How to set your digital policies up for continuous improvement

How do you create policies that act as guard rails, giving employees a high degree of freedom within a framework established to minimize the possibility of making a mistake?

Kristina Podnar
July 9, 2020
· 8 min read

I’ve always said that digital policies are about maximizing opportunity while minimizing risk. First, organizations have to determine the level of risk they’re comfortable with. Then they have to develop policies to support that level of risk tolerance. The policies act as guard rails, giving employees a high degree of freedom within a framework established to minimize the possibility of making a mistake. A checklist that prevents content creators from publishing a post until certain criteria are met is one example. Another example would be a requirement that Marketing can’t launch an overseas campaign without researching the relevant regulatory requirements and verifying that their campaign meets those requirements.

When you’re starting a digital policy initiative from scratch, it seems overwhelming. You have to look backward and tear apart all of your existing processes to find the places where mistakes could creep in, and then come up with ways to seal up those vulnerabilities. And then you give yourself a big round of applause and think that you’re finished except for making sure everybody abides by the new policies and measuring their effectiveness.

But that approach leaves a big, gaping hole: the opportunity to learn from mistakes, whether they’re your own or another company’s. If your digital policies don’t include a process for monitoring the business world, capturing digital missteps, ferreting out the lessons, and incorporating them into your own digital policies, you’re really missing out -- not to mention leaving yourself open to making similar mistakes.

Let’s take a look at a few examples.

Digital missteps that should have been a lesson to us all

The Gap logo debacle

What happened

The 2008 recession hit Gap (and its customers) hard. Instead of panicking, however, the management team responded in a way that illustrated that the brand was aligned with its customers: Basic, but hip. They focused on discounts and special offers, they strengthened the brand, they built a presence on social media, and they launched a campaign about being able to shop anytime, anywhere, via the web. Nobody doubted that the company was led by a team of experts who knew what they were doing.

Their efforts were an enormous success and saw the company through the first two turbulent years after the recession. By 2010, however, customers were ready to start spending again, but Gap hadn’t caught up. Everything about the company seemed...stale.

So...they punted. Instead of doing the work to find out what kind of styles customers expected from their brand in 2010 and then doing the hard work to deliver those styles, they just launched a new logo. And it was despised on such a degree that the company pulled it after only five days, returning to the tried-and-true blue square.

Lessons to be incorporated into digital policies
  • Nobody (including the C-suite) can change any branding elements without also involving Marketing, Product Development, Customer Relations, etc. Gap tried to fix a product problem with a logo change -- in other words, a bandaid.
    But rebranding is incredibly expensive: updating things like websites, signage, letterheads, business cards, and even price tags; getting trademark protection for the new logo, etc.. And that’s not even counting the things Gap should have done: research to find out if the rebrand resonates with your target audience and then introducing it with a well-planned campaign.
    One takeaway is that customers may be more attached to your branding elements than you realize. Your digital policies should make it clear that no branding elements can be changed on a whim and that, if they are changed, the change should be well-executed and based on extensive customer research. Another is that a logo alone can’t reinvent a brand; there have to be very real changes that customers can see.
  • Make sure there are employees specifically assigned to monitoring social media, and train them to elevate any concerns, even if they seem minor, to management. Because Gap employees were paying attention when Twitter and Facebook started going nuts, they were able to back out before too much damage was done. They still fumbled a bit by asking customers for their ideas, which many took to be a plea for free crowdsourcing, but at least they hadn’t implemented a bunch of physical changes that would have had to be undone. By listening to social media, they were able to react almost immediately.
    The corollary, of course, is that management actually has to take marketing employees seriously when they raise concerns from social media. If employees are repeatedly ignored or patted on the head, they’ll start keeping their mouths shut -- and you’ll lose a big asset.

Pepsi and Kendall Jenner

What happened

Black Lives Matter protests have again captured the world’s attention, just as they did in 2016 -- except that, hopefully, no one will make a mistake as stupid as the one Pepsi made with Kendall Jenner, standing at the front of a crowd of protestors, handing a police officer a Pepsi.

Looking back, it seems ridiculous -- as was Pepsi’s initial statement that they were “trying to project a global message of peace, unity, and understanding.” Clearly, they were trying to hijack a movement by associating it with their product. They then made things even worse by apologizing for “putting Kendall in that position.”

At the time, though, somebody obviously thought it was a good idea, and it slipped through any safeguards that may have stopped it.

