100 Days Of What I’ve Learned From Destination Marketing Organization/Agency RFPs, Projects, and Relationships

As my next #The100DayProject, I’ll be posting 100 days of what I’ve learned from Destination Marketing Organization (DMO)/Agency RFP processes, projects, and relationships. If you work at a DMO or an agency that works with DMOs, hopefully some of these will be knowledge you can use. I’ll be posting these as updates on my LinkedIn profile; this article will be updated daily with each post, with the most recent at the top.


What questions do you have about DMO/agency relationships? About preparing and responding to RFPs, either DMO-side or agency-side? About the future of DMO websites? About the future of interactive agencies?

Leave me a comment or send me an email and I’ll do my best to provide an answer. Today isn’t the “last day” of my #The100DayProject #DMOagencyRelationshipsAndProjects endeavor… it’s the first day in continuing the conversation. Thanks for joining me on this journey!


“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.”

– Henry Miller

This Henry Miller quote sums up the travel and tourism industry pretty well. It’s not just about traveling to a new place physically, but mentally as well.

It’s also a great quote in regards to the DMO/agency relationship… think of the relationship and collaboration as a new way of seeing things… new approaches, new ideas, new ways of working together. Is the DMO/agency relationship you’re entering going to see things the same way the DMO and the agency have seen things in the past? Or are both parties going to bring a new way of seeing things to the relationship?

The travel and tourism industry is changing. The interactive agency industry is changing. These are changes without a destination – they’re a journey for discovering new ways of seeing things.


While DMO/agency relationships are professional in nature, what makes a good relationship isn’t that different from what makes a good friendship. I’m not saying that DMOs and agencies have to be BFFs, but think about what makes a good friendship: shared interests and experiences, a common set of beliefs, a willingness to support and help each other, an openness to discuss ideas without judgement. Friends are people you want to spend time with. (The same concept applies to the best co-workers as well.)

When starting a DMO/agency relationship, consider if the relationship has the same qualities as what you look for in a friendship. (Personally, my best client/agency relationships have been professional friendships AND personal friendships – great people to work with AND spend time with.)


Trust is earned through DMOs and agencies going through the web design process TOGETHER. It doesn’t mean the DMO gives the agency a brief, the agency goes away for a few weeks, and comes back with a fully formed website. It means having a series open conversations about business, brand, interactive strategy, and marketing objectives. It means having touchpoints throughout the Discovery process, user experience phase, design phase, and development phase so that expectations are clearly set and there are no surprises along the way. Surprises destroy trust.

(This is why you should be suspicious of an agency that says they have “all the answers” or knows exactly what your website should look like during the pitch process. In a collaborative relationship, this isn’t possible.)


One way to create higher levels of trust is to remove as many layers of communication as possible. Direct conversations between client-side and agency-side decision makers creates a line of communication with the most immediate path for feedback and action. The more people (the more layers) that are between the decision makers on both sides, the harder it is to earn trust because communication takes longer, things are lost in translation, and expectations can become unclear. This is why it’s incredibly important to determine who the decision makers are in the RFP process and have those people be a part of both the RFP process AND the project. Trust is built through continuity and relationships.

Side note: I’ve always found it odd that some agencies send in a “sales team” or a “pitch team” during the RFP process, then replace them with “normal” staff members once a project is won. How is trust earned in the RFP process if you’re not establishing a relationship between the client point-of-contact, the client decision makers, and the agency staff who will be doing the work?


Without trust, there is no collaboration. Without trust, the relationship is built on the client ordering an agency to “do this” and the agency doing it. Or it’s a relationship built on the agency saying “we have all the answers” and the client simply accepting it.

That’s not collaboration. That’s not a partnership. And that’s not going to create the best solutions. Collaboration means being true partners in the creation process. It means one party challenging the other, not maliciously, but in order to think through and verify and move the best ideas forward. This can be scary and intimidating when there’s a lack of trust, which is why it’s so important to have trust in this relationship.


Trust is the cornerstone of any collaborative relationship. Trust facilitates the sharing of ideas, of doing the research to come up with and test hypotheses. Trust means there is no “what if they don’t like it” attitude when sharing interactive strategy and design solutions. Trust means there are no stupid questions. Trust is knowing that not everything can be tested prior to launch, that sometimes an interactive solution needs to be released into the wild to see how people use it. Trust means that launch is simply a waypoint in a collaborative relationship, and trust in the fact that you can measure and make adjustments moving forward.


