“If we cannot control the volatile tides of change, we can learn to build better boats.” – Andrew Zolli
For anyone who is immersed in the world of digital marketing, whether it be through search, social, PR, content marketing, conversion optimization etc, the only constant we can anticipate is change. While the dynamics of an ever-evolving industry are maddening to some, those that embrace (and even enjoy) chaos are able to thrive through responsiveness, adaptation, and the ability to “pivot” early and often. Between the availability of competitive intelligence, advancements in internet technology, evolving consumer expectations, and the “black box” dynamics of search engines, the lifespan of strategic and tactical initiatives can be so short that slow-to-warm organizations may find themselves implementing retainer marketing plans well past their expiration dates.
So how do we create effective, efficient and elegant digital marketing programs that are scalable, sustainable and successful in the face of an industry that has likely undergone some significant change during the time it’s taken you to read this sentence? How do we develop the ability to adapt to the challenge of unpredictable change while maintaining continuity in fulfilling a core purpose? How do we develop resilient systems*?
According to Andrew Zolli, author of Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back, “Resilience is [commonly] defined as the capacity of the system, enterprise, or a person to maintain its core purpose and integrity in the face of dramatically changed circumstances”. Zolli further refines the goal of systemic resilience as “Preserving adaptive capacity-the ability to adapt to changed circumstances while fulfilling one’s core purpose”. Zolli goes on to explain what he sees as core patterns of resilience. The purpose of this post is to examine some of Zolli’s core patterns of resilience and their application to the digital marketing world.
Core Patterns Of Resilient Digital Marketing
Tight feedback mechanisms are necessary to determine when an abrupt change or critical threshold is nearing. One of the unique aspects of digital marketing is the ability to measure virtually everything, and social media specifically allows for systems to monitor and respond to events in real-time.
Coupled with appropriate feedback mechanisms, dynamic reorganization is achieved with embedded counter mechanisms, which lie dormant until a crisis occurs. For systems having social media and PR crisis plans in place, this allows crises to be responded to similarly to the human body dispatching antibodies in the bloodstream at the first sign of infection.
Components that plug or unplug with one another as necessary, allowing the system to be reconfigured on-the-fly when disruption strikes, or to scale up or scale down when the time is right. At it’s most basic, modular structures are exemplified by WordPress’ plugin system, allowing users to adapt the core CMS to a plethora of functional needs. Micro-sites, social causes and seasonal campaigns are also examples of marketing components that can be “plugged-in” as needed.
Related to modular structure, decoupling occurs when a system detaches itself from underlying material requirements or diversifying resources that can be used to accomplish a given task. For retail businesses that historically played to Google’s product search, they might find the new “pay-to-play” model of Google Shopping less profitable, and shift resources to an alternative.
The overall system is improved as we expand the diversity of sources that feed it and increase the efficiency of the tasks we use the power for. Diversified efforts are one of the essential tenants of a resilient digital marketing program, as homogeneous strategies can be disastrous when tides change (i.e. relying on comment or forum links for search engine rankings).
Zolli uses a prime example of communication protocols covering the Internet. Specialized languages encode a vast menagerie of inputs and outputs, yet as protocols they remain utterly basic, evolving slowly if at all. While marketing strategies and tactics are highly susceptible to the Red Queen Effect, the core purpose of marketing has remained simple: to get and keep customers.
What do starlings, truck routing and cloud computing have in common? Swarm Intelligence, where groups of latent, redundant units swarm together, scaling up and down to complete a given task, then disband. Think of the power of the collective in cause marketing through social media, or the coordination of flash mobs in experiential marketing. The power of the Swarm is that it allows a system to accomplish things inaccessible to individuals.
Clustering is about bringing resources into close proximity with one another to establish both density and diversity, in such a way that they may operate as aspects of a single entity. An effective digital marketing program doesn’t tolerate “siloing” of channels, treating search as distinct from social, PR, content etc, but instead recognizes the interplay and systemic relationship between disciplines (if you’re interested in the concept of collective-as-singularity, check out the History of Philosophy podcast #88 Simplicity Itself: Plotinus on the One and Intellect).
Maintaining resiliance as a core concept in digital marketing doesn’t provide any direct answers. Its purpose rather is to create a lens through which to consider your strategy and tactics. Is your business and/or program capable of maintaining a core purpose in the face of dramatically changed circumstances, or do you find yourself changing your value proposition with every turn of the tide (“we’re web designers… wait, I mean lead generation… umm, social media experts… no – we do inbound marketing… I mean content marketing… we’re digital ninja gurus 3.0…arrggh!”)?
Our model is to maintain long-term relationships with our clients and aid them in assessing, selecting and coordinating online marketing initiatives. As is the the case in most of these relationships, we are accountable today for tactics implemented years ago, which means we have to consider risk and reward much further into the future. The downside is that we’re often passing on tricks, tactics and exploits that demonstrate short-term benefits, but seem risky in the long game. While this approach is less likely to show any stunning short-term snapshots, it’s also much less likely to experience severe penalties and catastrophic blow-back (ala the J.C. Penny debacle and many other mass link-building hustles). Even better, game-changers like Google’s Penguin and Panda updates tend to have a positive impact on more resilient programs. After all, for every site that Google penalizes, someone else gets to fill the vacuum.
* while “systems” refers to any active construct of interrelated parts, the application within this post is almost entirely referring to peoples connected through technology networks.