Econsultancy’s Digital Cream event in London last week was a great place to announce our plans for a new piece of research about the impact of digital on a range of business functions including marketing, customer service and product development.

Our research, being carried out in association with digital business consultancy Blue Latitude, will be based on a survey of companies and supplemented by a number of in-depth interviews with senior stakeholders from well known organisations across a range of sectors. 

Our fourth annual Digital Cream, a roundtable-based conference for 160 client-side delegates, included some detailed discussion around the theme of ‘managing digital channels’, which was the subject of a much referenced Econsultancy report written by Dr Dave Chaffey two years ago. 

Skilfully moderated by Blue Latitude’s managing director Martin Brass, there were some juicy topics on the menu at this table … and these morsels will feed into our joint piece of research (excuse the culinary puns). 

I have summarised some of the main questions and discussion points here. 

Does the head of your organisation buy into digital and invest accordingly?

Some business leaders seem to get it, while others are proving to be slow off the mark. In rare cases, transformational change is being proactively driven from the top because a CEO “just gets it”. These business leaders aren’t waiting for figures which prove that investment in digital makes sense. They are just getting on with it. 

More typically, board directors are reacting to the fact that an ever increasing proportion of business is being done through digital channels, or emanating online. Arguments about the need for digital are trickling upwards. 

(Please note: because of our “Chatham House” roundtable rules about confidentiality, I can’t name any individuals or organisations specifically). 

Where does digital sit within the organisation?

In the past companies have wrestled with the issue of where digital marketing and e-commerce should sit within the business. Historically, if not operating as a separate team reporting to the board, it has tended to be part of marketing, IT or operations. As Martin pointed out, the question should be “Where does digital sit within your business?”. As suggested by the title of this blog post and our research title, digital is of course about more than just marketing and sales. More on this beneath the following question …

Apart from sales and marketing, how else is digital impacting your organisation?

This proved to be a rich line of inquiry. Some companies are using digital channels for customer service as part of an attempt to improve satisfaction and to save money. Others said they are using customer feedback from social media and online survey tools to help refine their products and services. 

Internally, more enlightened companies are using collaborative online tools to share information. Not just intranets but in-company micro-blogging tools such as Yammer for sharing.    

There are also a growing number of examples of how companies are empowering staff to use social media to improve dialogue with customers and disseminate information. 

Digital channels are also being used to help companies recruit staff, and even being harnessed by some pharmaceutical companies to recruit for clinical trials.

There is also the question of how services and products are ordered and delivered … whether this applies to a public sector body delivering webcasts or a university or business school facilitating more distance learning. 

All these different manifestations of digital have ramifications for where digital should sit within the organisation. If digital is being used in areas like customer service and product innovation, then it clearly transcends marketing and sales. It’s not easy (and this is probably the understatement of the year) because companies need to think horizontally and vertically at the same time, to ensure that they are paying more than lip-service to digital. 

What is the impact of social media?

Enormous. Not so much because of the way that social media channels are being monetised and harnessed for brand awareness and brand perception (it is still early days for most), but because of the implications this has for how companies are set up culturally.  

For example, companies with ultra-strict brand guidelines are being forced to become less protective because they often can’t control what their staff are saying about them. Their brands are increasingly, by definition, the product of what their customers and staff are saying about them, not what they are trying to broadcast.   

Social media channels have also helped to accelerate the race for businesses to become truly customer-centric. If you are not joining up your touch points and thinking about customer journeys in a holistic manner, then your competitors will quickly usurp your market-leading position.  

Again, this isn’t easy in a world where there are more and more touch points. 

How do you build a business case for digital?

Another huge question, and of course this depends on what you are trying to build an ROI argument for. Sometimes, because of the difficulty quantifying benefits, delegates said they can feel that they are going through the motions with a business case just so that “a box can be ticked”.   

But it is obviously crucial to know how to prioritise and this often needs to stem from a good old-fashioned costs-benefits analysis. 

One delegate described how they were trying to evolve from a “roulette table” approach which involved sticking lots of money on a particular number or colour (type of digital investment) and, in effect, hoping for the best. 

How do you train staff around digital?

Education about the importance of digital for organisations needs to start at the top if it is going to stand any chance of permeating through a business. For larger companies, training needs to involve customised programmes with different types of training for different stakeholders. Companies also need to think about training front-line staff about the opportunities  - and dangers – afforded by social media. 

In our Managing Digital Channels research, we asked about the main challenges in managing an e-commerce team.  Education was overwhelmingly the most commonly cited challenge, with many participants struggling with the best way to develop strategies for digital channels and to implement digital campaigns. 

There are many topics that I haven’t covered above, for example budgeting and measurement, but many of these can wait for the full report. 

Look out for The Impact of Digital Beyond Sales & Marketing: How Digital is Transforming the Entire Organisation report, which will be published by Econsultancy and Blue Latitude this summer.

Photocredit: Uploaded to Twitter by ThatGirl_Chloe via Yfrog