Heading into the last 7 days of my #The100DayProject focusing on DMO/agency relationships and projects, we’ve come full circle. Trust and expectations play a significant role across all aspects of the relationships between DMOs and agencies, and are the key to successful projects. And it starts in the RFP process. It is extremely challenging to build trust and set expectations when this process resembles a tennis match, with communication going back and forth over the net.

Building trust means both DMO and agency need to work together on the same side of the net in order to set expectations. It’s a series of conversations, and unfortunately the RFP process tends to feel less conversational and more call-and-response.


Trust comes from clients AND agencies setting and meeting expectations. When set expectations aren’t met, or when both parties aren’t in agreement about the expectations, doubt and trouble arise. This process begins during the pitch and RFP process. It means both clients and agencies accurately setting expectations for the project – deliverables, scope, process, team, terms, budget, etc. These expectations act as guidemarkers along the path of a successful project.


The thing I often hear from clients when entering into a relationship with a new agency is, “how do I know if I can trust them?” I’ve also heard this sentiment expressed by clients as, “why should I believe them?” These are tough questions to answer during the pitch and agency selection process. It’s answered somewhat by references, but ultimately it comes down to the communication and interaction between the client and the agency.

During the pitch process, one way to get a truer sense of what the client/agency relationship will be like (and the people you’ll be working with) is setting up a small sample project. Create a discrete strategic objective you want to achieve and provide a nominal allowance (let’s say $2k – $5k) for each agency participating in this exercise. If you’re considering three agencies, for your money you’ll get three different ideas on how to approach your objective, as well as a sense of what it will be like to work with each of the agencies in a more realistic way than the pitch process allows.


Or maybe a simple X/Y graph doesn’t create the fidelity necessary for a DMO to consider the qualities and expertise they’re looking for in an agency, or for agency to determine what types of clients are the right ones. In this case, creating a Multi-Spectrum Diagram™ (not really trademarked though I probably should?) can reveal the point of intersection where the consideration set should be. For example, a 3 spectrum diagram considering Campaign vs. Platform, Enterprise vs. Boutique, and Product vs. Story can target an intersection point to qualify agencies. Or add additional spectrums to include Industry Expertise vs. Outsider Perspective and Larger Budget vs. Smaller Budget to refine and focus even more. Yes, there are always going to be possibilities outside of this intersection point, both for DMOs selecting agencies and agencies targeting clients. But being honest with what this intersection point is can lead to greater success and fewer heartbreaks later on.



Just like ALL interactive agencies aren’t the right fit for any specific client, ALL clients aren’t the right fit for any specific agency. As an agency, determine if the client’s needs match with your expertise and skill set. If you’re good at creating and building robust publishing platforms, maybe product-centric campaign microsites shouldn’t be your focus. Being honest with what your agency does means you can focus on attracting and retaining clients that have the need for what you do.


How can clients find the right agency partner? And how can agencies find the right clients? First off, understand that not ALL interactive agencies are the right fit for any specific client, just like ALL potential clients won’t be a good fit for any specific agency. For example, in looking for an interactive agency, a campaign-creation focused agency may have a different set of skills and experiences than a publishing-platform focused agency. And a larger agency may have a different approach than a smaller, boutique agency. As a client, figure out what’s important to you and what your needs are, and plot your potential agency partners so you can narrow your search.


DMOs are competing with all of the other experiences people can have. They compete with the memories that people create for themselves and with others. They compete with the stories people share.

“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.”

– Henry Miller

DMOs are competing with new ways of seeing things. How can the DMO website support this?


A DMO’s competition doesn’t come from other destinations. It doesn’t come from rating and review websites, or online booking sites. It isn’t the plethora of travel publications and bloggers. All of those should be reinforcements and resources on why people should travel to your destination. Yes, even other destinations should support your DMO’s marketing and branding by showing what is different and unique between the destinations. If you can do everything everywhere, there is no differentiation.

The competition are the experiences people can have in a destination. Are they unique, are they relevant for the traveller, and can the DMO promote and inspire travel to their destination by “selling the experience”? It’s a competition for memory space – the finite number of memories people will create through their life experiences.


Agencies aren’t innocent in perpetuating the DMO website model that focuses on data over experiences. Agencies are more efficient (and equate this to profitability) when they build similar things over and over again. Change the logo, change the fonts, change the colors and call it good.


This will not help DMOs achieve their changing business objectives. It does not position DMOs as experts in local perspective and unique content. It is a means to an end for agencies, and the cost-effectiveness of repetition is attractive for DMO budgets. It’s the “safe” choice.

“A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are made for.”

– John Augustus Shedd

Innovation and forward thinking doesn’t come from doing the same thing over and over again. Let’s get our ships out to sea and start exploring the endless horizons.


