The “five whys” is famously a technique developed by Taiichi Ohno to ask “Why?” exactly five times, to find exactly one root cause. While rigid application of the technique has come in for criticism (root cause analysis is rarely linear, there is rarely as single root cause, there are rarely exactly five issues, etc.), the fundamental concept is sound.
That is to say, the first high-level attempt to describe or define a problem is rarely helpful in solving it. Getting to the root cause requires digging deeper.
Here’s an example of one possible (and common) scenario to show how the application of the five whys might play out in digital marketing.
Your company announces that layoffs and budget cuts are likely. So, your first “why” is simply, why is the company in financial trouble? There could be any number of reasons, from finance or investment decisions to competitive developments or changes in the market.
Let’s say it’s because sales are down—not an uncommon scenario, particularly heading into a recession. Recognizing that problem sets up our second question, our next why.
There could be so many possible answers to this question, within at least four broad areas:
Product: lack of features, quality issues, competitive moves, difficulty of use, etc.
Pricing: too high, too low (causing concern about quality, diminishing brand image), no free trial or tier, etc.
People: poor sales leadership, lack of staff, inadequate pre- or post-sales support, etc.
Process: lack of sales training, poorly defined sales process, not enough leads, etc.
Answering this question in a useful way requires examination of multiple potential problem areas. But only one of the possible answers listed above relates to digital marketing, so let’s dig in on that one.
Again, there are several possible answers, and it’s quite possible that more than answer applies. Getting to this answer requires identifying and looking at all sources of leads, which may include:
And more. All should be scrutinized for practices, costs, and results. But again, only one of the lead sources above relates to digital marketing, so let’s next ask…
Answering this question requires looking at the primary sources of website traffic and the activities that drive each source.
Direct: This comes from people either typing in your website URL or clicking a bookmarked link. Increasing direct traffic comes from “getting the word out,” primarily through public relations (PR) activities but also through tactics ranging from networking at events to employee and customer advocacy.
Email: Primarily outbound email to your opt-in or “house” list, but this can also include cold outreach using qualified third-party email lists.
Organic search: Visitors who find your website through branded or generic, non-brand keyword phrases on search engines. It’s driven by search engine optimization (SEO) efforts.
Paid: Though often described with the shorthand description “search, social, and display,” the universe of paid advertising and promotion channels also includes content syndication, webinars, newsletter sponsorships, video ads (a form of display), and emerging forms such as NFTs.
Referral: Non-paid traffic driven from other websites, anything from blog post backlinks to media mentions, non-paid content syndication sites, partner links, directories, or other sources.
Organic social media: Traffic to your site from links in your social media profiles and posts on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, and other social networks. Platforms like Instagram and YouTube are more effective for branding than traffic generation, though they can provide some visits when used creatively.
Conversion rates vary by source and are different for every enterprise based on strategy, effectiveness, budget, targeting, and other factors. But for B2B companies, organic search tends to be one of the highest volume and best-converting traffic sources.
Let’s say organic search traffic is stagnating or falling off, which is contributing significantly to the shortfall in new sales leads. That takes us finally to our fifth why and the root cause of the business trouble.
While there are many factors that can affect search success, quite frankly one of the most common answers to this question is: we don’t have a comprehensive SEO strategy. Bingo! There’s the root cause (from a digital marketing standpoint, at least) of our business finance challenges.
It’s not unusual for a company’s SEO history to look something like this: over time, different individuals have been assigned SEO as one part of their duties. Efforts were generally limited to adding meta tags to pages and posts, and possibly brainstorming some keyword ideas (without detailed research).
An automated “audit” using a free online tool was run once, and few technical issues found and fixed. The site still has 10-year-old blog posts and announcements about events long past consuming crawl budget, with no SEO benefit or value to site visitors.
God forbid, someone once hired a “professional link builder” off of Fiverr whose efforts led to a bunch of dodgy backlinks that got the site penalized by Google until they were cleaned up by an SEO technician or consultant.
While outlining a comprehensive SEO strategy is a topic for another post, planning needs to encompass three broad areas:
Technical SEO: site structure and navigation, broken links and images, 404 error fixes and redirects, page load speed, and other technical issues that can affect search engine rank and the user experience.
Content: detailed keyword research, content strategy and development, old content cleanup, on-page SEO, internal link building, etc.
Backlinks: Forget the dodgy link builder on Fiverr. Backlinks that will matter are best earned rather than built through activities like PR, strategic-high quality guest posting, influencer marketing, and working with technology and business partners.
A professional consumer SEO agency or B2B SEO services provider can help develop this type of comprehensive action plan.
That wraps it up. Five whys answered, root cause determined, corrective action planned.
In the real world, this type of exercise will almost certainly be more complex, even messy. You may need more than five whys. There will likely be more than one answer to some questions, leading to multiple root cause threads.
The value of this approach, however, is to keep asking “why” until you get actionable answers. You’ll probably have to turn over several metaphorical rocks along the way, and what’s underneath won’t always be pretty. But clarity leads to the best strategies for business performance improvement.