What the Sinking of the Titanic Can Teach Us About Digital Marketing

On April 15, 1912 in the wee morning hours, telegraph offices around the world were abuzz with shocking news: the unsinkable luxury liner Titanic, on its maiden voyage, was sinking in the North Atlantic. But where did this story begin? Just what led to the loss of over 1,500 lives?

Surprisingly, much of what led to the Titanic disaster occurred long before it even set sail.

While everyone knows the story of the Titanic, there are some hidden truths that digital marketers can learn from the story of this ship’s historic voyage.

The Rivets Used on the Ship Were of an Inferior Grade

In 2008, nearly ten decades after the Titanic sank to its icy tomb, it was discovered that inferior rivets were to blame.

According to an article published in The New York Times on April 15, 2008, it was reported that scientists had discovered that the rivets used to construct one of the largest ships of its time, the Titanic, were substandard. Ironically, though recognized for its luxury, cheaper iron rivets were used on a greater portion of the ship.

For decades, scientists and investigators of the sinking of the Titanic have held differing views regarding what caused such a massive ship to sink. Armed with actual samples taken from the Titanic, as well as over two decades of research, scientists put theories at rest.

The difference between the metal grades was sufficient enough that when the steel plates used to cover the exterior of the ship filled with water, they placed tension on the rivets. This caused them to pop their heads, creating a domino effect that allowed water to rush into the ship at an alarmingly fast rate – something that would not have occurred had the engineers used properly constructed rivets.

When preparing a digital marketing strategy, you must take the time upfront to build with the right materials. Though rivets may be small and seemingly insignificant, they made all the difference for the passengers of the Titanic. This proves that the devil is in the details, and when constructing a digital marketing strategy, you must understand and become intimately familiar with numerous specific details regarding your target audience.

Questions to Ask:

  • What are your bigger business goals? To increase revenue? To earn more market share? To improve customer satisfaction? To reach more or newer markets? To gain brand visibility? To reduce the cost of lead acquisition? To extend the customer lifecycle?
  • Who else is competing for the same market space? What can you learn from them? Where are they found online – social media channels, referring sources of traffic, etc.?
  • What measures will be used to track progress, to gauge campaign effectiveness, and to celebrate successes? Are these based on best practices? How does the competition stack up using these same measures?

Lifeboats are More than Décor

During the construction of the Titanic, its designers were focused on producing a massive and unsinkable ship – the “what-ifs” of disaster received little energy and attention. By the time the ship struck the iceberg, the passengers aboard the Titanic had little chance of survival as the ship was improperly equipped to transport survivors.

The builders of the Titanic placed more value on the beauty and power of the ship than the lives aboard. And, sadly, over 1,500 passengers paid for that negligence with their lives.

Your website doesn’t have to suffer the same fate as the Titanic. It’s not enough for you to have a beautiful website. It is important to provide real value to your site’s visitors. You can think of your content as your website’s lifeboat. How you write the content will determine if you have enough value to support your website or not.

Writing great content is about being familiar with what your audience wants and needs to read, and giving it to them at the time they need it most. When people arrive at your website, you must identify what they need and solve problems (even ones that they don’t even know exist) through well-executed content.

Questions to Ask:

  • What goals do they need to achieve right now?
  • What are the needs or wants do they want to meet right now?
  • What is the mission that they need to fulfill right now?
  • What do they want to know right now, and how easily can they find that information?
  • And if they are looking for someone to collaborate with them, such as by writing an article or developing a new product, must they have what they desire right now?
  • After you’ve answered the questions above, you also need to ask yourself: How can I help them feel better? What value can I bring that no one else can? What action do I want them to take right now?

It’s the Little Things…

For decades, the public believed a single 300-foot gash caused the Titanic to sink. The discovery and subsequent research of the Titanic at its resting place nearly two miles under the North Atlantic Ocean in 1985 finally merged eyewitness accounts with science.

Contrary to popular belief, a single, approximately 300-foot gash through its steel hull did not doom the Titanic to disaster. Rather, it was a series of 2-3 inch drag and puncture injuries to the steel, combined with an influx of water and substandard rivets, that caused the steel panels to burst at the seams.

The real tragedy is that because there was not an immediate rush of water, most aboard the ocean liner were painfully unaware of the severity of the damage to the ship’s exterior. Had the crew been more aware of how much damage the collision with the iceberg caused, there may have been many more survivors. Had they been able to anticipate the potential outcome, they would have been better equipped to deal with the crisis at hand. Instead, the crew focused on the immediate problem rather than what the future held for them.

A look at the bigger picture can give you a better perspective regarding your website as well. It can help you plan and create content that takes into account new opportunities to reach your target audience, reach more through existing customers, and strengthen your calls to action, to name just a few benefits.

