Outsourcing Expertise aka: The Big Web Blunder

Outsourcing Expertise aka: The Big Web Blunder

In the spring of 2000 I cut my teeth in web “programming” when I built intel.com. At the time I was working for a prestigious ad agency in Salt Lake City (DSW or EURO RSCG DSW Partners). I began working under another developer since it was the first time I had ever written any software for the web (if you can call HTML/Javascript/CSS software), but I was soon given the reigns when that developer left to work for another company.

Since then I’ve built dozens of websites for companies both large and small. I worked for one other ad agency and I’ve worked as an consultant or small business owner providing web programming services. 10 years of experience creating technology for the internet has allowed me to identify several patterns or stereotypes that clients follow. I also have a pretty strong opinion about who I’m interested in working for and why.

Client Stereotypes

Two client stereotypes I’ve observed include the “do it yourselfer” and the “outsourcer”. The first one is bent on doing everything himself. While the outward appearance is the same for most do it yourselfers, the underlying motivation varies. Here are the two main reasons that someone takes on the do it yourselfer role:

  • Don’t have (or want to spend) money to pay someone else to do it
  • Don’t believe that anyone could do it as well as they could

I personally lean toward the do it yourselfer role, which is why I don’t really understand the outsourcers very well. The outsourcers are the ones that seem to have ideas, but don’t have any interest in the nitty gritty details. I’m not sure if they just don’t like doing it but they could, or if they don’t really feel like they could do it, but can see that it needs to be done. I suspect there are some who fall on each side.

Each stereotype described above comes with it’s own vision problems. For example, do it yourselfers don’t really understand what other people want. This probably stems from the fact that they don’t *care* what other people want. Outsourcers are really good at knowing what other people want, but they don’t know or care to learn how to get it for them. While oursourcers can identify a need and are usually good at selling it, they don’t always know if what they had produced (the thing they outsourced) actually scratches the itch it was intended to scratch.

Presumed Expertise

Regardless of which stereotype you approximate, every business owner takes on the role of “presumed expert”. For example, the very second you say something like “I have a small business selling switches to turn computer speakers off and on”, it wouldn’t be to outrageous to expect someone to reply “wow, I don’t know a thing about speaker switches. You must be really smart.” POW! You’re an expert!

Who knows if that’s really true or not. If you’re a do it yourselfer then you probably are an expert and you do know a lot about speaker switches. If you’re an oursourcer then you might not know anything more than that there was a need in that market and you found a product and filled the need. In either case, the rest of the world will look to you as an expert, and if they ever have a question about speaker switches, guess who they’re going to ask. That’s right, it’s you. Congratulations!

Web Developers

Let’s turn out attention to the average web developer for a minute. Here you have the ultimate do it yourselfer. He loves open source, he’s thrilled with all the things he doesn’t have to buy because he can make his own or “copy” someone else’s and he hates the idea of parting with any money. He also suffers from the short sighted affliction of “I don’t know what you’re trying to do, but look how cool this is…”

So what happens when you put a do it yourselfer together with an outsourcer (this naturally happens all the time)? Well, you get some funny business in translation, and a few more assumptions.

What outsourcers really want

Here’s the deal. I have many outsourcers come to me as a web developer expecting to get a turn key site. They explain that they just want a site that will sell and have all the information it needs. They always want it to be easy to update and change. They want it to look good. They want it to be SEO optimized.

Those are all great things, and they are useful features, but people don’t make purchases based on SEO optimization or the colors of a site, or because it is easy to change. They buy solutions to their problems. They don’t buy pills, they buy weight loss. They don’t buy clothing, they buy a self image that matches their subjective idea of themselves. They don’t buy a ride on a boat or an airplane, they buy a memorable vacation or relaxation. The list goes on, and hopefully you can see that what people want really has almost nothing to do with the technology used to build the site.

So what an outsourcer wants is to tell people that he has ‘weight loss’, or ‘self image’ or ‘relaxation’. Some people call this Brand, and on some level it distills down to Trust. The bottom line is that an outsourcer isn’t focused on technology or features. He couldn’t care less. What he wants is to communicate his message.

Outsourcing Expertise aka: The Big Web Blunder

Unfortunately, what I see happen all to often is that the presumed expert will try to outsource the entire task of creating a web site. Rather than provide the content for their new site one of two things will happen.

The first thing that could happen is rooted in the oursourcer’s misunderstanding about communication on the internet.  He thinks that it’s fundamentally different from communication in the “real world”. In this case he says to the web developer, “you’re the web expert, just build it how you think it should be and tell me if you need anything”. The problem with this approach is that the web developer knows nothing about the market or why the outsourcer chose it in the first place. This effectively amounts to outsourcing expertise to a non-expert in a subject. The results will be reflected in the inability of the site to convert visitors into paying customers.

The other, slightly better, possibility is that he has the web developer setup a site that he can populate, but he either doesn’t want to or doesn’t have time to publish the content that would establish him (his site) as an expert. So the site gets built but no expert establishing content ever makes it up there and the result is little to no traffic and dismal conversions.

Ad agencies and copywriters

About the only way I can see to get around this is exactly what direct response marketers have done for decades. I think that the better ad agencies and copywriters are effective at one special skill that makes them unique. They can suck the essence of the expert right out of your brain and present it to the consumer effectively. As long as the expert status correlates to a real WANT in the consumer’s mind, conversions are likely to follow. I’ve heard that the real secret to writing sales copy is research, research, research (and then a little research on top of that).

The biggest disappointment to most people is they can’t afford to hire a really good ad agency (and a fancy office does not an ad agency make) or a star copywriter for their projects.

Write the copy yourself

While outsourcing is a very important skill (and one that I’m getting much better at myself), the essence of what you’re trying to communicate needs to come from you. You are the expert. If people buy your product/service it’s because they trust you. So maybe in just this one thing you need to let go of the idea of farming out the copy and write for yourself.

A lot of people complain that writing isn’t fun or that it’s difficult. That might be true, but think back on any heroic, prolific or influential character in history and ask yourself “could they write?” In some cases, like presidents of the United States of America, they have speech writers. And if you can afford a presidential level speech writer, and let him suck those pearls out of your head and put them in writing, then you’re set. Otherwise, you’ll have to be like the rest of us and write your own speeches. That’s not to say that you have to build and operate the press that reproduces them (or the website that publishes them).

My conclusion: Don’t expect the a temp worker, or your web developer or some other vendor or employee to be able to produce expert worthy content for you. That’s one thing that you should always own. And don’t get fooled into believing that communication on the internet is any different than communication anywhere else. Words is words!

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