Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Four tips to choosing your digital partner | memeburn

Magnificent post by our Quirk CTO, Craig Raw (@craigraw)...

Four tips to choosing your digital partner | memeburn

There is no doubt that digital continues to be a growing part of every marketing budget. Choosing the right partner to assist your digital efforts is a critical decision. As critical, I’d argue, as the choice of agency in any marketing discipline to date. The reason for this lays in the nature of digital itself — uncontrovertibly, digital has technology at its heart.

For a marketer, what does this mean? When I talk technology, I mean hardware and software — always behind the scenes, but as essential as the engine in your car. Like your car’s engine, you leave the design of such technology to experts. And similarly, just like you would never buy a car without knowing you could get spare parts and expertise to fit them, so the choice of digital partner must be considered with the support necessary to maintain the software (and hardware) they use and create. This maintenance issue is a difficult one — without the knowledge of a software expert, how can a marketing professional make the right decisions upfront to avoid expensive rewrites later? The first step lays in choosing the right platform for your needs.

Look for solutions that fit your needs
If you are running a guesthouse, boutique store or similar small to medium business, it is very likely that you will be able to use off-the-shelf software. You will most probably have common requirements that are already addressed with little to no modification — for example, your website could be aWordPress or Magento install. Support for most of these platforms is widespread and reasonably priced.

If, however, you are an enterprise, you should be looking at enterprise software. Your requirements are almost certainly going to be specific, your modifications necessary, plentiful and long running. Your choice of partner… critical.

This is custom-made software — while your software developer will use common components and perhaps even a branded platform, the finished product will be unique to the needs of your organisation.

The first thing to look for is an enterprise level programming language — languages like Java and C# can be heavyweight for simple needs but possess an inherent structure that becomes important as the size of a software project grows. These languages provide good support for important enterprise software features like packaging and multithreading, and benefit from excellent developer tool support. In general, avoid PHP unless you are primarily looking for a CMS platform, and beware Ruby on Rails if you need to integrate with legacy systems.

Don’t let IT define your choices
At many organisations, the IT departments exert an unusual level of control. Partly because they are in charge of aspects of the organisation that are opaque to other departments, they are frequently given the ability to make decisions that affect the business beyond their remit. Let’s look at the company website. The goal of the website must surely be one of marketing, with a sales component ifecommerce is present. Hence, the needs of the marketing department should be paramount.

However, it is frequently IT that makes the software decision — a decision that is often clouded by the needs of IT to serve the company’s staff. A good example of this is Microsoft SharePoint – while SharePoint is a great choice for document sharing within an organisation, it is generally a poor choice to power an ecommerce website. If you are measured on sales and marketing, make sure the software choice is aligned with your goals.

Specialist or full service?
Once you have narrowed down your software choices, you will be looking at two types of partners to fulfil your needs. The first, a specialist software development house and the second, a full service agency. The focus of each differs. The software development house is often concerned with the development of so-called “backend” systems – examples include financial processing software and fulfilment software, largely used by specialist trained staff, or with no user interface at all. Software development houses employ mainly software engineers and often have limited design or usability proficiency.

Full service agencies have both of these skills however, and given their marketing background are accustomed in writing software suitable for a wide audience — the company’s consumers or entire staff complement. Such software has particular constraints in ease of use, look and feel and performance that (with all due respect) require expertise not core to the capabilities of most software developers. Choose correctly depending on your needs.

In particular, beware the lure of two agencies collaborating, one on the backend programming and one on the design.

The complex nature of software development means that such partnerships are prone to a poor end product or even failure. As any software development methodology will instruct, the best possible environment for developing software exists when the entire project team works in one room. By this I mean the software engineers and developers, designers, copywriters, usability practitioners, project managers, system administrators, conversion experts, SEO practitioners, QA staff, and all the other roles that go into the development of a modern digital marketing product.

Choose for the long term
Finally, the consequence of software maintenance is the need for a long term partner. No matter how well documented, any complex custom-made software will take time to transition from one development team to another. Even if your aim is to take the maintenance in-house, a partner chosen for their experience will develop software that avoids gathering “technical debt” and is written in a way that is easier to maintain and adapt to new needs, particularly as your business scales. Look for a partner who can demonstrate that they have maintained software for many years, and have successfully handed large projects over to other teams.

Ultimately, trust is critical. Your risk in digital is growing with your increasing investment, and so is the need for a partner that understands your strategy and can assist you in making the correct choices now for your future needs.

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