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LeviathanNot even just a little? After all, none of us are perfect and we don’t always get things 100% right first time. Aren't we supposed to be the experts and perfect in every way, though?

After all, that's why we get paid the big bucks. We wander in, pronounce some barely intelligible terms, throw up some ever-optimistic graphs and then head off, magic wands at the ready, to make something happen that our clients don't really understand.

But we assure them through Panglossian spectacles that 'everything is for the best, in this best of all possible digital [sic] worlds'.

Since you're reading this, I believe I can be pretty certain that the slights and insults to our profession in the extract are as much of a nightmare to you as they are to me.

It is, unfortunately, a bad dream that all too often becomes a reality. Across the last twenty-four to thirty-six months (maybe longer), digital strategy has been seen as a goldmine in which all too many unqualified people and companies have decided to stake a claim.

After all, surely it only requires a change of business card to be a digital strategist?

As an industry we are barely nascent in comparison to other professional services. Unlike the legal field, we have no Hammurabi, no Hywel Dda*, and it's certainly a leap of imagination too far to see Hortensius passing up his crown to Cicero over conversions on split-tested calls to action.

Those that seek legal advice know why they are seeking legal advice, and whilst some of the minutiae of process are beyond those not couched in that sphere, what they seek to achieve and their goals can clearly be seen through the journey they take.

In digital strategy it is not so clear. We haven't had the time to codify, clarify and certify what is and isn't good digital strategy practice, and therein lies the 'in' for those who think all it takes is a change to their business card.

What is digital strategy?

I would have liked to have started with 'what is good digital strategy', but without a basic definition, that is impossible; to lift from Wikipedia, digital strategy is:

"the process of specifying an organization's vision, goals, opportunities and initiatives in order to maximize the business benefits of digital initiatives to the organization”

I'd expect a few dissenters but there's no denying that is digital strategy, so, round of applause, Wikipedia -you've defined what many have been squabbling about and we can all pack up… Except, of course, that is not all that digital strategy is, even in broad terms.

In my digital strategy paper (it's getting on, but still worth a read), I've split the definition of digital strategy into three to encompass the key different views:

Process

Digital is about finding the best way of achieving goals, normally promoting a brand or service, through electronic connected media. This could be online on the web, through specialist Internet applications, or through mobile phone applications (both network and Bluetooth connections).

Digital consultancy can also tie into traditional media outlets, either as traditional first (bringing an audience into a digital campaign), or traditional last (by using an existing digital audience as content generators)

Emotive

Digital is the great equaliser and relationship builder. Humans by their very nature are communicative and inquisitive, and digital channels allow brands to interact with their audience on both levels.

The level of involvement required by the audience to engage with a brand, in many cases a simple click of the mouse, shrinks the gulf between interaction and offline brand perception.

By difference

Digital offers brands new opportunities that traditional methods cannot easily match:

  • Digital does not obey the line.
  • Digital should be cost efficient.
  • Digital can be broadcast and personalised.
  • Digital should always prove returns.
  • Digital can be reactive as well as proactive.

Elsewhere

I believe these start to build a picture of where digital strategy fits; there are many more takes on this - one of my favourites is by Dr Augustine Fou as he approaches the philosophy of digital strategy:

"Digital makes all advertising better. Digital is the string that runs through it. Digital enables optimization of marketing mix and spend allocation. And digital should be the philosophy that informs and enhances all advertising because it is rooted in modern user actions, habits, and expectations."

Whilst rooted in advertising a little more than I think is strictly necessary, Dr Fou's thoughts have led to a little tailoring of my own on digital strategy, to the point of definition.

Digital (strategy) makes it better

Perhaps oversimplified for the tastes of some, this is where I now see digital strategy, split into three parts:

  • Digital: Digital strategy cannot exist without digital, and digital is both rudderless and thoughtless without digital strategy.
  • Makes it: We are forming and creating, as to the nature of what 'it' is – it doesn't matter. Our industry moves at too much of a pace to be anchored to one stream - if we are doing our job properly, provided there is a measure of digital, we should be using the best of technology and other disciplines to make what we are doing the best that we can do, which leads nicely into…
  • Better: Results and ROI, nothing more and certainly nothing less. The ephemeral nature of any individual strand of a digital strategy may lead to Shelley's pedestal of Ozymandias, but whilst current, a good digital strategist can certainly pronounce to look on their works and despair.

As a statement it's open enough to grow, but closed enough to make our intention clear. As digital strategists, our role is not to conceive, create or measure, but to be able to understand and work in all three.

What is good digital strategy?

From this definition of digital strategy, we can differentiate between a good or bad approach within the profession.

Externally passing on a painful lesson I learned as a programmer, the approach is of little consequence if the results are achieved, but at least to ourselves we can be true to what differentiates a professional from an amateur or, worse, a charlatan.

Digital

It seems almost perverse to have to state that if you do not have a well-grounded knowledge of digital then you cannot truthfully claim that you are a digital strategist. But that doesn't seem to stop some people.

At the risk of making myself unpopular, if you think that digital strategy is just:

  • Sticking up a microsite.
  • Opening a Twitter / Facebook / G+ / Tumblr / etc account.
  • Designing (or getting designed), a few display ads.

Then you're not a digital strategist (yet), so please do not paint the rest of us in a bad light by calling yourself one. A digital strategist knows in detail a plethora of digital platforms and opportunities, they know how they fit together, how they cause audiences to drop off, the possibilities that each of them afford to create around, the benefits that each can bring into the business.

