.
But there was more. “I can sell our service easily if I meet my clients one-on-one, and through our sales people, but the website isn’t selling.”
“Ah,” I said, “so your website has a conversion problem, not a tech problem.”
Three years ago, people were not expecting every website to be responsive, so that couldn’t singlehandedly be the cause of the low conversion. It actually wasn’t too hard to identify other problems:
- website copy text was overly technical and hard to understand (because it was written by an engineer), focused on features rather than benefits;
- there were no elements of persuasion, like client testimonials, case studies, logos of brands already using their service, media mentions and other recognitions received;
- there were no clear calls-to-action;
- their services included a security component, a marketing component and an advertising component; their pricing structure was complex and confusing and it was hard to determine who needed what and why.
Besides, the website’s design itself looked unpolished, with various “mistakes” that are hard to pinpoint by the untrained eye, but could be summarized as: too many colors, cliché stock photos no one relates to, busy layout, lack of white space, messy fonts.
We set off to address all these issues, not just the responsive redesign. Our proposal was enthusiastically accepted and several weeks later, we were proudly launching a new website.
It was beautiful!
It was persuasive!
And – of course – it was responsive.
We moved on to other projects and and our client went on to manage the hundreds of orders that came pouring in through their new website.
Or so we thought…
The reality was a bit different. When I emailed the client several months later to check on their success, this is what I learned:
“The website isn’t working for us. Nobody is buying. People don’t want our system, they’re not even ordering the free product! We paid all this money for nothing! You told us this is what we need to convert – it doesn’t! It’s your fault!”
Cue the sound effect of a vinyl record scratching to a halt.
Self-blame. Maybe it was our fault?
“But wait a minute, this should work! It worked for everyone else we applied it to! It has to work!” I said to myself.
I called the client back and arranged for a new meeting to investigate together why things aren’t working as expected. In the meeting, a new face joined us: the freshly hired marketing director.
The conversation went something like this:
Me: “How do you guys send traffic to the website?”
Client: “Paid ads.”
Me: “Can I see those ads? Who are you targeting? Where do they drop off?”
Client: “The ads are fine. We have lots of traffic. They’re just not converting”
Me: “Maybe the traffic isn’t qualified. They probably don’t find what they expect. Who is managing your pay-per-clicks?”
Client: “We’re doing it in-house. It’s not the traffic, it’s the messaging on the website. People don’t understand what we do”
Me: “Did you do the explainer video that we talked about?”
(Checking explainer video. It’s a whiteboard drawing kind of animation/video, purchased for $20 on Fiverr. Insert face-palm here.)
Me: “What about the case studies we talked about?”
Client: “We haven’t done those yet”
Checking on the website for the first time since it launched, it turns out there are other issues that cropped up after the launch. A bit of deception (the free service was advertised as free, but came with a $125 installation fee), a bit of bait-and-switch (not all the advertised benefits were included in the base package) and a lot of disappointment (the off-site demo was no longer working).
I took advantage of a short break in which the CEO stepped out to ask the young, twenty-something “marketing director” a question that had just occurred to me for the first time:
Me: “Do you guys have a marketing plan?”
Her: “Not really…”
You know what that means. It means “no.”
When You are Caught Plan-Less
There were other words spoken afterwards that I simply don’t recall anymore. We attempted various “fixes,” I tried talking them into implementing some of the solutions they had agreed to from the beginning, but they never did. I suggested doing split testing and heat maps and allowing me access to their analytics to see who this traffic really is and where visitors were dropping off, and so on. In the end, we threw in the towel and parted ways, because all those fixes were nothing more than patching a sinking boat. And the boat wasn’t the website, it was their entire marketing effort.
See, I had assumed from the beginning that they had a marketing plan. This was a viable startup, selling a system that was adding great value to their customers. They had several impressive accounts and were already present in several states throughout the US. How could they not have a marketing plan?
Come to find out, most small businesses – yes, even the impressive ones – don’t have a true marketing plan.
The best tools out there are useless if you don’t really know how to use them and what to do with them. The fanciest, fastest car is not enough to “get you there” unless you also have a map to show you the way.
And the less-than-stellar client experiences are there to teach us a lesson.
I should have asked about the marketing plan first. When they told me they didn’t have one, I should have made it mandatory to get one before implementing any new marketing tactics. If they refused, we should have turned them down, because tactics without a strategy is like throwing darts in the dark – the chances of them hitting the mark are pretty slim. Their failure is our failure too.
Does your business have a marketing plan or are you throwing darts in the dark?
This article was first published on LinkedIn