Strategic digital marketing challenges

This post covers some of the challenges that digital marketing faces today and how to overcome them. This is important to understand at the...

This post covers some of the challenges that digital marketing faces today and how to overcome them. This is important to understand at the early stages of formulating your strategy in order to ensure that you build these considerations into your plans. The key areas covered in this post are:
  • Technology
  • Skills
  • Budget and resources
  • Business priorities
  • Regulation
google online marketing challenge
Image Credit: Pixabay

Despite what we have already said about how long digital marketing has been amongst us, it is ever evolving and this creates challenges for businesses of all shapes and sizes. One of the issues is that consumers are adapting to the digital age very quickly, but most businesses simply cannot keep up. In this post we examine some of the difficulties in embedding your digital strategy and the approaches that can be taken to tackle them.

When you consider that in the late 20th century consumers generally bought their products either face to face or on the phone, it is clear to understand how the digital revolution has significantly affected several areas of an established business. For example:

  • New technology has meant radical changes to established systems such as customer service systems, marketing automation and information security.
  • Regulations around privacy such as cookie policy and the right to be forgotten have resulted in changes to sales techniques to ensure that customers feel comfortable with the use of their data.

Long-established business cultures have had to change or suffer the consequences, including those that have been successful despite poor service and those that have led with inauthentic messaging. As completely new opportunities arrive there is inevitably a skills gap as no one exists with experience of them. A good example of this is social media. As the channel has become increasingly important it has become apparent to many businesses that a specific skill set is needed. Rearranging budgets to take advantage of new opportunities often means that something else has to suffer. If, for example, your strategy looks to take advantage of a new technology such as the launch of a new wearable, but this launch was unexpected and arrived in the middle of a budget year, then what do you cut to ensure that you maximize on the opportunity? Your business may have established priorities that are difficult to change in order to pursue unproven opportunities. For example, your company may see press advertising as a crucial channel due to a history of success in the channel many years ago. This channel may not be measured for success, but convincing the company to depart from a stalwart to delve into something that is not understood can be challenging.

In the 21st century, consumers expect sites that are available on any device with cross-device functionality and personalized experiences and they expect to be able to directly contact businesses and get a response within minutes. As I write this, most businesses are only some of the way to achieving this, if they have started at all. Many of the challenges that you will face will effectively be risks to the delivery of your strategy and so an understanding of risk is useful.

Digital marketing challenges: Technology

Digital marketing is of course very closely linked to technology, although it is not quite as heavily reliant on it as some may have you believe. It is often common that people outside of digital perceive it to be hand in hand with technology and, whilst that is true to an extent, it is not true that your business needs to make significant technology advances in order to take advantage of the opportunity. For example, paid search, SEO and display advertising require almost no technology internally to launch. E-mail marketing and social media require some technology but this can be bought rather than built. In order to effectively manage offline marketing channels you would also want to use technology and so the digital world from a practitioner’s perspective is not always as reliant as some may think. We discuss technology, innovation, specific tools and the future throughout the book but here we look at technology from a broader perspective and view it as a challenge rather than an opportunity in order to understand the barriers it can present.

Whenever new technology arrives it brings with it excitement and nervousness. According to the Technology Adoption Lifecycle model, by Everett Rogers, innovators will quickly take up new technology, whereas laggards will be slow. This model can also be applied to businesses with the added complexity that intention and ability to adopt do not necessarily go as hand in hand as they do for consumers.

digital marketing challenges

Technology developments are inevitable and have been since animals started to use tools. Never more so than in this technology age where disruption is seen by many as a positive word. Technology has always been a part of the human progress story but sometimes the mind moves faster than the hand, so inevitably we cannot always deliver the inventions and innovations that are dreamt up. One of the many concerns that stops businesses from adopting new technology is a lack of historic performance. History is strewn with failed technology and it is not always the innovators who win. There are many cases of the early adopters or even the early majority winning the battle. Apple’s entry into the mobile phone market is an excellent example of a business that was not first, learnt from those that were and was able to make significant gains due to this. Closer to digital marketing we have seen many examples of businesses that have leapt into new channels and had to make the mistakes for others to learn. Social media is a fantastic recent example of this.