Historically, DMO sites have been built on or around customer relationship management (CRM) platforms that contain member data. (This harkens back to the old printed DMO travel guides that included page after page of member listings.) While the CRM database is important for data management, visitors aren’t deciding on a trip based on one piece of information – they’re deciding on what travel EXPERIENCE they want to have. A database doesn’t communicate perspective or context. No matter how great your CRM is, the way DMOs use this data is the difference between a listing website and an experiential website.


We talked about this back on Day 3, but one of the ways the internet has changed the role of the DMO is that they don’t have to provide EVERYTHING for EVERYONE. There are plenty of other sites that might do certain things better or more comprehensively, like hotel bookings or restaurant reviews, and people are already visiting those sites. The internet positions DMOs to be local experts with local, unique perspectives, providing context and focus around content. 


To say “the internet” has changed the role of the DMO would be an understatement. Everything leads back to the website… print advertising, online ads, search results, social media, brochures and travel guides… the DMO website is the most immediate source of inspiration and information, it should be quickly and easily updatable (let’s talk if your website isn’t), and it’s flexible to handle any number of business and marketing initiatives (again, if your website isn’t, let’s talk).

The internet has changed what “branding” means – now “interaction is brand.”


When discussing business, marketing, and brand objectives for a DMO website redesign, the first question shouldn’t be “what should we do?” but rather “why are we doing it?” This gets to the root of the discussion around change management – how and why has the role of the DMO changed in the last few years?


The reason change management is so important in DMO website redesigns is because the role of the DMO has changed. If you’re redesigning your website and change management isn’t a big part of it, it means you’re targeting the same marketing and business objectives from a few years ago.

“If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less.”

– General Eric Shinseki, U.S. Army Chief of Staff (retired)


Change management is also important as it relates to the overall process of a website redesign. If you haven’t done a redesign in a few years, so much has changed! On average, visitors on mobile devices have surpassed 50% of site traffic to DMO sites, so if you’re not considering all aspects of your website redesign from a mobile first perspective you’re doing the majority of your site visitors a disservice. This means thinking about the mobile experience for the potential visitor who is at home using their phone for research, as well as the visitor referencing your site on their phone when physically at the destination where geolocation can provide proximal context.


Redesigning a website can have significant repercussions. New roles such as content creators and web editors might be created, while automation of form submissions may reduce or remove an existing person’s role. It may affect advertising and sponsorship revenue and open up additional benefits for being a member. It may make existing digital platforms like a standalone app obsolete. It may mean rethinking the social strategy because of the types of pages people can be directed to from social media.

A website redesign requires change management at an organizational and business level, not just an online marketing level.


Change management isn’t just for the staff at the DMO… it must extend to all stakeholders in the website redesign process. If there are new promotional, advertising, and sponsorship opportunities for members, change management will educate and inform them of these opportunities. Additionally, with a new site architecture and navigational structure, previous metrics around pageviews may no longer be a relevant KPI. For example, if a key performance indicator shifts from a member’s pageviews on a DMO’s site to links from a DMO’s site to the member’s own site, change management must prepare members and DMO staff for this change so the expectations are set early on.


Related to Day 75 and insufficient consideration to the people managing the DMO website, the change management necessary to educate and train the entire DMO staff on what the changes to their website will mean is equally important. The launch of a new website can change things on the organizational level, from the content strategy, to lead generation, to member integration, to KPIs and success metrics. Without change management at the organizational level, these initiatives will be understaffed or inappropriately staffed, metrics and KPIs will be misinterpreted, and the website will ultimately be seen as a “failure” if measured against previous business and organizational objectives. Change management is about evolution, education, and enablement.


One of the most overlooked audiences for DMO websites are the people who will be managing the site. While this may be a tertiary audience in relation to potential visitors and DMO members, it’s the audience responsible for making sure the site is up-to-date, the content strategy is being followed and implemented, and that the content management system allows them to accomplish their business, marketing, and content objectives.


DMOs can provide value to their members by creating context around each business and organization. Long lists of member search results provides no context and creates an overwhelming number of things to choose from. Creating specific itineraries, “Best Of” lists, geographic proximity, and content for specific audience interests helps contextualize members and gives visitors a starting point to research their trip.


While DMOs should provide value to members just as members should provide value to DMOs, be wary of organizational politics. Yes, DMOs have an obligation to promote their members if that’s part of their organizational agreement, but potential travelers don’t care about your organizational politics. They simply want to find the most valuable inspiration and information for their trip. Organizational politics shouldn’t get in the way of providing this to your primary audience.


