The digital marketing space changes at a blindingly fast pace. And while being on the look out for the next big thing is an important part of the game, it’s always good to tap the brakes on that impulse every now and then to make sure you’re not blindly wasting your time. In my experience, there are four key questions you should always ask before starting up any new digital marketing effort.

What are we actually trying to accomplish here?

Begin with the end in mind. It might be cliche, but it’s incredibly important advice, especially when you or someone else in a decision-making capacity is feeling the allure of the latest digital marketing tool. Before you talk tools and tactics, you’ve got to spend some time getting crystal clear on what you actually want to accomplish.

Case in point, I recently met with a college looking to redesign their website. One glance at their badly outdated site, and it seemed obvious why they were ready for a re-do. That assumption evaporated, however, when we asked a simple question we thought we already knew the answer to: “why do you need a new website in the first place?” In a flash, the floodgates opened and the tone of the conversation changed.

“For-profit colleges are eating our lunch!” the department head exclaimed.

Suddenly, it was clear that this website project wasn’t just about the website. It was about a much larger strategic issue their organization was facing. Most importantly, we immediately realized fixing the website wasn’t going to solve the problem the way our prospect hoped.

Moral of the story: Do the work of getting past the fluffy surface stuff. Getting more website visitors isn’t a core goal and neither is getting more Facebook likes. Ask why, ask it again, and keep asking it until you’re satisfied you’ve gotten to the core of the real issue.

What are ALL ways we could move the needle?

Once the actual underlying goal has been identified, it’s time to examine all the possible avenues of attack on your goal. Naturally, it’s tempting to jump right to the “obvious” solutions or the solutions you’re the most comfortable with, but this is a mistake.

If you realize you’re fixated on digital solutions, push yourself to consider off-line solutions, and vice versa. When possible, make a point of bringing in folks who have a different skill set and diverging opinions. At the very least, you’ll sharpen your understanding of the problem and your rationale for doing exactly what you thought you should do all along. Best case scenario, you’ll uncover opportunities you hadn’t even considered.

How will we know if we’re succeeding?

Once you’ve identified the core issue(s) and some promising lines of attack, it’s time to start thinking about how you’ll know whether or not your solutions are working.

At a high-level, the key is finding indicators that are both measurable and meaningful. Lots of things in the digital world are easy to measure, but aren’t necessarily all that meaningful. (I’m looking at you Facebook likes, pageviews, and ad impressions.) These metrics are easy to get, but they’re rarely all that meaningful.

Like most things in life, you’ll need to dig a little deeper to get to the good stuff. One way to get to the good stuff quicker is to drill down into specific segments and metrics that give you a more accurate indication of how you’re doing.

For example, let’s say your objective is to improve your website’s mobile experience. A good start at measurement would include taking a look at the bounce rate, time on site, and pageviews for big dumb segments like all mobile and tablet traffic. An even better approach would be to look at pageviews, bounce rate, and time on site for a highly specific segment like first-time organic visitors on mobile. When it comes to mobile, these folks are your toughest critics. If you can move the needle for this group, you’ve probably made an improvement with your larger audience as well.

It’s also helpful to think about gathering both quantitative and qualitative information. Consider a vanilla metric like pageviews. In general, we tend to think that more pageviews is a good thing. But, what if your visitors are racking up lots of pageviews because they can’t find what they’re looking for?

This is where adding a layer of qualitative insight can be extremely helpful, and it’s not all that hard. Using a tool like Qualaroo, you can set-up an on-exit survey to ask visitors why they came to your site and whether or not they were able to accomplish what they set out to do. The results can be surprising. You might discover that your website isn’t nearly as useful as you thought, or that some of your visitors are looking for things that you’d never think to put on your site in a million years. The point is, none of that kind of information is available through purely quantitative measures, but it’s still extremely valuable for explaining the why behind the what.

What would have to be true in order for this work?

This last question is by far my favorite. It’s a great all-purpose question that helps you examine assumptions and reveal wishful thinking.

Thinking back to the college I mentioned earlier, their goal was to improve their ability to compete with for-profit colleges by updating their website. So, let’s think for a minute. Assuming they made no other changes to their marketing, what would have to be true in order for that to work? And by work, I mean create a large, measurable change in their ability to attract new prospects and convert them into paying students.

Again, assuming they made no other changes to their marketing other than upgrading their website, what would have to be true in order for this to make a big change:

  • First and foremost, websites like theirs would need to play a major role in their targets decision making process.
  • Their old website would have to be putting them at a significant competitive disadvantage, such that just improving it would make a substantial positive change.
  • The college would need an accurate understanding of the types of content and messages that are effective with prospective students.
  • Their website would have to communicate that content and messaging at least as well, if not better, than their competitors’ websites.
  • Their website would have to garner at least as much interest (via organic and/or paid channels) as their competitor’s websites.

I’m sure you might have other ideas to add to this list, but the point is that by spending five minutes thoughtfully answering the question, you can quickly identify critical factors that will influence your success. In this example, the underlying assumptions create a whole new set of questions.

  • How much of the decision-making process is influenced by the website?
  • Does the client have a good grasp of content and messaging, or are they relying anecdotes and gut feelings?
  • Realistically, could they promote their website as well as their for-profit counterparts?

Importantly, even if the answers to these questions aren’t perfect, at least they can now approach the problem with their eyes wide open and much more realistic expectation of what to expect.

There’s a lot to get excited about when it comes to digital marketing, especially when new approaches and technologies seem to emerge every day. Still, there’s a fine line between smart early adoption and blindly jumping on the next flavor-of-the-week tactic. By taking a few minutes to examine your goals, KPIs, and assumptions, you can increase the odds that you’re putting your efforts on the right things for the right reasons.