One of the main challenges within technology adoption is gaining support for the adoption. This can be a challenge as it is rare that senior leaders in a business are hungry to take significant risks, for obvious reasons. Specifically for technology, one of the main routes forward is proof of concept. Reviewing competitor adoption or creating a business case is often not enough. Testing and trialling new technology in controlled, minimal risk conditions allows for a gradual implementation and roll-out programme. Of course every roll-out programme needs a roll-back plan to cover the eventuality that things may go wrong. This may not be possible for all technology but is a valuable method where possible. A roll-back plan is a process of ensuring that, should something unforeseen happen upon launch, you can quickly reset the programme back to the previous state. We have seen this in software for many years via the use of a backup and restore process. A roll-back plan is similar to this but a little broader. It is not purely technology based. You need to consider what to do not only if your technology fails but also if the market changes or there are many unfavourable reviews. This plan should be a part of the ongoing programme management agenda.

Digital marketing challenges: Skills

When new technology arrives and new consumer behaviours take hold there is inevitably a lack of experience around them. There is no data to enable planning and forecasting, no one who has an understanding of the limitations or potential of the opportunity and no case studies of best practice.

If you were launching your company’s first paid-search activity you might find an experienced agency or internal candidate who could bring in excess of 10 years’ experience. Someone who understands what ads work, what keyword targeting techniques to use, how to optimize and rotate the adverts, how to use location and time of day to best effect, how to use analytics tied to the ad management platform, what tagging needs to be in place to enable remarketing opportunities and so on. Were you to bring in someone who has never worked on paid search they may understand the concept of bidding on keywords in an auction style and writing ads that get a strong click-through rate but almost everything else would have to be learnt on the job or through training, which would slow your progress and give you a considerable competitive disadvantage. Advances in digital marketing also create this situation. The only difference is that you do not initially have a competitive disadvantage as everyone is in the same boat. However, the slower you are to react, the more this disadvantage becomes very real.

There are ultimately two methods for tackling skills gaps within organizations: 1) upskill the people you have training; 2) bring in people who have the skills recruitment.

Digital marketing challenges: Training

This would always be the preferred route for most companies where a team already exists. Making staff redundant and bringing in new employees is an unpleasant and costly exercise for everyone involved. There are certainly times when it can be the right route forward but it is rarely the right approach to dealing with a skills shortage. Training often comes with its own costs both in terms of paying the training supplier and lost productivity, but the value that can be gained from a full day of training can often easily justify itself versus spending a considerable time learning through trial and error. The latter approach is not only time-consuming but is also fraught with risk to your brand and commercial goals.

There are now many courses specifically for digital marketing at universities and through organizations such as the Chartered Institute of Marketing, but also from organizations such as Google. These differ in their balance of theory and practice but whatever the goal there are many options available. As well as the official training route there are low-cost opportunities for training. For example, you may well be working with one or more agencies who have expertise in the area in which you have a skills gap. You may not be working with that agency on that specific service but more often than not your partners will be willing to help you. Leaning on established relationships can therefore achieve the same as an official course at little or no cost.

The other key consideration for training is whether you have the skills in-house already but located somewhere else within the company. Many large organizations are guilty of assuming that people within their roles are specialists at those roles and have no experience anywhere else. I have to admit that I myself have been guilty of this thinking in the past. Because someone is running press advertising or PR does not mean they have not run SEO in the past. It is worth doing an exercise to understand whether there are people in your organization who may have good knowledge to share. Do not overlook what might be right under your nose.

