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Over the last few years, I’ve devoted countless hours and intense effort toward helping organizations understand the need for a comprehensive digital policy program. But sometimes my passion for the topic leads me to overlook one small caveat: You can have too many digital policies. And you can have bad digital policies. You can also have digital policies that do more harm than good.

Digital Policies Should Have a Purpose

As flattering as it would be, “Because Kristina said so,” is not a valid reason for any digital policy. Any digital policy worth having accomplishes at least one of four things:

  • It helps the organization make the most of opportunities offered by the digital marketplace.
  • It makes employees’ jobs easier and more efficient.
  • It makes it easier for customers to engage with the organization on a personal level that nourishes long-term relationships.
  • It keeps the organization out of trouble.

Any digital policy that doesn’t accomplish one of those goals is worse than not having a policy at all.

Let’s look at some examples to clarify what I mean.

Accessibility

I once worked with a U.S.-based oil and gas company that developed a digital policy around website accessibility. As much as I’ve harped on the importance of accessibility, in this case it was unnecessary because it had no customer-facing websites. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements didn’t apply. It might have been understandable if making its product accessible to everyone was a core focus of the organization. But it wasn’t.

The organization ended up with a completely unnecessary policy. That might not sound so bad, but it pulled digital workers’ time and energy away from things that would have actually made a difference to the organization’s mission: “bringing energy to the world.”

General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and Other Data Privacy Laws

When the GDPR went into effect on May 25, 2018, a lot of businesses around the world went into panic mode. And a lot of them needed to — they should have started preparations months in advance.

But one organization, after investing considerable time and effort into becoming GDPR compliant, contacted me for an audit to find out whether it had “done enough.” As it turned out, it really hadn’t needed to do anything at all. It was based in the U.S. and conducted no business activities outside of the U.S. Any information it collected on an EU resident would have been purely accidental and highly unlikely to provoke a complaint or investigation. In this case, the risk was so small that creating digital policies around the GDPR consumed resources the organization could have better used elsewhere.

The same can be said these days for businesses without consumers in California or Brazil. Each has its own data privacy regulations which may not apply if you don’t do business there.

Related Article: Why Digital Policies Are an Agile Marketer's Best Friend

Copyright

I once worked with a government agency that had a copyright policy. By definition, government content can’t be copyrighted (unless it’s created by a contractor for the government to use). Not only was the policy unnecessary — and a waste of time on the part of employees who developed and enforced it — but it could have actually created legal problems rather than preventing them.

Social Media

Social media is an area very much in need of policies because, without them, things can quickly get out of hand. But that instinct to exert as much control as possible over the chaos of social media leads a lot of organizations to overdo it.

I had one client that — with a very sincere intention to be responsive to their audience — set up what amounted to an “out of office” message for social media, letting people know they’d get back to them as soon as possible.

This particular digital policy missed the point on a couple of levels. First, it showed a basic misunderstanding of the real-time nature of social media. People who contact an organization through social media expect an immediate response. They want the brand to engage with them. If they wanted to wait for a response, they’d use email.

That particular problem applies to just about everyone. “We’ll get back to you soon” goes against the very nature of social media and isn’t going to win you any favors from a marketing and PR perspective.

In this case, however, it was even worse. This was a life sciences company with a regulatory obligation to report adverse events. Their automated response was an admission that they were failing in their responsibility to monitor channels for adverse events and report them to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

The Runners Up

The above are some real-life examples I remember because they had the potential to cause serious problems. But there plenty of examples of digital policies that, while they may not have quite the same potential for catastrophe, are a waste of time at best and harmful at worst:

  • Keyword stuffing: Few organizations have a digital policy that says, “We will always keyword stuff.” But many have policies that amount to the same thing by mandating the number of times a keyword must be used, regardless of whether it contributes to readability. As my son would say, “That’s SO yesterday.”  And it’s not just Google’s algorithms that recognize keyword stuffing anymore. Today’s readers easily spot it, too. And that’s not a good thing.
  • Lengthy approval processes: A colleague of mine once worked at an organization with a policy that every single email sent to employees — not customers, employees — had to be approved by an executive vice president. The policy was bad in so many ways. For one thing, surely an EVP had better things to do than sign off on emails about keeping work areas clean. For another, it meant that some truly important messages got buried in the pile until it was too late to matter anymore. Finally, it meant that a lot of digital workers spent far too much time sitting around waiting on approvals rather than working on more valuable projects.
  • Over-engaging: Many organizations have very good policies about social listening. It’s a great way to understand how customers perceive you and what they care about. However, a policy that requires digital workers to jump into any conversation that mentions the organization is overkill — not to mention annoying and somewhat stalkerish. If someone Tweets that they feel guilty because they stopped by your fast-food restaurant instead of cooking a healthy meal at home, your input is not needed!

Time for the Digital Steward to Initiate a Digital Policy Checkup

As with almost everything involving digital policies, this task belongs to the digital steward. It might even mean calling for the elimination of policies you fought to develop. But that’s OK — it shows you’re continuing to learn and grow in your job.

Start With the Low-Hanging Fruit

Addressing the low-hanging-fruit of digital policies is easy. If your organization has really, really bad policies around digital, everyone probably knows it, jokes about it, and rolls their eyes when it’s mentioned. These are the policies that everyone but senior management knows are ridiculous, so put them on your list first.

Then Do a Closer Examination

Once you’ve identified the low-hanging fruit, start looking for the not-so-obvious bad digital policies. The ones that, instead of putting your company at risk, make employees jump through unnecessary hoops or make it more difficult for your organization to accomplish its mission. Look for policies with these characteristics:

  • They refer to something your organization doesn’t do any more.
  • Laws and/or regulations regarding the policy have changed or become obsolete. Technology and/or trends have made the policy outdated (and the policy itself might be holding you back from adopting the latest and greatest).
  • Employees and/or customers have made complaints regarding limitations imposed by the policy.
  • Employees constantly violate the policy — and no one cares.

Related Article: Digital Policy Action Plan: Investment – 5 Days. Value – Priceless

Get Rid of the Bad Policies

Sometimes getting rid of bad policies is easy, requiring nothing more than a hallway conversation with senior management. For example, if you have an accessibility statement but aren’t subject to accessibility requirements and have made no effort to make your site accessible, just take down the statement.

Other policies, however, like engaging with every user who mentions your name, require a little more work. You still need to have a discussion with senior management, but you should come prepared with a suggested replacement policy as well as a plan for communicating the change to digital workers throughout the organization. (Speaking from personal experience, it’s not that hard to convince management to drop a truly bad policy. The key is offering something to replace it with so that they don’t perceive it as yet another item to put on their to-do list.)

Keep Your Eyes on Your Policies!

Digital policies are absolutely essential for success and self-preservation in today’s workplace. But try to avoid “because I said so” policies — the ones that came about because someone in the organization was afraid to give up control. Remember that digital policies exist to accomplish one or more of these four goals:

  • It helps the organization make the most of opportunities offered by the digital marketplace.
  • It makes employees’ jobs easier and more efficient.
  • It makes it easier for customers to engage with the organization on a personal level that nourishes long-term relationships.
  • It keeps the organization out of trouble.

A lot of organizations will find a few policies they don’t need and shouldn’t have. But don’t worry if you don’t find any bad apples. That just means you did a thorough and thoughtful job developing your digital policies to start with. Don’t get too confident, though! Things change, so always keep your eyes open for signs that some policies just aren’t working anymore.