Treat Digital Like Real Property

I am planning to sell a house soon. To prepare for the taxes that will need to be paid, my financial advisor told me I can deduct improvements from the cost basis when determining the capital gains on the property. Repairs and regular maintenance costs cannot be deducted.

This got me thinking about how most organizations think about their digital properties. While you probably don’t care so much about my real estate investments, you should care about how you are investing in digital. Is most of your spending on keeping things running (or limping along) or are you making investments that will bring benefits over time?

When you buy a house or other building, you expect to have two types of costs over the life of your ownership: ongoing maintenance and improvements. You account for ongoing maintenance in your operating budget, whether it’s a cleaning service, a maintenance contract for your heating and cooling system, pool cleaning, or gutter cleaning. Periodically, you’ll make some big investments to improve the property. New windows cost a lot, but they’ll save you money on your energy bills. A new kitchen will bring you enjoyment after the upgrade, as well as increase the market value of the house when it’s time to sell.

The same should happen with digital properties. For starters, think of them as “properties.” Your website, e-commerce platform, blog, social media channels, and email marketing system are all types of digital properties. They will last for a long time with proper maintenance and improvements over their lifetime. Unfortunately, the transition to digital has happened haphazardly and organizations struggle to keep up. The result is a bunch of systems that don’t talk to each other, are seen as disposable, and leave staff and users alike frustrated when using them. Kind of like a bunch of houses not connected by roads or sidewalks, lack energy-efficient windows and doors, have only one outlet per room, and are called “tear downs” when they go on the market.

However, when you start thinking about digital properties as long-term investments you’ll be living in for decades, your mindset shifts. You choose them more carefully based on what you need now as well as in the future. In the 21st century, one this is for certain: The only thing we can count on is change. Maybe you don’t know what you’ll need on your website in five years or how transactions will occur in 2020 (which is only 4 years from now, by the way!). But if you assume they will change, then you’ll look for flexible, extensible, and scalable systems to run your commerce, website, and marketing.

With this way of looking at digital, you can start with a list of requirements and goals you seek to fulfill instead of relying on a flashy sales demo to figure out which CMS vendor to entrust your valuable website to. Only then can you have discussions with potential providers and partners about how a system or design – and their services – can serve you now and in the future.

What will you do in 2017? It’s September already, which means it’s time to plan budgets for next year if you haven’t already. What investments to your digital properties and team will you make to bring long-term benefits to your organization? Here are some ideas to consider:

  • Conduct user research to better understand your audience before making changes
  • Perform and set up ongoing analysis on current communications and marketing tools to see what is working
  • Do audits of your website and digital systems to find where you need small fixes and major renovations
  • Review your staffing. Do you have the right people with the right skills in the right roles for maximum effectiveness and efficiency?

Not sure where to start or how to prioritize? Sometimes an outside expert can help you determine what is the best use of time and money next year. Maybe you can save money by focusing on a series of incremental improvements instead of a disruptive, expensive redesign or new vendor selection.