Lessons to be incorporated into digital policies

If your organization suffers the repercussions of a digital faux pas, it’s important to review your digital policies to find out how it happened. Maybe there were no policies addressing that particular situation, or maybe the policies were ignored due to a lack of enforcement.

Going back to the Pepsi example, they might have considered making the following changes to their digital policies:

  • Establish a policy that prohibits capitalizing on social movements for commercial gain. This will prevent someone in Marketing from jumping on what looks like a golden opportunity without considering the consequences.
  • Decide what position your organization will take on social issues (and how those positions will be decided) in general: Many companies would prefer to take the safe route and remain neutral, but that’s becoming harder to do, with activists claiming that silence equals complicity. It’s far better to decide ahead of time which issues your organization will prioritize -- healthcare, social justice, the enviroment, etc. -- and what your positions will be. If your digital policies offer clear guidance for responding to various cultural movements, front-line social media employees will be more likely to respond correctly when the Twitterverse starts imploding.

    But it’s not just about the messaging -- there has to be substance behind your messages. You can’t start a social awareness campaign while continuing to do business the way you always have (if your current practices contradict your newly established values, that is). The public will be watching to see that there is substance to your messaging, and they’ll be quick to call you out if they don’t see that evidence. So another addition to your digital policies may be that you won’t start proclaiming your support for any social movement until you make sure you can back it up with action.

Changes in Google’s algorithms

What happened

Google is constantly nudging the internet in the direction it wants it to go -- most recently, focusing on delivering quality content that serves the searcher’s needs.

But those updates don’t come without a price. When Google’s Panda update was released in 2009, it hit low-quality, “content farm” sites like a tsunami: One of them, Demand Media, lost $6.4 million in the fourth quarter of 2012 alone.

While Google doesn’t often make such massive changes to their algorithms, they do continue to tweak them. Sometimes the changes are announced. Sometimes, the first sign is a sudden, dramatic drop in SERPs.

Lessons to be incorporated into digital policies

Your organization’s digital policies should stipulate how you’ll respond to Google algorithm changes both proactively and reactively. When Google announces a change, your policies should lay out the steps for how you’ll make sure you’ll benefit from the change.

Your policies should also spell out the steps you’ll take if you notice a sudden drop in SERPs. That might include checking for things like a preference for semantic search or penalties for things like spammy links (both inbound and outbound) and making any required changes to stay on Google’s good side.

Website crashes due to high traffic

What happened

There really is such a thing as being too popular. In the world of e-commerce, it usually shows up as a site that crashes under unusually high demand. Here are a few examples:

  • A number of cinema websites crashed when tickets for “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” went on sale.
  • When Bitcoin launched on the Chicago Board of Options Exchange, high demand caused the CBOE site to crash.
  • A number of brands seem unable to anticipate the increased traffic they’ll get from Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales: J. Crew, The Perfume Shop, Macy’s, etc.

Lessons to be incorporated into digital policies

Some spikes in traffic can’t be anticipated -- such as when Meghan Markle wore a coat by Line the Label when she announced her engagement to Prince Harry. Others -- new product launches, for example -- can be anticipated and should be prepared for via testing. Your organization’s digital policies should try to prevent crashes -- and the resulting lost sales -- by specifying what testing will be done under which circumstances. The policies should also establish mitigation procedures in case the site ever does crash under a heavy traffic load.

Your digital policies should be living documents

I’m very familiar with the work it takes to produce comprehensive digital policies! So it would be nice if we could consider the job to be finished at some point. But the world continues to throw us new challenges -- pandemics, natural disasters, the need to minimize risks for changing business circumstances, etc . Those things will continue to happen, and each time we fail to codify those lessons into our digital policies represents a lost opportunity. In the worst cases, organizations take a big hit in revenue, reputation, etc., and gain nothing.

I encourage everyone to be proactive. Develop methods for capturing “lessons learned” now...before those “learning opportunities” present themselves. You’ll be too busy mitigating whatever “emergency” you’re dealing with to think about “What next?” But if “What next?” is built into your digital policies, you’ll have a framework that ensures your digital policies will continue to improve as your organization works its way through new ch

Want more practical advice on digital policies? Read other articles in “Shifts in Technology” series:

Part 1: Do your digital policies address natural disasters?

Part 2: Digital policies are no good if they’re static

Part 3: Is there risk hiding in your digital policies?

Need a hand getting your policies in order? Get in touch to schedule a workshop or discuss a consulting engagement.

Photo by Grant Ritchie

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