Questions to Ask:

  • Who else could I be reaching within the same audience? (For example, if you’re working with bigger companies, can you work with other divisions?)
  • Am I asking or inviting feedback, referrals, testimonials, case studies?
  • How can I leverage those people who love what I do or sell to to champion my website (e.g., reviews, etc.)?

Chaos Breeds Chaos

Eyewitness accounts from Titanic survivors paint a clear picture: men fighting, guns going off, women and children screaming for loved ones, high pitches coming from bending steel, people dropping into the icy waters of the ocean below.

The tragedy here is that because the crew of the Titanic was ill-prepared, they didn’t know how to handle the situation when things went wrong. That’s not much different from having a website where the content is confusing, overly technical, or poorly written. In the eyes of the visitor, it’s chaos. They’ll jump ship…and quickly!

Not everyone is a writer. That’s ok. But recognizing that you may not have the skills to write or that you may not be the best person to write your content makes you a very savvy business person.

Even the best copywriter has specialized skills. Some are better at creating content for blog entries and articles. Others write killer ad copy. And others can translate even the most technical concepts into easy-to-understand English.

Questions to Ask:

  • For whose benefit am I writing the content? (Within your target audience, you’ll want to find out if you are writing to very technical people or very detailed people, people who want just the facts or people who want more information.)
  • Who will be reading my content?
  • What purpose do they have for the content? (Is it a blog entry, ad copy, website page with SEO, sales copy, etc?)
  • What’s my desired outcome? What do I want the reader to do?
  • How will I measure the success (or effectiveness) of the content piece?

The Need for Manpower

Titanic didn’t have enough people in critical positions. As a result of the disaster, new shipping regulations required that two telegraph operators remain on duty 24/7. Ultimately, these guidelines would later lead to the development of the organization now known as the U.S. FCC.

How does this relate to marketing?

Not all marketing teams are alike. There will ultimately be people on your marketing team who are great analyzers of data and who can slog through volumes of numbers and glean actionable information. Other team members will be good with words or images or have excellent insight into the market and audience. Still others will be good at critical thinking, handling crisis situations, or keeping the team updated on trends and best practices. The key to great marketing online is that you need to have the best people in the right place to avoid disaster.

Second only to employing the right people is open communication lines between teams, ensuring that you benefit from everything that your marketing should be doing for your business. Your paid search and SEO teams should work in conjunction with your email marketing, web design, and social media marketing teams, for example. Additionally, bridging the communication silos between marketing, customer service, production, and sales can often identify opportunities, as well as provide solutions that help your business run smoothly like gears in a machine.

Questions to Ask:

  • Who is the best at:
    • Keeping up with the current trends, standards, etc. for social media, SEO, coding, etc.?  (This may be more than one person!)
    • Knowing the target audience, their pain points, how to align your company/product/service, branding against competitors?
    • Managing the project, keeping things moving forward, holding the team members accountable for milestones?
    • Resolving IT and technical issues related to your website?
    • Writing sales copy?  Blog copy?  Email messages? (This may be more than one person!)
    • Ensuring SEO complies with best practices, implementing on-page and off-page SEO?  (This may be a team of specialists such as someone who handles on-page optimization, another who does link building, another who monitors and manages links, etc.)
    • Measuring and reporting on results and progress?
    • Building relationships and engaging with your tribe?
    • Expediting needs of the team among stakeholders?
    • Interacting with other teams within the company such as front line teams (e.g. customer service, sales, etc.) and key stakeholders?
  • How can I use the people who are best in their field (above) to accomplish our company goals and objectives?

An Improperly Manned Station Leads to Disaster

Back in the day, operators in the telegraph room for large ocean liners and steamer ships like the Titanic had only one man on duty to receive and relay messages. This was normal protocol. Often there were mutual arrangements, as was the case with the two operators aboard the Titanic, which allowed one operator to relax or sleep while the other manned the telegraph.

The Titanic operator on duty that fateful day was more interested in sending personal passenger messages than in manning his station. After receiving a flurry of warnings of ice ahead, he ignorantly requested that other operators get off the telegraph service and cease sending more warnings of icebergs along Titanic’s route. By failing to prioritize the needs of the safety of the ship’s passengers over critical safety messages, he left the Titanic vulnerable to the iceberg disaster.

If you’ve invested the time and expense into building a website, it should be manned by an operator invested in making sure you reach your destination.

Questions to Ask:

  • When was the last time I added new and fresh content to my website?
  • What kind of content do my visitors and customers really want to read?
  • Do I have a plan in place to make sure that fresh content is always readily available?
  • How can I keep my visitors and customers coming back to see what’s new on my website?
  • What can I do with my content to encourage visitor and customer engagement?

