The Secret To Better Online Marketing: It’s Not What You Think

A Zappos customer service employee recently set a record with an epic  ten-hour conversation with a customer. At Netflix, employees get unlimited PTO because the company concluded “we should focus on what people get done, not on how many days worked.” So, what do these random tidbits have to do with your online marketing success? […]

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A Zappos customer service employee recently set a record with an epic  ten-hour conversation with a customer. At Netflix, employees get unlimited PTO because the company concluded “we should focus on what people get done, not on how many days worked.”company-culture

So, what do these random tidbits have to do with your online marketing success? Turns out, a lot! The culture you create in your company will absolutely impact your marketing success, even if you can’t track it through your web analytics software.

Factors That Drive Online Marketing Success

Why does one marketing team outperform another? As the founder of a marketing agency, this question keeps me up at night. After all, if I don’t produce superior results for clients, my business is in jeopardy. So I did a quick brainstorm to try to come up with competitive advantages a marketing team might have. I then ranked these factors in order of importance:

  1. Better Culture
  2. Better Process
  3. Better People
  4. Better Technology

Before discussing the importance of culture and process, let me state for the record that I think that the right people and the right technology are very important to online marketing success. Regarding great people, someone smarter than me once said, “If you think an expert is expensive, wait until you see what an amateur will cost you.”

And, it is absolutely impossible to run effective online marketing campaigns today without at least some great technology, be that campaign management software, tag management, attribution, analytics, landing page testing software, DMPs, DSPs and so on.

The problem with people and technology, however, is their impermanence. Great online marketers are in high demand, and expecting your superstar performers to pledge lifetime allegiance to your company/agency is simply unrealistic. Producing consistently awesome marketing results year-after-year has to be the result of something more than the people on your team.

The same is true for technology. Technology changes rapidly, as does your competitive advantage driven by technology. Technology that is the market leader today might be outdated next month. You can attempt to stay on top of all of this, but, again, consistent superiority will be difficult to maintain.

So, that leaves us with the top two differentiating factors: process and culture.

Two Sides Of Process

I love process! I’ve always felt that a marketing agency without consistent process isn’t really an agency at all, but rather a bunch of smart people running around doing things. Imagine if every time you went to McDonald’s, your Big Mac tasted differently depending on who the cook was that day. That’s what working with an agency without process would be like.

The downside of process, however, is that it can hamper independent thinking. In the case of McDonald’s, too much independent thinking can hurt success, so lots of process is a good thing.

In an agency or online marketing team, team members get hefty salaries in part because they are expected to come up with amazing ideas to drive incremental profit and market share. The Netflix culture document states this pretty plainly: process is important as your company grows, but too much process drives away “high-performance employees.”

Why Culture Trumps Process

So, that leaves us with culture. Think about any company you admire (or detest); the odds are that the reason you love or hate them is their culture. Here are examples of a few companies that have strong cultures (descriptions are mine, not the companies’):

  • Zappos: Service, service, service!
  • Goldman Sachs: Make money, above all else
  • Google: Solve problems programmatically
  • Costco: Save money for customers, avoid frills
  • Netflix: Hire the best, give them freedom

The above have built consistently successful companies, despite losing top talent and despite competitive and economic changes.

New employees entering these companies are indoctrinated into the company culture from day one. Sometimes, it is through rigorous training (for example, all new employees at Zappos have to spend three weeks answering customer service calls), and sometimes it is through exposure to the culture itself (I would imagine that new team members at Goldman Sachs learn very quickly that making the firm lots of money will get you promoted).

With a strong culture, you don’t need extensive top-down mandated processes; team members implicitly understand what is right or wrong for the business and act accordingly.

The Difference Between Process- & Culture-Driven Companies

Here’s a hypothetical to contrast the difference between a process-driven and culture-driven company. Let’s say that a client of a marketing agency gets unexpected publicity during a weekend football game, causing non-brand search conversion rates to increase. An employee at a process-driven marketing agency is watching the football game and hears their client mentioned. “Good for them,” he thinks. “I’m glad my client got some good coverage.”