Recruitment

Recruitment can be a slow and expensive process dependent on a number of factors but it certainly has one guarantee – and that is that you will bring a new individual with new experience and new points of view into your business. If you get your recruitment process right then, in the vast majority of situations, this will be a very positive thing. Where new technology has arrived it is often worth seeking someone who has worked in a similar field, as there will be no existing experts. For example, as the web becomes more and more of a community we find that digital marketing techniques are increasingly moving towards a content focus. We do not try to build links we create great content that people want to link to. We do not try to push our messages on social we create compelling content that people find of value and want to engage with. There is therefore an increasing need for people with strong editorial skills such as those from a PR background with a digital passion. If you therefore need to build out your SEO and social channels perhaps someone from a PR background could be more appropriate than a technical expert or digital guru.

One other consideration for recruitment is that digital marketing is an evolving beast, as we have already mentioned. By the nature of society today it is absolutely true that younger people remain more digitally savvy than the older generation. Whilst it is no longer true to say that people over 60 are not tech savvy (my mother has an iPad, iPhone, laptop and countless other gadgets) it remains true that the younger generation have more of an appreciation. The line continues to move on this as well. Those teenagers who are the digital natives of today will be shamed by their lack of knowledge when the next generation comes along. I was once a programmer myself but the computers I coded on no longer exist and my five-year-old son is starting to push me for knowledge. This means that ensuring your recruitment techniques are regularly refreshed is vital. Also, ensuring that you recruit a blend of knowledgeable established senior individuals and young, digital natives will reward you with a fantastic mix of expertise and skills.

Budget and resources

Most organizations face a restricted budget in one area or another, so you are probably familiar with this barrier already. There are regularly challenges around investing in new technology or running multiple, expensive IT projects. There are also often challenges around demonstrating the value of marketing against the bottom line. In digital marketing this can be achieved a little easier than with offline channels but it is still rarely a simple exercise. It is also very common for businesses to have headcount restrictions in place or departmental salary budgets. These are often tightly controlled, especially during difficult economic conditions or when trying to invest elsewhere. It can be very difficult to grow your digital footprint without being able either to bring in the people you need or able to lean on a large number of people across your organization.

The final resource we usually find ourselves short on (and this is certainly not restricted to digital marketing) is time. Integrating technology or new methods of working can be time-consuming to say the least, not least due to having to ensure that it fits with your business goals and processes. The 21st century’s biggest challenge is finding time. The success of supermarkets, mobile phones and the internet itself are largely down to the need to do more in less time and the workplace is certainly no different.

Budget and resource constraints can often be the most frustrating of all barriers as they often seem so difficult to solve unless you have the context. There is one key to success here, one simple method to achieving your goals within these constraints and that is to create a path to success. This combines prioritization and project management to build a process to get from A to B within the budget and resource challenges you have. To do this you can use project management techniques such as PRINCE2, Agile, Critical Path and Lean as well as the most relevant to a resource-constrained environment Critical Chain Project Management.

In the meantime let’s have a quick look at the standard planning document developed by Henry Gantt around 100 years ago. In simple terms, a Gantt chart shows the distinct elements of a project, their individual timelines and how they fit together to reach the project goal. They were used extensively in the United States during the First World War and have since developed into more complex versions, especially since the PC became more commonplace in businesses. Dependencies and predecessors are now commonplace within Gantt charts and there are many packages that can be used to manage your Gantt chart easily such as Microsoft Project (MSP).

Business priorities

One issue that often rears its head is the need for immediate returns and a focus on the short term. You can spend months constructing an intricate strategy with solid long-term goals, quick wins and key milestones. You can achieve full buy-in to this strategy from the business and begin to put it into action. But then...


  • a new competitor enters the market;
  • unexpected regulation is put in place;
  • the economy takes a downward turn;
  • a new CEO with very different ideas is appointed.