Smooth Seas and Clear Skies Often Hide What Lies Below

As Captain Rostron said to a crew member as the Carpathia steamed to the Titanic’s rescue: “In this smooth sea, it’s no use looking for white surf around the base of the bergs, but you will look for the reflection of starshine in the ice pinnacles.”


In further testimony from other crew members and passengers who survived the Titanic disaster, it was brought forth that the weather conditions were perfect. So perfect, in fact, that the Titanic was racing full steam ahead with little thought about what hazards lie just below the calm disguise of the ocean waters. It wasn’t until a dark hazy object appeared in the not-so-far distance that the men in the crow’s nest aboard the Titanic thought about icebergs. By then, it was too late.

How many times have you performed a search in the search engines, read the basic description, and clicked on the link only to go to a page that is nearly impossible to navigate? More times than you’d like to acknowledge, right? This is a major problem when marketing your site, especially to first-time visitors.

If you’ve taken the time to build your site, also take the time to think about what you want the people to do once they get there.

Questions to Ask:

  • How easy is it to navigate through my site? How many “clicks” are needed to navigate?
  • Does my site require special plug-ins? (These are things like adding in a flash header, but not making it backward compatible with older versions of the Flash plug-in.)
  • Can people with disabilities or mobile users navigate through my site?
  • Is the content on my site what the visitor would hope to find?
  • What metrics do I need to observe that provide insight into visitor engagement with content?

Take Warnings Seriously

On April 11, 1912, the Titanic received seven warnings about icebergs directly in course of Titanic’s travel route. While the telegraph operator and captain of the Titanic acknowledged these messages, they did not take them seriously.

It wasn’t until the Titanic had actually struck an iceberg that Captain Smith of the Titanic gave those warnings merit.

Your website traffic reports have valuable information that help you leverage your marketing efforts. In other cases, they will identify the “icebergs” in your content or online marketing efforts before you sink!

Questions to Ask:

  • How “sticky” is your website? How long do visitors stay on your website? Do they come back? How many pages do they look at per visit? What pages are losing visitors? Do you know why?
  • How are your landing pages performing on an individual level? On a segmented (related theme) level?
  • What are your top sources of referring website traffic that convert? How can you leverage this knowledge for future marketing efforts?
  • What sources may have an influence (or provide an “assist” to) on converting visitor traffic?
  • Can your top converting pages be made to convert even more website visitors?
  • What kinds of problems are your visitors encountering on your website? Do you have broken links, missing pages, or invalid links?

Know When Danger Lurks

While it might seem strange today to conceive that people aboard the Titanic would intentionally choose to stay aboard rather than board a lifeboat, many first- and second-class passengers chose to stay. Only a small number initially recognized the significance and seriousness and began boarding lifeboats. This decision saved their lives.

Despite your best digital marketing efforts, you may at some point be faced with a disaster. Planning ahead for these problems and learning effective crisis communications strategies for dealing with these disasters will serve as your lifeboat in the face of crisis.

You cannot simply ignore a problem when it occurs, a lesson that United Airlines learned the hard way after a song from the band Sons of Maxwell went viral online. Fellow passengers witnessed Dave Carroll’s $3,500 guitar being thrown by baggage handlers, an act that left the instrument severely damaged. When Carroll tried to receive compensation from the airline, every United Airlines employee that he spoke to refused to accept responsibility for the damage. Had United Airlines owned up to the problem, the incident would have passed without a thought. Instead, their lack of foresight led to the catchy YouTube tune “United Breaks Guitars” and its two sequels, which have generated millions of views and quite a bit of bad press for the airline.

Never stay aboard a sinking ship and ensure that you have a lifeboat on hand for those disasters.

Questions to Ask:

  • Do you know how to identify problems effectively as they occur?
  • Do you know what types of crises you may face?
  • Do you have a plan in place to deal with these different types of problems?
  • Do you have an open line of communication with the people you work alongside (web designers, content creators, etc.)?
  • Do your site visitors have a way to contact you with their questions or concerns?
  • Do you take the time to address your visitors’ concerns when they arise?


The story of Titanic intrigues people to this day in large part because it promised so much and fell to such a terrible fate. Titanic also sits at the bottom of the ocean as a testament to the crucial nature of planning and foresight.

As a digital marketer, you are readying your own ship to set sail in the depths of the Internet. Inadequate preparation can set you up for disaster even before your site goes live online. As a digital marketer, you should plan extensively and plan well, from those seemingly insignificant details to the “what-if” scenarios that can sink your marketing strategy on its maiden voyage.