We're here today to talk about the impact of designs systems on your ROI. If you want to learn more about design systems first, and more specifically multi-brand Meta Design Systems, I'd suggest starting here.

Also, there’s plenty of fine advice out there for how return on investment (ROI) can be calculated. This article assumes you have a tailored ROI model in place for your business. In other words, we’re assuming you already know why KPI’s are important to your business and drive revenue.

The interesting question is: How do we make your technology investment drive business growth?

Building your business case


If you’re planning a technology investment to progress your marketing and sales strategy across web, you’re probably trying to work out how you will defend your proposal to your CFO.

You may be in the fortunate position to have enough data to suggest that if you do x, you will get a return of y. Many organisations do not have this luxury, or may feel their existing data is answering the wrong questions.

So, whether your investment is to address a greenfield or a brownfield investment, you will need some kind of framework to help you assess the opportunity.

We use a framework based around seeing your website operating in a marketplace - a physical space populated by human beings seeking to make purchasing decisions. Over reliance on analytics can blind us to this simple fact. We combine this framework with a technology stack, based on Drupal and Acquia Cohesion, that helps enable it. We’ll give you some examples here of how we see this framework working.

Showing up is 80% of life


You cannot realise the return on your technology investment if you are not in your marketplace. The point at which your new site is available is the point at which it begins to open opportunities. Until this point your investment simply isn’t delivering value. Think of it as parking capital in a low interest rate bank account when you could be actively targeting investments that you know will deliver value.

Web projects (particularly any kind of re-platforming) are notorious for over-runs, over-burns and career ending miscalculations. The 3 months easily becomes the 6 months, becomes the 9 months. With many projects, the marketplace simply changes between project initiation and project delivery. The investment ends up addressing the wrong question.

So getting to your marketplace quickly and validating your offering against real consumer need is crucial. Wait too long to validate your assumptions, and you risk waste and missed opportunity. The Lean Startup has plenty to say on this subject, and we commend it to a business of any size and digital maturity.

So why do so many businesses take so long to re-platform their website? There can be many reasons. Often the messaging strategy can start a much wider discussion around overall positioning and service offering. Web projects can force marketers to address ambiguity in strategy. Ambiguity, weak messaging, poor differentiation or a lack of user centred focus can come into stark relief when the first designs are presented. 

The business may then seek to retrench, conduct internal soul-searching to resolve the position. External consultancies might be drawn in, research conducted. Iterations of UX can hide a lack of decision making. Meanwhile, the  marketplace is evolving, opportunity is slipping away.

We mitigate this through using design systems that deliver the ability to rapidly create content approaches, deliver them to market and test their success. A design system differs from a traditional web CMS in that it hands freedom and agility to marketers in a much more profound way.

Traditional web CMS platforms deliver set templates and content types. Changing them takes developer time, so the temptation (or pressure) to envisage every conceivable use case is huge. If a use case is missed, the need for change requests increase, or the business learns to live with limitation. But how can we envisage every possible future use case? Consumers in your marketplace are more agile; their expectations more volatile. 

Design based web CMS platforms differ in that they provide re-usable building blocks and flexible layouts. All these elements have branding, responsive behaviour, user experience, search engine optimisation and accessibility elements baked in. So your marketing team can evolve the messaging rapidly without breaking the brand experience.

This instantly removes the pressure to imagine every single possible future. The day your CMS platform is launched is the day it starts to evolve, not the day it stops evolving. Traditional web CMS's have concrete poured in around on the day they are launched. Only developers have the tools to make change. Design system based CMS's, however, puts content publishing into a sales-based schedule rather than a technology based schedule.

Learning and doing


Your marketing team now has power, the next question is - what to do with all this power?

Your consumers are regular people with needs and desires. They visit your website with an intention. If their intention is realised they will derive value from interacting with you. As marketers we seek to learn intention and develop approaches to satisfying that intention. We learn by doing and evaluating the result. The more we do the quicker we learn. And it is this knowledge about your marketplace and your consumers that delivers ROI. 

Once live with a design system based CMS, your marketing team can now start to move with speed and purpose to increase the depth of knowledge you have in your marketplace. We’ve written elsewhere about the power of agile marketing. We’re seeing widespread adoption of the technique with some powerful advocates.

The principle is simple, test something and see if it works. Rinse and repeat. We’ve seen this deliver powerful results for businesses that consistently outperform their marketplace. They achieve this by understanding their marketplace more quickly, and more profoundly, than their competitive set.

They can do this, because a design system based approach allows their marketing teams to rapidly evolve content and messaging approaches through A/B tests and campaign activity without going back to their agency for time consuming development work. 

We’ve also seen how the drip-drip-drip of development-based tasks on marketing budgets can chill the marketer’s enthusiasm for innovation. After all, if each experiment you undertake chips into your budget, you will naturally think more carefully before acting. On the other hand if the opportunity cost of trying something is low (i.e. your own time - not your agencies) you are more likely to experiment.