Or a thousand other things can happen. Each of these can remove funding for a key strategic pillar, stop you from recruiting the team you need to deliver your strategy or remove the support for your strategy altogether. This is a very real challenge and one that many of us face on a regular basis. There are, however, a few things you can do to mitigate the impact, albeit you can never fully remove this risk.

It is vital that your strategy is delivered in a structured way with clear, demonstrable progress milestones. If something is delivering results and showing a very visible positive impact on your business then the chance of it being stopped or impacted by change reduces significantly. As with many other areas of business this can be as much about the presentation as the content, so ensure that you are able to tell the story. This does not mean to twist the truth but simply to ensure that your message is clear and undeniable.

It is also vital to understand fully where your business is headed and any potential challenges along that road. We have already discussed aligning with your broader business strategy, and understanding it fully gives you the opportunity to have a back-up plan ready at every potential hitch. For example, if your business goal is to grow customer numbers and the business is failing to achieve its targets then how would you stop money being diverted from your web development project into direct sales and acquisition activity? How can you demonstrate that your web development project will deliver increased sales immediately? Being able to show any impact your milestones have had to date is key to success in this argument. And if your goal is gaining market share, but a big-spending competitor is making you suffer, then are you able to demonstrate the improved digital branding that your strategy is delivering and how your site is now more visible on organic search and therefore gaining digital share of voice?

There are other techniques worth using to ensure you fit with the broader business priorities, such as having a continuous improvement programme in place, including test and learn plans. These can add value to the whole business even though they do not directly show on the bottom line. Implementing this programme will enable you to highlight demonstrable improvements and their direct benefit to the business. You may also be able to receive anecdotal feedback from visitors and customers through research to support your strategy. Test and learn is a vital part of any marketing strategy. No strategy will ever be 100 per cent correct first time and so evolving your strategy is vital. It is impossible to evolve it in a structured manner without a plan – and so this should be part of your story.

Highlighting changing consumer behaviours

If we stop the long-term activity we may gain for a few months but then we will be even further behind our competition. It may also be impossible to catch up as consumers have already decided to shop where they can receive the digital experience they are looking for. Reducing digital activity or marketing in general is a dangerous path. You could trial reducing activity in specific areas if necessary and display the impact of this on the business in order to tell your story.

Quick wins

As mentioned above, these give much more appetite for those interested in the short term. If the business buys into your long-term strategy then that is great, but it is the short-term wins that will excite many of your decision makers and mitigate risks from priority changes. You should ensure that a key part of your strategy, and one that is highlighted when proposing your strategy, is quick wins. What are the immediate gains we will make from this? Patience is unsurprisingly thin in most businesses and so delivering results quickly is essential. One other concern with business priorities is that there are still many organizations that simply do not take digital seriously. Some see it as a new kid on the block, something that geeks do. This can be extremely worrying and disheartening for a strategic digital marketer. Ultimately you would not be in that organization if they did not have some belief in digital, so it is up to you to lead from the front and, as Gandhi put it, be the change that you want to see I am fairly sure that he wasn’t referring to digital marketing but the point remains entirely valid. Tackling this comes down to convincing your decision makers.

Regulation

There are many regulatory bodies in the world of marketing, from the FCC in the United States to the ASA in the UK and also many that are specific to industries, such as the APRA in Australia and CFDA in China. We cannot review each of these now and nor is it relevant to, but there are some issues of regulation that are worthwhile interrogating. Regulation is a complex area and one that has received a great deal of attention in the 21st century.

Privacy and data protection

Two of the most important regulations to look at, and seemingly the most popular to discuss, are privacy and data protection. They are two sides of the same coin, so let us look at them together.

Regulations differ from country to country and sometimes from state to state. Understanding these for your global strategy is important, but more important is understanding good principles of data usage, consumer protection and security. If you build your strategy to fit consumer behaviour and demand, whilst ensuring they are safe to trade with you, then you are most likely to be aligned with any of the laws and regulations that exist around the world.