For those who work at DMOs – and the agencies that partner with DMOs – remember that members are people who have invested time and money in their business and/or organization. These businesses provide services and support local communities through the sale of goods, employment opportunities, and tax revenue that benefits infrastructure… it goes beyond marketing. It’s having a responsibility for the economic and social benefits that travel and tourism can bring to a community. Travel Oregon has a great example of how they apply this responsibility through their tourism development initiatives:


When thinking about DMO members, KPIs around member pages on a DMO’s website could be reconsidered. While pageviews – and specifically member pageviews – are sometimes considered a metric for success for a DMO, a better KPI might be links offsite to a member’s website where more detailed information can be provided. These links offsite could be a better indicator of intent to travel than member pageviews since a traveler is actively seeking more information about the member business/organization. This referral traffic is also an indicator for members on value the DMO is providing for them in terms of lead generation.


We’ve discussed DMOs providing value for primary audiences like visitors and potential visitors (Days 50-56), but let’s not forget providing value for secondary audiences such as DMO members. While DMOs can craft the overall brand message, marketing, and interactive experience, the member organizations provide much of the in-person brand experience at a destination. The DMO website is a gateway to these in-person interactions.


Actionable inspiration. While other travel publishing sites like Condé Nast Traveler and Roads & Kingdoms offer great inspirational content, DMOs are perfectly positioned to create inspirational content that references and links to additional information – providing value to both visitors and members.


Inspirational/aspirational content fails when it doesn’t drive people to action. While inspiring visitors reinforces brand desires and potential future trip taking, this content should link to businesses, attractions, restaurants, hotels, shopping, locations, etc., so visitors have information they can act on in order to plan a trip around the content that has inspired them to do so.


Integrating Instagram into a destination website also provides additional content about specific locations. On the Portland Japanese Garden website, the different Garden Spaces (like the Strolling Pond Garden) show Instagram photos of each specific spaces in order to provide additional perspectives. In this case, the Garden Space pages provide context for content created on social media.


Integrating Instagram content into a DMO website opens up opportunities for providing additional information and context around this content. For example, on the Travel Oregon website, Instagram content can be linked to additional pages on the site in order to gain more information about that location.


Instagram is ripe for driving inspiration to action – a potential visitor sees a destination and can picture themselves there. While there are some challenges in linking specific photos to an actionable web page (besides putting a link in the profile), the “See More” function available in some Instagram Stories is an indicator of how a visitor could be directed to gaining more information.



Just as content strategy is important to drive traffic and interest from email newsletters to a DMO’s site, website content strategy and social content strategy must go hand-in-hand. Posting content on Facebook and Twitter is just the start of an interaction – content strategy should include the creation of relevant pages on a DMO’s site so the social strategy has someplace to direct inspired, engaged audiences.


It should go without saying that if email newsletter sign-ups are a key KPI for DMOs, creating a streamlined sign-up process is crucial. Keep it simple and straightforward. Don’t ask for tons of information… you can do that later. Ask for the minimum – their email address – and build CRM opportunities for expanding their visitor profile from there.


Another important KPI and engagement metric for DMOs are email newsletter sign-ups. Beyond social engagement (which we’ll get to), referrals from emails can drive tremendous traffic to a DMO’s site. This is why it’s so important to consider content strategy well beyond the website – how will it manifest itself in newsletters from an editorial and seasonal perspective? Do pages exist online to drive traffic from emails? And once a potential visitor has clicked through from an email, can the page you’re directing them to extend their online engagement?


What are other ways could intent to travel could be tracked? Maybe this involves partnering with other platforms in order to gain insights. Could Yelp compare a user’s home city to restaurants, hotels, and attractions they’re bookmarking in order to identify intent to travel to another location? Could Facebook compare a user’s home address to locations where they’ve “checked in” to show travel patterns in practice? Could Strava compare a user’s home city to running or cycling routes they do in other cities to show travel patterns as it relates to fitness?

What other ways can you think of to track intent to travel and actual travel patterns?


Okay, Day 59’s diatribe about putting an interactive print travel guide online was mainly about terrible page-turning interactive animations. Jon Shadel makes a good point that people may want to preview a print travel guide before ordering an actual hard copy.

That being said, I recognize that orders of print travel guides is a KPI that DMOs use to measure intent to travel. The challenge here is that using the ordering of print travel guides as a KPI for intent to travel obviously only includes an audience who likes and engages with print travel guides. What other ways can intent to travel be measured beyond the ordering of print travel guides, especially if “trip planner” functionality isn’t built into a site (per Day 57’s comments)?