At the culture-driven agency, where the company emphasizes “doing what’s right for clients, all the time,” the employee seeing the same publicity immediately races home and proactively increases bids on non-brand terms in order to take advantage of the favorable conversion rates. He might also make a note in the agency’s knowledge base about his experience so that future team members can act similarly in the future.

Did the process-driven employee do anything wrong? Well, not really; since there wasn’t a rule in place that told him to proactively increase bids, not doing anything was technically the right decision. But this rigid adherence to process resulted in a missed opportunity to do something extraordinary for the client. Which agency do you think will have better client retention?

It should be noted that culture-driven companies are not limited to highly-paid technical workers. To hear a great example of the difference between process and culture, I strongly recommending listening to This American Life‘s great story of General Motors’ NUMMI plant in Fremont, CA. The contrast between American car companies’ process-driven approach and Toyota’s culture-driven approach described in the piece is shocking.

My Culture Document And Mea Culpa

When I started 3Q Digital in 2008, I had never worked at a marketing agency, though I had been a client several times over. I resolved to create an agency with the type of culture that I wanted agencies to have but often found lacking as a client.

I created an internal document called the “14 Commandments of Client Service” and emailed it to my team. Eventually, we even posted it on the walls at the office. Here’s the list of commandments; hopefully they are self-explanatory (if they aren’t, you can read a more comprehensive post of some of the commandments here):

  1. Be Proactive, Not Reactive
  2. Over-communicate
  3. Everyone is a Client
  4. Under-Promise, Over-Deliver
  5. Do More than the Bare Minimum
  6. Love the Client’s Business, and Demonstrate Your Love
  7. Make Face Time
  8. Act Like It’s Your Business
  9. Build Personal Relationships
  10. Be Honest
  11. Follow the Process
  12. Communicate Success
  13. Have a Point of View
  14. The Customer is Always Right, Unless He’s Wrong, and Then He Still May be Right

Now, before you write off this column as a sanctimonious humblebrag, I have a confession to make: over the last year or so, I haven’t done as good a job as I should have of promoting our culture at 3Q Digital.

During that time period, we’ve grown tremendously — from fewer than 50 team members to more than 100, from two offices to five, from an executive team of two to six. And it turns out that growing a business requires a lot of non-culture-focused work: stuff like legal structure, finances, HR, office space, sales and marketing.

So today, there are people on my team who have never seen my “14 commandments.” As a result, I can state emphatically that the culture at 3Q Digital today is not as powerful as it was during the early days of the company. I’ve even gotten comments from team members saying that the company is becoming “too corporate,” which is the antithesis of the type of company I set up to build.

Do we still do great work for clients? Of course. Do we still have amazing team members? Definitely. But I know that as we continue to grow still bigger, I cannot keep my top performers nor continue to wow our clients unless we bring culture back front and center to our company.

In the next few weeks, I’m taking my own advice to heart and will implement a slew of culture initiatives at my company. This may include creating a “Culture Czar” to help educate and evangelize our culture internally, including examples of great applications of our culture at our all-hands meetings, and ensuring that we determine promotions and raises based, at least in part, on how a team member lives the culture.

The good news for me — and you — is that culture is always malleable. Every interaction you have with a client, team member, or vendor is an opportunity to express and define your unique culture. Growing culture is not easy (if it was, every company would be like Zappos or Netflix), but not growing culture is deadly. Start building your amazing culture today. I guarantee you’ll reap the rewards in time!

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily MarTech. Staff authors are listed here.

About the author

David Rodnitzky
David Rodnitzky is CEO and co-founder of 3Q Digital, a marketing firm with offices in the San Francisco Bay Area and downtown Chicago. David is the founder of the LinkedIn Online Lead Generation Group, an advisor for Marin Software, and a regular contributor to the 3Q Digital blog. He can be found at numerous speaking engagements across the SEM community.

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