The first step we begin with in the Interactive version of the SDLC is called ‘Discovery’. This is the stage where the agency and the client both learn quite a bit about each other and about what the other thinks about the project under discusssion. Both sides literally discover what it is that’s going to happen in the next few months as they work together to bring the Client’s project to life online.
Discovery for Clients
One of the main reasons to begin with a Discovery phase is because many clients begin with less than a perfect understanding of what they actually need within the Interactive space, let alone all of the many things which are possible. In the typical scenarios I’ve seen, the Client readily admits that they’re looking to the agency to provide the expertise in a proactive manner. I’ve been told directly by my clients that “Responsive customer service isn’t good enough for us; we need you to be aggressively proactive. You’re the experts. Advise us.”
This is actually quite laudable, and to be encouraged. A statement like that lets the agency know that they are on the hook, as it were, for more than just doing what they are told. It acknowledges the advisory role that a good agency will play, even as they educate their clients one project at a time. Eventually, experienced clients will begin to even out that knowledge playing field, but educated and experienced clients are the ideal kind of clients within the Interactive arena, because of the bonds of trust which hopefully have grown to help them get to that level. It cuts down on the time needed for explanations when both Client and Agency can speak each others’ languages.
What Clients Should Expect
In the Discovery phase, you should be talking to some kind of a guru from the beginning. Chances are, if you’re working with a larger agency, that the guru will have the job title of “Interactive Strategist”, or “Account Director”. Two different roles, but both normally in possession of the kind of specialized experience necessary to help listen to the rough ideas that the Client has for the project, and who will suggest in turn possible solutions aimed at delivering the kind of project that Clients actually need.
During the Discovery process, a Client should have at least one interview, face to face preferred, with their Strategist. The Strategist should be asking questions designed to give them a clear idea of what the actual goals of the Client are. When the Client has options, the Strategist should be delivering some Case Studies of how other people are actually using the kinds of options being presented. When the Client is responding to industry competiton, the Strategist should provide Competitive Analyses, documents which provide detailed breakdowns of what interactive tactics and strategies your competition is employing, as well as how well or poorly it’s working for them.
A Good Strategist
A good Strategist will not only plan for the immediate project, but they will set some benchmarks and a general strategic plan which will ideally go beyond the end of the current project to propose some over-arching longer-term goals that the current project will provide the initial direction and foundation for. With all things Interactive, having a plan and knowing what you’re aiming for are very important.
If nothing else, ask your Strategist to help you define some Success Benchmarks as part of the current project Discovery documentation. What that means is that the Strategist should be using their communication time with you as a Client to help figure out precise numbers or goals which you as the Client would consider to be signs of a successful outcome from the interactive project. It can be quantitative (generate a 10% increase in unique visitors to the site), or qualitative (update the User Interface of the project to be more user-friendly), but before you even begin to build, you need to have your “proof of Success” plotted out. As Sun Tzu wrote in the Art of War, the Victorious plan to succeed before ever beginning to take action. The losers begin to act, and THEN plan for victory. The same applies here.
Discovery from an Agency Perspective
Whether or not the Agency actually has the staff to retain a full-time Interactive Strategist/interactive marketing specialist of any kind, Discovery is still a crucial point in the process. For freelancers or small Interactive shops, the Discovery process can be mostly informal, but I will take great pains to underline the importance of setting up clear Success Benchmarks if you do nothing else. Even without a formal Strategic Plan, you need those Success Benchmarks. Often times, the first project that any Client will work through will result in a rude awakening to the fact that the Client is working with a set of Assumptions which are not grounded in realistic expectations. The creative doesn’t look the way they imagined, or there are lots of little extras they realize they want only after the job is almost complete. By having a concrete, Client-signed set of Success Benchmarks, you remove the guesswork. And more importantly, you provide an opportunity to help intercept and correct mistaken assumptions.
Remember, Clients not only want you to be aggressively proactive, during the Discovery phase they need you to be aggressively proactive. You can’t just dupe the Client into signing off on what you know will be bad Success Benchmarks, and then hide behind the documentation. During the Discovery process, you need to present options to the Client, but you need to do so in a way which will add to their understanding, not circumvent it.
Adjusting Client Expectations From the Start
Frequently, this is where the Client’s reach will exceed their grasp. They may be able to recognize the bells and whistles of greatness that they would really like to see in their finished project, but this is also the first of many areas where it is the Interactive Strategist’s duty to begin to introduce reality into the dreaming. Part of the Discovery services that you offer to your Client is not only as a way of enriching their dreams, but also as a phase where you begin to aggressively and proactively set their expectations to be grounded in the harsh reality that the Interactive Producer will be quick in forcing them to face when the next phase, Definition, gets underway.