Related to trip planners, I never have understood why some DMOs want to put their print travel guide on their website in one of those simulated “page-turning” online readers. If your print travel guide is a better resource than your website for planning a trip to your destination, you need to rethink your website. Think about what is successful in the print guide – most likely the content and context – and implement these same ideas online. The print travel guide is produced once a year; your website should be a robust, evolving, easily updated, all-encompassing, always-accessible travel guide. Cost of printing will always limit what you can put in the print travel guide. Fortunately you can overcome these limitations through your website.


Maybe the definition of “trip planning” shouldn’t be interpreted as creating an account system to save the places visitors might be interested in. Ultimately the entire DMO website should be about trip planning – providing ideas on what to do during your trip and paths to gain more information about those ideas. A true “trip planner” would listen to a visitor’s desires, dreams, likes and dislikes, and make suggestions around this information… help people plan their trip. In that sense, every DMO website should be a trip planner.


One of the most requested pieces of functionality I see from DMOs is the desire of having a “trip planner” – a system to save items from their site in some kind of account. The reality that I’ve seen around this functionality is it’s expensive to develop and rarely used by visitors on DMO sites… the value simply isn’t there. Travelers are already using sites like Yelp, TripAdvisor, Roadtrippers, or their own bookmarking strategies (Pocket, browser bookmarks, etc.) that are more effective across the many websites they’re visiting to plan their trip. The DMO website is one small piece in their planning; thinking visitors will use your system when they already have their own in place is a fallacy.


Providing value for visitors and potential visitors is more than just providing relevant, compelling content. It also means providing relevant and useful functionality on your site. After all, the impression a visitor will have of a destination is partially created by the interactions they have on a DMO’s website – Interaction is Brand.


An ongoing commitment to being a Destination Marketing AND Publishing Organization (DMPOs?) means having the resources to continually create and publish content. My recommendation is to hire people that are trained in this skillset: journalists.

More on Why You Should Hire a Journalist…


Being valuable from a content perspective will mean an ongoing commitment and investment for DMOs. DMOs must think of themselves not only as marketers, but as publishers. Successful DMOs are moving into the travel and tourism publishing industry. The larger tourism publishers will always be a “visitor” to a destination; DMOs can differentiate themselves by being the voice of the local expert.


What does “value” mean for DMOs? It means being valuable – content, information, and functionality that helps visitors and potential visitors make the decision to visit your destination.


Focusing on value means following through on providing continued value. In the case with DMOs that are focused on providing inspiring and informative content to visitors and potential visitors, this means thinking about content strategy and creation at the start – not near the end – of a website project. It’s important to think about content strategy at the start because the launch of the website isn’t the end of the project… it’s the first day of your new publishing cycle.


Ultimately, what DMOs need to accomplish with their website is to provide value for their site audiences. (This applies to primary and secondary audiences.) By focusing on providing value – and removing the aspects that don’t provide value – you clarify the content strategy, site architecture, user experience, visual design, and functionality of your site.


If your primary audiences are visitors and potential visitors, the primary objectives of your DMO website should be:

  1. Inspire people to travel to your destination – WHY they should visit.
  2. Provide information on how to turn the idea into reality – WHAT, WHEN, and HOW.


Clearly identify your primary audience.

If you’re a Destination Marketing Organization, you’ll have secondary and tertiary audiences like members, meeting organizers, and the media, but 9 times out of 10 (maybe higher?) your primary audience will be visitors and potential visitors to your destination. This means the primary objectives of your website should target these audiences.


Going to spend the next few days covering a number of requests commonly seen in Destination Marketing Organization RFPs and projects… if you have a question about a specific request, functional specification or implementation, leave a comment and I’ll add it to my list.


I’m less inspired by the more tepid response to the follow-up open letter to agencies about not doing spec work on Day 43: https://www.linkedin.com/hp/update/6252934639242088448

Not sure if I should take this as a sign that agencies don’t want clients to ask for spec work, but aren’t willing to *not* do spec work? Or that it’s easy to agree with others to not do spec work, but harder to make that commitment ourselves? Or simply fewer people saw this update and therefore less engagement? There are two sides in the spec work equation: prospective client asking and prospective agency doing. Ideally, both see the folly in spec work. But if not, the only way clients will learn it’s not okay is by telling them, “this is not okay.”


I’m blown away by the response to my open letter regarding spec work to prospective clients on Day 42, by far the highest engagement I’ve had on a LinkedIn post, and a good demonstration on how connections can amplify a message:  https://www.linkedin.com/hp/update/6252558639312314368

I’ve received comments, messages, and “likes” from clients, prospective clients, and agency people, which gives me hope that all parties recognize spec work is a problem, and that we can *all* do something about it.


