Should Marketing Leaders Outsource Their Digital Strategy? Tales from the Trenches
Creativity Marketing Transformation

Should Marketing Leaders Outsource Their Digital Content Strategies?

I’ve held positions in both the digital agency world and on the corporate client side, and I’ve built digital strategies from both sides. When I was a digital strategist-for-hire for a client that was working with an agency on a new website design, I was asked by the CEO to provide a layer of support in reviewing the concept designs provided by the agency. Their initial concept was beautiful, but flawed. They represented functionality around the ability of the user to submit their information and book an appointment with the client’s sales team. Appointment booking functionality didn’t have the infrastructure nor the sales platform to support it.

I’m convinced that, had I not noticed the oversight, the project could have gone down a very expensive and frustrating path for both parties. The client did eventually also invest in a customer relationship platform for its sales team to support appointment booking functionality, and the project was accomplished efficiently because it was planned and not a last-minute reaction to the website project.

As marketing leaders, we wear many hats, from product owner and project manager, to user experience (UX) strategist and content marketer. In many of my own roles, I’ve worked closely with the internal and external strategy teams and the UX and design teams that ultimately make the strategy come to life in the products and assets that become the marketing campaigns and tactics.

But what happens when a strategy isn’t successful?

Just because you’re strategic doesn’t mean you can’t fail—especially if your strategy is misguided. When I became a client, my role and my perspectives both changed somewhat. I began to see inefficiencies that I didn’t notice before as an outside agency partner providing services to companies. The likelihood of a strategic oversight occurring goes up in proportion to your reliance on resources unfamiliar with your organizational goals. In other words, outsource intelligently and make sure the partner you choose is very familiar with your company and its overall goals.

After having participated on both the partner and client side, I have come to form a strong opinion about the way strategy translates into product design and implementation. I’ve seen gaps between the goals of the project and knowledge of those providing the strategy or design fail entirely or cause unnecessary delays, cost over-runs, or return trips to the drawing board. Through these experiences, I’ve discovered a few actions a marketing leader can take to help ensure success when hiring outside partners.

1. Define Your Long-Term Partner Vision

Defining a long-term partnership strategy and providing clarity on the roles partners play in your marketing strategy’s execution is a must.

Are you utilizing consultants and partners as a “SWAT team” approach where they swoop in on a specific campaign or project, provide a service or solve a problem and then exit (until the next crisis or project)? Or is your vision more of an ongoing partnership where the scale, the roles, and the services provided may vary, but the dynamic largely remains the same?

It’s not wrong to engage with partners in short, targeted ways, but the more familiar a partner becomes with your brand, the better capable they will become at helping you to identify, raise, and solve your core challenges. It is important that you think these questions through and define your vision at the onset of your partnerships. Setting expectations up front can provide a benefit to both the partner and your internal teams through clarity of roles and scope, reducing confusion of who’s doing what in your blended team approach.

Marketing leaders planning their digital strategy

2. Set the Tone for Your Teams

You’ll benefit from setting the tone of your team up-front. In the end, your partners and your internal teams are only as successful as you equip them to be. I’ve found that early involvement and education of external parties are keys to the success of partnerships. Don’t wait until your project needs rescuing to begin the search for a capable partner, even if it’s just a simple outside set of eyes. It’s always more expensive and complex to bring resources into a project midstream and ramp them up than it is to involve them at the onset.

At the same time, I’ve also become an advocate for the involvement of the core marketing team across all phases of a digital product’s development. Take the example of UX architecture. A user’s experience on your digital properties and platforms is core to the success of those platforms. If you choose to outsource those efforts, you run risk of defining a misinformed experience that’s not truly connected to your users. The involvement of your internal teams, stakeholders, and subject matter experts is crucial to ensuring both overt needs and nuanced preferences of your users are discovered, examined, and accounted for in your products.

To illustrate the importance of your internal team’s involvement, here’s an example. Once I was participating in a project where extensive stakeholder interviews were conducted by the agency. Requirements were documented and a prototype design was made. In review with the core internal digital team, we discovered that a database change wasn’t accounted for in the design because the other business stakeholders weren’t aware the change was coming. That structural change influenced a major portion of the user’s experience in the app, and the team was able to correct the oversight before development on the app began.

Getting user experience right in the mobile app

3. Examine and Formalize Your Preferred Team Model

How you approach your long-term team strategy will largely depend on your resources and capabilities as an organization. If your budget is limited, you may choose to focus on only the key strategies and tactics necessary to move your marketing efforts forward. (You may also want to start building consensus for brand storytelling among your enterprise’s leaders). Your internal headcount may be limited, making it necessary for you to outsource specialized functions, such as content marketing, UX, design, or development.

I’ve found there are three elements of a team’s dynamics a leader can adjust when executing a digital strategy. Those dynamics focus on varying mixes of internal and external strategy, product ownership and management, and creative design.

A few examples of these combinations include the following scenarios:

100 Percent Outsourced Strategy, Product Ownership, Project Management, and UX

In this model, the leader is compelled to outsource much or all of the strategy, product owner/manager, and user experience design process for a digital effort.

While the reasons for this model may vary—from constraints on internal head count to lack of qualified resources in the local market, the risks are big. In this example, only internal leadership is available to participate in guiding the project, making their participation absolutely critical to success.

Given the competing priorities presented to leaders, being involved in the everyday process of a project’s implementation is likely a risky proposition, even for the most hands-on leader.

Man mapping out a digital marketing strategyInternal Client Product Ownership with Outsourced Strategy, Project Management, and UX

Here, an internal resource or team plays the role of the digital product owner. That team or individual is the decision-maker in the process while the remaining functions (design, build, deploy, maintain) are largely executed outside of the organization.

This model can help to ensure decisions are made with the correct organizational context. However, there are still risks involved. Any decision originates from a question, and this method of internal ownership and external execution is only as successful as the ability of the team to ask the right questions of the client owner.

Shared Strategy, Product Ownership, and UX

The third and final model is one of a mixed or shared team dynamic. Internal and external resources participate directly in every phase of the project in this example–from strategy to execution. While this may seem like the ideal scenario, a multidisciplinary team of internal and external resources still has its risks.

Most of the risks associated with this model stem from communication (or lack thereof) and inefficiencies in overlapping efforts. It’s crucial for leadership to have the right internal resources in place and to define roles for the team in a mixed team dynamic. Who’s tasked with leading the strategy? Which resources will produce the initial user experience concepts for the project and what is the process to achieve the final approved design?

It’s important to answer key questions like this to ensure cooperation and minimize wasted effort on your blended team.

As a marketing leader, you already know that your partnerships are important to your marketing team’s success. Outsourcing components of the process to external “experts” have both positive and negative consequences to the process and the final product.

It’s important to understand that organizational knowledge can’t always be substituted with industry generalizations, “market research,” or statistical analysis. There are nuances within your organization that no external party will pick up on. At the same time, an external (to your organization or even industry) perspective can provide insight that never would have been realized internally.

Blended teams of internal and partner resources often provide the best mix for success through diversity of experience, perspective, and creativity and it’s up to the leader to determine the optimal mix for your team, your organization, your environment, and your budget.

Want to learn more about structuring the best digital marketing team possible? Check out our story: What the Content Marketing Team of the Future Looks Like.

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