Brands need to be agile in their marketing to exploit opportunity, mitigate risk and conduct continuous learning and adapting. Their web CMS technology platforms often fail to keep up. Small changes become big deals, and opportunities lost. This article article discusses technical debt, and why a marketer should care.
What is technical debt and why should I care?
Do any of these scenarios feel familiar?
- Your marketing team wants to put a campaign page up on your CMS. It needs a simple form integration into a CRM. But the development estimate to implement it feels disproportionate to the opportunity at hand.
- Your marketing team wants to use a great feature they’ve built on one site on another site. The two sites share a consistent brand, so it’s a surprise when the ‘cloning’ cost is almost the same as the original build cost.
- The development team, in trying to implement a necessary security patch, need a whole series of related upgrades to be made before the patch can be applied. It has to be done, but it swallows your marketing budget.
- Your team want to apply a small branding tweak across your web-sites, but it turns out this now needs a code change and QA to many many very similar and overlapping, (but separate) features on your CMS.
You have technical debt, and it’s killing your marketing agility.
Technical debt (also known as design debt or code debt) is a concept in software development that reflects the implied cost of additional rework caused by choosing an easy (limited) solution now instead of using a better approach that would take longer. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Technical\_debt
OK, how did we get here?
There are many routes to technical debt. Sometimes it’s a conscious decision to meet a business goal with code you acknowledge will be later discarded - also known as JFDI software development. This is perfectly legitimate if you accept the obsolescence inherent in code.
Mostly though, it affects systems we want to evolve, and is caused through lots of small pragmatic decisions coming back to haunt us:
- We don’t like spending marketing budgets on boring stuff like regular code maintenance.
- We are agile (translation: we don’t like planning).
- We love our digital design guidelines, but we love to tweak them as well.
Root cause 1 and 2 are systemic issues, and there is other advice out there to help guide you. For this article, let’s focus on root cause 3.
Brand consistency does not automatically deliver technical agility
If you run a multi-brand web-estate, a single brand multi-site, or just a single site with a pattern library, your teams will be dealing with design and technical debt on a daily basis.
Marketers seek brand consistency because they know that inconsistency undermines every online conversation they are trying to create with their consumer. But when you have a brand that spans multiple web-sites, sometimes in different platform technologies, the temptation is to create a guide - helping digital designers do the right thing. After all, we’ve always used brand guidelines to help above-the-line designers, right?
So, your organisation now has something called a digital style guide, build book, playbook or pattern library which outlines atomic design principles like how you render a button, a teaser card, a form, the layouts you should use.
And this is offered to different designers from your roster of brand and visual design agencies, who then apply it to a range of consumer, B2B and back office applications.
So it’s not a surprise when three applications of these guides come back with three varying visual treatments. And when these are presented to your development team, you get three different platform implementations. Hence your technical debt.
Guides versus systems
Guides guide. They provide a pragmatic route-map to executing across a number of scenarios so diverse that they cannot yet be predicted. And you don’t want to stifle innovation and creativity, so you want your brand designers to ‘push the brand’.
This is a tradition and an assumption in above-the-line advertising and marketing - where brand truths are made fresh and relevant again through the evolution of familiar tropes.
In technology-based marketing though, this creates technical debt that actually prevents innovation.
Systems on the other hand are rule driven, which means they can be modelled and executed in a single technology. Innovation is enabled by flexibility and configurability in the platform.
Unify the front end
The first step to dealing with this issue is to unify the web. CMS front-end. The point where your consumer interacts with your brand through the web needs a framework that can deliver a unified, brand-consistent, rule-driven system.
The framework should also deliver a consistent usability, accessibility, search-visibility and device-appropriate experience. This should be baked-in, so marketers and developers are not re-inventing the wheel, or reaching for their style-guide each time they need to publish something.
In addition, your marketing innovation derives from how you exploit the flexibility within the system, and iterate systemic change /within/ the system.
Doing this gives you some big advantages.
- You can now run your multi-site web estate from a single platform - so one set of code to manage and update.
- You can be confident that your brand is being executed correctly irrespective of language and market.
- You can make decisions about what content management you want to devolve to brand and market level, and what you want to manage centrally.
But unless you want to engage in an extensive headless React framework and backend content hub (and there are good reasons to do so in some circumstances), brands just want a single multi-site CMS platform that is flexible and can deliver a single ‘meta’ design system to multiple brands in their own visual identity.
How Meta Design Systems can help
Meta Design Systems are unbranded (I know this sounds counter-intuitive - but this enables them to power multiple brands with different visual identities). They live in super-instances that encompass 100% of all your web-estate’s needs and deploy design patterns and functionality in tailored packages to brand/market instances.
Once in a lead brand-site, they are configured with the specific brand settings (colour palette, typography, iconography etc) and rolled out to each language instance using the relevant content.
The design patterns in the Meta Design System are flexible and configurable, which means that a single design pattern can be configured to look and behave differently for different brands, or different use cases in the same brand.
The result is a brand-estate that is diverse, distinctive, focused on the consumer, but driven from a single platform.
What this means for your ROI
Meta Design Systems help you manage your technical debt. This means:
- your marketing team can use their budget on more interesting things that deliver consumer insight and value (lower opportunity cost)
- your development team are supporting a single code base, and each time a feature is added, every user of the codebase gets to use it (lower cost of ownership)
- your consumers get a consistent brand experience and improved value exchange (better brand effectiveness)
The next time you look at a multi-brand pharma division, financial-services or public-sector web-estate, ask yourself how many platforms are being used to deliver these experiences? If it’s the same platform, and yet as a consumer you feel within a bespoke environment for each site, then the likelihood is some kind of Meta Design System is in use.