Experimentation gives you learnings that are validated against real consumer behaviour. This informs your marketing and sales strategy in a profound way. It also helps manage the internal conversations (based on opinion) that can stymy businesses when trying to align their marketing strategies. 

Spreading the love


So far we have discussed entering your market place and then deepening your knowledge of that marketplace. We believe that these simple principles help get you to an improved ROI compared to a technology strategy that prolongs or prevents the learning process.

The third principle in our framework concerns reach. When you have developed sufficient insight, the task is to ensure the maximum number of consumers in your marketplace (or in potential new marketplaces) can access your services.

You may have paid media in place at the top of the funnel, but that focus must also extend throughout the web journey - often where the marketing journey segues into the sales journey - the ultimate ROI indicator.

Extending the reach of your CMS platform means different things to different businesses. It may mean opening new geographical or linguistic markets. It may mean deploying better user experience or accessibility to reach consumers in your existing marketplace. Perhaps it accessing the consumer on their chosen device It might mean opening new service lines or business offerings. Perhaps your business grows through acquisition. It may mean pivoting your existing offering to a new market condition. 

Whatever it means for your business, the technology platform can either enable or inhibit the reach to your consumer. 

Traditional CMS projects can suffer from a lack of extensibility. Enterprise CMS systems can carry punishing overheads in change or extension of use case. Development and licensing costs can again chill the desire to access new opportunities. CTO’s struggle to manage the myriad of standalone campaign sites that spring up because the Dotcom can’t change them. CFO’s struggle to understand where marketing budgets are leaking to in fragmented supplier rosters. Marketers struggle to justify ROI as the technical debt builds and inhibits evolution.

Design systems, especially when combined with powerful CMS platforms like Drupal, design system enablers like Acquia Cohesion and the ability to create multi-site estates from single managed code bases (like Acquia SiteFactory, for example), can deliver powerful reach while managing technical debt through underlying single code-bases.

For example, if you need to deliver a market / language specific brand website for each of the 16 brands in your division, across 20 markets, an unbranded Meta Design System can be used to create separate Brand Websites - each with their own unique branding, content approach, user journey and user experience.

All these can be managed by a single code base, so that the technical base can be effectively and securely managed. Marketers (even at regional level) still have the freedom to tailor messaging to local market conditions without the danger of inconsistent branding. Brand governance can be centrally managed while still enabling a wider roster of brand, content, SEO and transcreation agencies. Enhancements (for example a new accessibility feature, or a user experience improvement, can developed and tested in the Meta Design Systems and then cascaded to the web estate that uses it.

Ultimately the need to re-platform every three years becomes replaced by the ability to centrally invest in a single technical platform that delivers to multiple outcomes and is constantly improving, upgrading in one place.

If you’re going to do something, do it properly


Like anything in life, design system based web CMS platforms have been done well and been done badly. Design systems allow design principles to be amplified across multi-site web estates in a way traditional CMS's struggle to do. It’s worth noting that they can amplify bad design as quickly as they can amplify good design.

There are also technology platforms that deliver enterprise level component based design systems at huge licensing costs. Customers complain they have been sold a starship when they needed a fast jet. Over complexity or feature overload can leave marketers struggling to justify the ROI - because they are paying for capabilities they neither want nor understand how to use. 

Some technologies have a bad reputation for this (you know who you are) and we see customers leaving monolithic proprietary cloud marketing stacks for lighter, more pragmatic, more decoupled (and open source) alternatives all the time. We partner with Acquia precisely for this balance of enterprise level customer experience capability alongside pragmatic open source technology.

We also see customers burnt by the lower end of the open source CMS market. There are design-system based approaches in popular entry-level CMS/blogging platforms that offer similar power. But how well do they scale? How easily are they secured? How consistent is the brand experience?Ultimately it is necessary to deliver a flexible, powerful (and empowering) marketing technology stack without either bankrupting your business or ruining its reputation.

Understanding your aims


A final consideration in understanding the ROI driven by a design system comes from understanding why your business might want to re-platform.


We see different strategies, for example, in efficiency versus productivity objectives.

Efficiency, the ability to do the same with less, is a valid reason for considering a design system - but typically at the larger scale of enterprise where multiple web sites are being managed and technical debt/management overhead is creating inertia.

If efficiency is the objective, open source driven design systems will bring you benefit where you are in the leader quadrant rather than the challenger quadrant. They will deliver cost efficiency relative to your existing proprietary CMS. They still require upfront investment to implement. Yes they are open source at heart, but they need to be implemented, integrated and managed like any other platform. There may be elements of licensing that are part of the overall solution. So scale helps to recognise the opportunity.

Productivity, on the other hand, is the ability to do more with the same. We see this benefiting challenger brands the most. These are agile, entrepreneurial organisations who are both learning and shaping their market places. These might have outgrown their brochureware and be looking for a more sophisticated and powerful platform that can grow, pivot and adapt alongside their business strategy. 

Designs systems benefit both scenarios - but may have quite different implementations. Priorities can be balanced between the two, of course, but this can muddy the ability to measure and evaluate the success of the programme. Being clear on what you are seeking to achieve is key.