If “spec work is the cost of doing business,” I have to question what business we’re talking about. The business of working for free?


I’m not innocent from doing spec work. My past is scattered with victories and defeats where spec work has played a part. What I’ve learned from these experiences is there are so many unknowns that it is impossible to design a website without engaging with a client through numerous conversations around business objectives, brand and marketing goals, functional specifications, and content and interactive strategy.


A letter to agencies…


A letter to prospective clients…


I’m not saying an agency shouldn’t provide a vision of what a site could be in an RFP response. They should, and this vision is a big part of what differentiates one response from another. But expecting an agency to design something as complex as a website – even just a couple pages – in the RFP process is devaluing, unethical, and just plain wrong. And agencies who willingly respond to these requests are just perpetuating this expectation.


If you’re a client who is requesting an agency provides “spec work” in a pitch process, understand that the agency is taking their time away from their paying clients to do this work. Understand that when you’re then paying an agency to work on your project, part of their estimate to you will be to cover the costs of doing spec work for other prospective clients.


Coming up with an interactive strategy, site architecture, user experience, and interface design takes TIME. This time has value. If a prospective client doesn’t value your time before you’re working with them, how do you think they’ll value your time once you’ve agreed to work with them? Conversely, if you’re an agency that is providing design concepts for free in the RFP process, you’re devaluing everything that interactive agencies do.


Going back to RFPs for a minute… I recently reviewed an RFP that asked for design concepts as part of the response. I was dumbfounded. If a prospective client has the expectations that an agency can understand their brand, interactive goals, business objectives, navigational structure, content hierarchy and content strategy, and functional requirements from a 50+ page legalese RFP, and then invest the time and commitment – for free – to design what I hope and assume will be the right solution without even talking to them, I’m frightened by what their expectations will be for working with an interactive agency.


Don’t just question the project; question the process. Richard Tammar from Travel Portland wrote this piece about rethinking the client/agency maintenance relationship, which is something I’ve also been thinking about. In my opinion, a client can gain more value and efficiency by bringing routine maintenance tasks in-house than outsourcing it. Even if you have a half-time developer on staff to handle these tasks, you’ll accomplish much more for the same amount of budget. You should still engage with an agency for strategy, UX, and design thinking, but utilize internal staff to accomplish maintenance tasks, which in turn keeps the overall platform knowledge base with the client.


Questioning and listening puts clients and agencies on both sides of the equation: asking the questions AND answering them. It’s okay (and expected) to have opinions during these discussions. But don’t be so firmly tied to your own opinions that you’re not open to listening to others. As the psychologist Karl Weick says, “argue as if you are right and listen as if you are wrong.”


More important than asking questions is LISTENING to answers. It is through listening to the answers that we gain understanding. And realize which question(s) to ask next.


Don’t just ask questions about everything – QUESTION everything. Questioning ideas should promote discussion and debate… why are we doing this, are there other approaches, what do we need people to do, why would people care… these are the types of questions that both clients and agencies should be asking in order to distill an idea down to its core which can then be built upon.


Ask questions about everything. As a client, asking questions keeps you engaged and informed about all of the decisions an agency is making. As an agency, asking questions gains information and insights. As the saying goes, knowledge is power. (Also, knowing is half the battle.)


Part of continuous improvement is budgeting not just for the initial website project, but for an ongoing relationship between client and agency to measure KPIs post launch and implement adjustments as necessary. Continuous improvement means you’re constantly adjusting and improving your site so it remains relevant for your ongoing needs, versus looking at your site a year or two after launch and realizing it no longer meets any of your objectives. It’s less expensive and takes less time to implement smaller improvements gradually than to go through a larger redesign process every 18 – 24 months. Objectives change, the internet changes, and marketing needs change; a smart website should be built to change without having to throw it all away and start from scratch.


Launching a website is the first chance to see how people use it “in the wild.” For all the research and user testing you can do prior to launch, until the site is live and people are interacting with it you won’t know which ideas worked well and which ones need adjustment. Plan at the beginning of the process to evaluate the site post-launch (remember about determining KPIs previously at 004?) and implement continuous improvements.


To approach both short and long term objectives, I can’t stress enough the importance of the Discovery Phase and overall project planning. Clients and agencies shouldn’t view the launch of a website as the end of the process, but simply one step in a larger interactive strategy.


One strategy to meet both short and long term objectives is to build something that serves the short term objectives, and provides insights, data, and content for longer term solutions. For example, to meet a short term objective around an evolving content strategy, create a platform that allows the team to explore the creation and publishing of content. From this experience, learn what content resonates with your audience, how people engage with it, the resources necessary to create content, etc. And then use this content longer term to help direct an ongoing content strategy, integrating it in a larger platform rebuild.


