Planning For Survival – Plan For Value

This article is from 2001, post dot-com crash, when things were all looking a bit pear-shaped. For the better as it turned out – looking back, I think perhaps that period marked the beginning of the industry ‘getting serious’. Although then again, I still see some of the same old mistakes still being made, even now…

Like the economy in general, the new media industry is experiencing a downturn. Clients are cutting back their internet and multimedia spending. Some are even cancelling projects entirely.

A noticeable gloominess has descended on the sector. People are worried. There have been a number of high profile agency failures in recent months. Many of the recently redundant are finding new employment harder to come by. Those with jobs are concerned about their security. New entrants to the industry are wondering whether they made the right choice. Many leading figures are quitting their dot com start-ups to return to more solid bricks and mortar companies.

Personally I do not believe the outlook is as bad as it may appear. The industry will recover and my own feeling is that the corner will be turned sometime in early 2002.

Companies will not stop commissioning new media projects. The internet in particular has become too well established a part of the media mix to disappear completely. But therein lies the rub. The internet is just that – a part of the media mix. It is not something separate and distinct. It is not a replacement for traditional media. Along with video, television, radio, print and the rest, it is just another option. It works at its best when treated as part of an overall communications strategy.

At the top end of the market, high-spending corporate commissioners have, as a general rule, known this for some time. But at the middle and lower tiers where budgets are smaller and timescales tend to be tighter, this fact has often been overlooked. Simply getting on the web or producing a multimedia CD-Rom has been the goal of many small-to-medium sized companies in the last few years. And in a time of plentiful work, agencies have often found it easier just to take the money rather than try to educate their clients.

This will change. Too much money has already been wasted on ineffective web sites. Much has been learnt and the same mistakes are unlikely to be made twice. Commissioners will still spend money, but they will expect to see results. They will not spend on a whim or for the sake of jumping on a bandwagon. Companies re-designing their web sites will do so for a reason. They will want to improve usability, simplify navigation, retain visitors for longer, turn more visitors into customers or provide a more efficient service. And they will want to be able to measure the effectiveness of their re-vamp.

Companies commissioning new web sites will expect more than simple brochure-ware. They will want functionality as well as design. They will want to be able to manage their own content, make their own updates, engage with their audiences through interactive and participatory features. Where once were static HTML pages or eye-catching Flash animations, will be on-line tools and applications.

Commissioners will expect their web sites to work. To be effective. To add value to their business. Great design, basic technology and re-purposed content will no longer be enough.

At the same time, however, budgets are likely to shrink. The downturn will put pressure on marketing departments to reduce their spending. Some may abandon their web sites altogether, though in the long term this will probably do them more harm than good. Others will see the value of the web but will need to achieve more for less spend.

To an extent, lower budgets can be offset by the commoditisation of basic web production skills. HTML coding and asset preparation, for example, are no longer high-cost, low-availability skills. Simple brochure-ware sites no longer need to cost thousands of pounds to produce. But at the same time, simple brochure-ware sites are unlikely to bring any form of return on investment, financial or otherwise.

On the other hand, the need for thorough strategic planning will become all the more apparent. In the past many web projects have begun at the design stage and ended with production. It is hardly surprising that they rarely delivered the hoped-for results. Strategic planning is essential if the expectations of commissioners are to be met.

The overall purpose of the project must be determined. Objectives, audiences, requirements – all must be identified. An appropriate solution must be specified. Scoping studies help solidify the deliverables as well as providing a basis from which to measure effectiveness. Information architecture is essential if the solution is to be usable. Functional specifications help keep the project on-track and make development more efficient. A strategy for on-going maintenance and expansion ensures the site evolves along a clear path after launch.

Commissioners need to realise, however, that these are all things that must be paid for. Proper strategy does not come as part of the pitch! Indeed, strategy development should be treated as a separate stage of the project, before any requests for tender are issued for actual design and production work. Strategy, design and production need not necessarily be done by the same agency. Neither is it likely that the planning can be done in-house. Often an outside perspective is needed. A thorough understanding of the medium, its technical and creative issues, and the business benefits it offers, goes without saying.

Clients will see this. Budgets may shrink, but a larger part of them will be spent on consultancy services to ensure the strategy is properly planned before the project is ever commissioned. This is, of course, bad news for any web agencies or freelancers who cannot find ways to add value on top of their design and production skills. Indeed, many larger companies will choose to take their production, and maybe even design, in-house, leaving only the strategy to be out-sourced.

For those who can offer more than just design and production services, however, the new media industry offers a bright future. Far from being a damaging slowdown, the current downturn may yet come to be seen as a much-needed nudge to get the industry onto a more business-like track after the roller-coaster ride of hype, expectation and disappointment of the last few years.

Clients will be better informed about their options. They will be more realistic about what is achievable. Indeed many will previously have worked on the supplier side. Others will seek independent advice before commissioning. They will continue to spend money, but they will demand results. The agencies with the best chance of survival will be those that have adapted to meet these demands. Those that can provide specialist services like strategic consultancy, application development, usability testing and effectiveness measuring. Those who truly understand the medium, rather than those who, like so many commissioners of the last few years, have simply been jumping on the bandwagon.

When the downturn is over the industry will have changed. It will have grown up, got serious. It will have realised that it too is a business, just like any other. And the clients will have woken up, learned from their mistakes. They’ll be better at recognising bad advice. But they’ll keep coming. The market will still be there – for those who can deliver results, substance as well as style. For those who can add value.

About Jonathan Hirsch

I've been working in the interactive media industry since 1995. I'm a problem-solver with a multi-disciplinary skill set. I work on a freelance / contract basis. I help clients create great digital products.

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