In short, you've got to be at least a little bit technical and / or understand the technicalities around the tactics. This is far from stating that every digital strategist should have a copy of Eclipse and a C reference book to hand or be able to track B2B consumer connections from Ethernet frames along and upwards, but if you are not properly conversant with the digital technology that is feasibly available, how can you possibly make the best use of that digital technology when planning? You can't!

Cross discipline and team

Leviathan

Good digital strategists don't just imagine 'it' - they can also make 'it' happen. But this is about more than just one person and one discipline.

The best digital strategies are derived from teams, not individuals; as per the frontispiece of Hobbes's Leviathan, the results of any good digital strategy are the products of the parts of the team that created it – to run a complex digital strategy to the will of one, and to work to the words (if not the full meaning from Job) 'Non est potestas super terram quae comparetur ei', will lead from the Leviathan to the Behemoth.

Understanding the scope of the team and implementing with the right people at the right time is critical to good digital strategy.

The 'right people' and the 'right time' are not difficult element to judge if the mind is open and people can appreciate the different skill-sets that others bring. To conceptualise good digital strategy campaigns requires understanding, empathy and vision - these are not tied to a handful of roles, individuals and / or disciplines.

It is the role of the digital strategist to bring the most out of these to get the best for the strategy - to correctly utilise the 'tools' that are at hand.

Results and ROI

Realisation of expectation and goals is what separates digital strategy from digital twattery. If a digital strategist does not know what the desired outcomes are at the first step in the process then there is no strategy - there is just a series of activities across channels through which it is hoped that by luck (because there certainly wasn't any judgement), a return is made.

A good digital strategist will be able to answer these five questions:

  • What does success look like for the client?
  • How are you going to talk to the client's audience and why will they listen?
  • How does the proposed activity drive the business goals?
  • What should I do next for the client, and how should I prepare for that now?
  • Is there a better way of delivering what the client wants?

With the correct answers to these, a digital strategist is a good chunk into being able to deliver a good strategy - now they just have to prove it.

Proving digital strategy is more than just setting up analytics codes and data sources to fill up a KPI dashboard. Of course, any strategy needs to show ROI and its impact on the bottom line (we need to generate money to get money - this is, after all, business), but point scoring is not insight and digital delivers much more to the business that just dollars and cents.

Digital strategy requires a more heuristic and rounded approach to evaluation; Kaplan and Norton's balanced scorecard is a good start, but since it is only one aspect of wider business strategy and there are lessons to adopt which will arise from the digital strategy itself, for this I use the unbalanced score chart.

Unbalanced Scorecard

Worth, insight and bottom line are all composite parts of return and ROI - without them, no digital strategy can be complete.

Still sucks?

Digital strategy has become a muddied pit - hopefully, some of my ramblings above have struck a chord; even more hopefully, some of you may now be thinking about what it means to be a digital strategist and what makes a digital strategy that does suck and why.

Whatever level of assent or dissent my thoughts may cause (that is if you've read this far!), I hope you can agree with one closing point: 'Digital strategy will not get the respect it deserves until digital strategists work with the professionalism that is due'. Otherwise, it will keep on sucking.

Richard Conyard

Published 14 August, 2012 by Richard Conyard

Richard Conyard is CIO at Red Ant and a contributor to Econsultancy. 

2 more posts from this author

Comments (8)

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Barry Adams

Barry Adams, Founder at Polemic Digital

While your points are valid, your repeated mentions of classical literature rather obscures the point instead of helping to illuminate it, and on top of that it makes you look a bit like a pseudo-intellectual prat.

Other than that, solid.

almost 4 years ago

Richard Conyard

Richard Conyard, CIO at Red Ant

As said across twitter, only in there to make it a little more entertaining (although obviously failed in this instance ;-) ).

almost 4 years ago

Sarah Theodorou

Sarah Theodorou, Trainer Assessor at Aspire Advance Achieve

I read this (after a single read) to say; you may not suck, but your strategy sucks until you can bring together a strong team with all technical abilities, working and communicating together to form a strategy which is entirely digital and not just a social awareness/ link building campaign?

almost 4 years ago

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Alex Woolford

Some good points, but ultimately the answer is big data.

almost 4 years ago

Richard Conyard

Richard Conyard, CIO at Red Ant

Alex I fail to see the connection?

almost 4 years ago

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Degsy

It's okay saying "I feel like having a digital strategy" but when you factor in things like mobile, social media and new browsers it becomes a mind boggling endeavour. The benefit's aren't always quantifiable either, it's no good asking "what am I paying for?" after you've said yes, you need to jump in with both feet or you will miss the boat.

almost 4 years ago

Richard Conyard

Richard Conyard, CIO at Red Ant

Degsy, so you jump in with both feet get a site / app / page / eDM / etc. built without reference to goals or audience? How are you planning on getting any return on your spend except for just hoping?

almost 4 years ago

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Dana Teahan

I can't agree with your alignment to Dr. Fous assertion that Digital makes Advertising better. The fact that you can track direct response through Digital doesn't correlate to better advertising - in fact I think if you look at historical trends in digital advertising, response rates (the most clear indicator of how digital improves advertising) on average have not dramatically improved despite advances in data, technology, targeting. If your product or service is rubbish - which most are, a digital strategy isn't going to help.

almost 4 years ago

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