The world doesn’t need any more “disposable” websites. Think about what you’re building and the strategic objectives you’re trying to achieve, then create something that has a lifespan beyond next month. If there are budget and/or timeline constraints, or simply too many unknowns, think about the long term objectives and use the Discovery Phase to create a project plan that considers what you’re doing now as the first step in that overall vision.


Without the Discovery Phase and project plan, there is no clear direction on what the end result will be, which means there is no clear direction on how to get there. Often this results in launching something that might meet immediate needs and pain points but isn’t appropriate for longer term goals and objectives.


Don’t confuse believing you can accomplish anything and actually accomplishing everything. It’s a process, and sometimes everything can’t all be accomplished immediately. This is why starting any engagement with a Discovery Phase and project planning process is key in realizing the vision of accomplishing anything with the reality of accomplishing something. You should always believe you can accomplish anything, just be realistic about how long it might take to do it.


The belief that together you can accomplish anything. If you’re a client, this is the reason you hire a specific agency. If you’re an agency, this is why you want to work with a specific client. If you don’t believe it, you can’t do it.


Do you have a friend who, after a conversation or interaction with them, you feel energized by the interaction? Compare that to the people that make you feel exhausted after you’ve interacted with them… you’d much rather be around the energizing folks, right? The same thing happens in client/agency relationships. If you’re dreading that upcoming meeting or feel drained afterwards, you should probably rethink the relationship. This goes for both clients AND agencies. The best work comes from feeling energized and positive about the relationship.


Sometimes it’s easier for an agency to take a “close enough” solution that was previously built and reusing it. Sometimes it’s easier for a client to simply accept what an agency tells them without questioning it. But both sides should do what’s right instead of what’s easy. This means creating solutions that are specific to the client’s needs, and asking questions to better understand and validate ideas. That said, sometimes what’s right IS what’s easy, for reasons around scope, budget, or timeline. Ultimately, it should be easy to do what’s right.


Say what you’ll do and do what you say. “We’ll provide feedback by 5pm tomorrow.” “It will cost X dollars to implement that feature.” “These are the people who will be working on your project.” It’s easy to say what you’ll do. The hard part, though it shouldn’t be, is doing what you say. Too often this is how client/agency relationships fall apart and any earned trust and respect are lost. It starts from the RFP/pitch and goes all the way through the project, to launch, to the post-launch maintenance relationship.


It’s not always easy to be open and honest, especially when having to deliver bad or unexpected news. (FYI, bad news never gets easier to deliver.) But without this open and honest communication, we skirt issues, ignore challenges, and hope problems will just go away. Instead, by working together, this open and honest communication builds trust and respect, and avoids small problems becoming larger problems in the future.


Having a shared vision means both the client and the agency are heading in an agreed-upon direction, with the same goals and objectives. Without a shared vision, it’s impossible to move forward together, and if you’re not moving forward together, you’ll never end up in the same place.


Respect is listening to other opinions and having others listen to you. It’s empathy. It’s earning trust through action. It doesn’t necessarily mean agreeing but it does mean acknowledging other perspectives. Respect is a recognition of others as equals. That’s why respect is such an important aspect of client/agency relationships… without respect the relationship will never be seen as a true partnership.


Trust is difficult to earn and easy to lose, and the foundation of a client/agency relationship. The client must trust the agency to do what’s right, what’s in the client’s best interests, communicate openly and honestly, and do thoughtful, beautiful work. The agency must trust the client to communicate business, brand, and marketing objectives, provide research and documentation, give accurate feedback, and create content that works within an agreed framework. Trust means being able to share your perspectives, your challenges, and your ideas in an open environment where the objective is to work towards an appropriate solution, and it is created through continually working together.


What makes a good client/agency relationship? The same things that make any good relationship. Trust, respect, a shared vision, open and honest communication (and working through challenges together), saying what you’ll do and doing what you say, doing what’s right instead of what’s easy, feeling energized (instead of exhausted) after interactions, and the belief that together you can accomplish anything.


I equate this “tell us the budget / tell us how much it’s going to cost” discussion to the age-old “throw me the idol / throw me the whip” debate. The end result is someone usually winds up with spikes through them and someone is chased by a huge boulder. And only Indiana Jones survives.


Beyond simply not knowing how much a website could cost (expectations around scope-to-budget), I wonder if clients don’t share budgets because they hope they’ll get a deal? In my experience, I’ve never seen an agency come back with an estimate that is below what the client has budgeted but hasn’t shared. Again, setting expectations from the start around budget sets everyone up for success – in the RFP process and throughout a project.