One of the hot topics here is cookie policy. In the European Union (EU) there is a law called the e-Privacy Directive (EUR-Lex, 2015). Simply put, this ensures that users have been made aware of the cookie policy and given permission for its use before the cookie is put in place. There are exemptions and the directive itself is not overly prescriptive, which gives flexibility. Implied consent is also possible, which is good news for both marketers and consumers.

An increasingly common use of data is for location purposes. There are regulations here around anonymity that are vital to understand. There are many apps now that collect location data and need to do so to function. These include apps for local weather, finding lost phones, satnav and other services, and it is not appropriate and therefore in many cases legal to collect data unless it is essential to provide a service. As well as being relevant and ‘anonymized’ you must also have permission to do this. We are all familiar with accepting these conditions when using a mobile app and I expect you will agree that you would not want it any other way.

Cloud storage is another area of concern as personal data is kept outside of the physical control of the individual. By this I mean that, whilst the individual does have a great deal of control over what is shared to the cloud, that data is not held on their device but in another location. This involves the transmission of that data and the storage in a location or locations that are unknown to the user. This therefore has a number of associated risks such as damage as the data is in multiple locations, or theft as multiple individuals are involved in the handling of the data. There is also the risk that the supplier may go out of business and then your data has a risk of not being returned or of being disposed of via an insecure method. This is important to consider when using any cloud-based services such as marketing automation or e-mail software, as well as in the broader context around your customer data.

Social media is also a concern for privacy and there have been many controversies around the policies of various social media sites as they have been trying to establish best practice in this new channel. A great deal of information can be captured as users share deep levels of information about their lives on social networks. This includes not only their interests and friends but also their locations and media such as photos and videos. Some of these items, when shared on a network, will give the rights to that network to use them, yet not every user will be aware of this. You will be able to view this information through your social insights and use it to develop highly targeted campaigns. To maintain trust it is important to ensure that your campaigns do not overtly demonstrate that you have collected more data than necessary.

There is also the right to be forgotten, which has been a significant talking point in recent years and a concept that has been agreed by the EU and other parts of the world since 2006. The cases have become more common as people have begun to share more information online, and especially as some employers have begun to research potential employees online. Many of us share things on social media that we would not want a potential employer to find, and we may also have had life events that in our past have been reported online but which no longer represent who we are. One of the challenges here is that the controlling of information in this manner may restrict freedom of speech and may start to affect the neutrality of search results. These challenges are still being worked through but it is likely that this concept will become widespread as the damage to an individual’s real life through access to irrelevant personal information can be significant.

E-mail regulation

E-mail is probably the most established digital channel and there is even discussion that it has had its day, although I do not expect it will disappear in the coming few years. As it is a mature channel, the regulation is fairly well established. Having permissions from your recipients is vital and most companies have databases with clear marketing permission flags. Collection of this permission is also fairly standardized with the opt-in and opt-out routes. How these can be implemented differs regionally and, again, I would recommend you understand the implications fully if e-mail (or data collection as a whole) is a part of your strategy. Including unsubscribe options, implementing preference centres and automating your content strategy are all routes to ensure that your recipients receive and continue to receive what is truly relevant to them. There is no benefit in sending e-mails to consumers who are not interested, simply because you can.

Viral marketing and regulation

Finally a quick look at viral marketing. This is the ultimate goal of many social campaigns and has been a buzzword in digital marketing for many years now. It is a bit of a dark art, although there are of course themes that we can extract from successful viral campaigns. The key point to remember here is that regulation, or at least guidance, exists in many regions that dictates that companies should ensure any encouragement of promotion is clearly positioned as such when asking individuals to pass on messages. This is to stop companies from using their customers to get around marketing regulations by asking them to pass on your messages for you without the necessary regulatory wording. It is important therefore that anyone passing on a message should be asked to ensure that the person they are passing it on to would be interested in the message. This in turn ensures that they are not just spamming their friends in exchange for some benefit from the company.

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