Or, as I like to put it, before you can prep the Client for a successful launch, you have to get their visions on the ground, first.
How Long Does This Take, Anyway?
Discovery is one of those curious phases… it’s not technically required for every project. There are projects where the focus is mostly execution, not strategic planning. However, Success Benchmarks are essential for every build. Discovery, then, will last anywhere from a few hours spent drawing up and getting Clients to approve their Success Benchmarks, to months of planning sessions. It really depends on how knowledgeable and experienced the Client is, and how aware of the Interactive SDLC they are.
For that reason alone, it’s always best for Clients to come to the table asking how long Discovery will take, and more importantly, how much the Agency thinks it will cost.
Yes, cost. During Discovery, the Agency is providing you with access to an Expert. Experts are not cheap. In fact, on most Interactive Teams, the Strategist is one of the highest billing specialists you’ll deal with. In professional agencies, expect the bill to run upwards of $275/hour of their time, and Strategists as a rule don’t like to rush. They are entrusted with developing an overall strategy for how the Client will make money off of the internet, and that’s not something you would WANT to rush. Nor is it something you would want to linger over, either.
Discovery is the first pain point for many Clients because this is where a good agency will make certain that the Client’s illusions are swiftly deflated. This is where the cold hard reality begins to set in… the hype that you heard in the 90’s about the web being fast, and cheap? Not the case any more. Nowadays, just like everything else, you get what you pay for.
Discovery is also the phase where the costs should theoretically go down the more knowledgeable and experienced that the *Client* is, because Clients can and often do come to the table with the Discovery phase already taken care of in-house, or by another specialist that the Client hires directly. This can backfire sometimes, but in general, the more the Client understands the Interactive process and how to maximize their use of the Interactive medium, the less time that the Agency has to spend informing and adjusting Client expectations, and the more time that the Interactive Strategist can just ‘plan the work’. If there’s already an overaching Strategy Plan in place, then subsequent projects within the same Strategy can effectively minimize the time and money spent in the Discovery process.
That never means you should completely do away with Discovery. As much as the more tactically-minded clients would balk, you ALWAYS want to see an Interactive Strategist putting an hour or two toward your project. As an Agency, you always want clearly defined Success Benchmarks to be working against. As a Client, you always want someone who knows your account and has the overall plans for your interactive development clearly in mind from the beginning, to avoid duplication of efforts or working at cross-purposes to your established Interactive goals.
The End of Discovery
At the end of the Discovery process both sides will gather everything that was learned in the Discovery phase and they will boil it all down into several documents. Once you’ve begun generating the kind of documentation for the project that will actually define all of the elements of the project, you are moving from the Discovery Phase to the Definition Phase. We’ll look closer at Definition in tomorrow’s post, but for now keep in mind that perhaps the single most important document to be generated out of the Discovery and Definition phases is the Scope of Work. Chances are there’s already a Scope of Work of some kind in place to cover the Discovery and Definition part of the project (because how else will you know exactly what you’re paying money to the Strategist for or how long the process will go on without a SOW?) in which case the Definition phase will often produce an Adjusted SOW, or perhaps a Project Plan based off of the SOW and what was decided upon in Discovery. Even if your Agency doesn’t separate out Discovery from Definition, when you start talking about things like Sitemaps, Project Plans, and [adjusted] Scopes of Work, you’re moving on from Discovery and into the Definition phase.
Discovery is one of the most fundamentally important phases in the Interactive SDLC. Without it, the initial Risk level for the project jumps by 50%, at least. Even if you don’t have a formal Strategist, or a formal Discovery phase, do NOT consent to the beginning of ANY Interactive project until and unless both Client and Agency agree upon and sign off on specific, results-oriented Success Benchmarks. Just don’t even begin until you both agree how everyone is going to determine whether the project was a ‘Success’ or not.
Trust me. It’s the most important step for the Discovery phase as a whole. Ignore the Success Benchmarks, and you’re already setting yourself up for failure, because at that point, the Client is free to declare ‘failure’ on anything, for any reason whatsoever. And on the other hand, the Interactive Agency can declare ‘success’ on anything, for any reason whatsoever. If you want to avoid lengthy post mortems and arguments over who said what when to who and just exactly what context it was used in… then take the time to establish your Success Benchmarks for all stakeholders.
Next up, Definition!