Don’t confuse answers with vision. While clients should consider and select an agency at least in part on a presented vision, the more important aspect is selecting an agency that understands the importance of vision and the ability to craft a vision. Both the client and the agency need to remember this vision might have to change based on unknowns and what is uncovered in a discovery/kickoff phase around business objectives, content strategy, and overall scope. This is when answers help clarify vision.


An agency that claims to have all the answers during a pitch is probably not answering the right questions. And not asking the hard questions.


Don’t expect an agency to know everything that they’re going to do or how they’re going to do it when they pitch a project. There is so much to uncover during a discovery/kickoff phase that will define and guide the project; it’s impossible to know all of this during the RFP process. The “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns” are the things that can have a huge impact on the scope and timeline for a project.


Selecting an agency based on an RFP response is hard! It means committing to a project marriage based on a few dates and the referrals of peers. Just like other relationships, it takes time to build trust. Start with a smaller, lower risk project to see how everyone gets along and to better set expectations through interaction. As DMOs move from being listing sites to content publishers, a great first project could be the creation of a content publishing platform to test out the DMO/agency relationship as well as define a content creation and publishing strategy that can be built upon for a larger redesign initiative.


The RFP process should specify the budget, as well as the high level site objectives and technology/3rd party implementations, so that expectations are set regarding budget and scope. This allows the agency to present what they feel they could do within your budget instead of what they would do with an unlimited budget. Each agency will decide how to approach and respond to the RFP to fit within their own expectations around budget, resources, and deliverables. Having a consistent parameter like budget can help clients compare responses by what value they’ll get from each agency.


In regards to setting expectations around budgets, I often hear that clients don’t know how much a website would cost to build. And rightfully so–they’re not in the business of rebuilding multiple websites a year, and probably haven’t gone through a redesign process in the last 3-5 years. I’d recommend when compiling a list of sites you like and admire to take an extra step and contact those peers to find out what their site budget was. This will provide a more realistic budget expectation by associating what you admire with how much it costs.


When expectations are set around a budget, an agency can scope an appropriate solution to meet the budget instead of scoping a budget to meet an ideal solution. There’s always more than one way to do something, and knowing the budget guides an agency to scope a solution that will meet the needs and prioritize the wants of the project. With an unknown budget, an agency will scope a solution to their ideal budget and solution, which means that each agency responding to the RFP has different expectations.


Setting expectations begins during the RFP and pitch process, and one of the biggest expectations to be set is the budget for a project. If expectations aren’t set for what the budget is, it becomes very difficult for respondents to meet these expectations. Conversely, if expectations are set in regards to budget, respondents understand the parameters they’re working within and can set their own expectations accordingly.


Setting expectations obviously extends well past KPIs… to communication, team members and availability, roles and responsibilities, project process, overall scope and deliverables, feedback, deadlines, budget…


Defining KPIs is really about setting expectations. And setting expectations is one of the pillars on which a strong client/agency relationship is built.


Determine Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) to measure what will be useful early in the process. KPIs provide clarity around business objectives for your site, as well as measurement benchmarks to see what’s successful and/or what can be improved. For example, maybe a more successful KPI is driving visitors offsite to members’ websites where they can obtain more comprehensive information about a business, rather than keeping them onsite on members’ pages. A KPI like this will direct the user experience and functionality.


Your site doesn’t need to do everything. It needs to do a few things – the things that represent your brand positioning and interactive strategy – really well. People are visiting 30+ other sites when planning their trip* to accomplish different tasks, from saving places to go and restaurants to check out, to booking flights and hotel rooms, to reading reviews, to researching specifics around tours or activities. Let these other sites help you by handling all the tasks they’re built to handle so you can focus on the things that make your DMO unique: creating content to inspire travelers, relating inspirational content to actionable information, and providing your destination’s perspective through brand positioning and interactive strategy. (*from Skift, “Travelers Visit 38 Sites Before Booking a Vacation, Study Says”)


Related to content strategy, what we want people to do on a site is not always what they want or need. Creating an interactive strategy around functionality and technology for visitors is important from a scope and specifications standpoint. Don’t build something because you think you should, build something that will be useful to people AND that people will use. Define “useful” by where your business, brand, and marketing goals and objectives intersect with audience desires and needs.


We often forget that what we want to tell people is not always what they want, or need, to hear. Match your content creation strategy to content that will help your audience–by inspiring them and providing important information–make a decision and/or answer their questions of where they should go and what they should do.

Leave a Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *