strategic alignment

Episode 1: Defining Digital Strategy

For the first few episodes I’m going to set the stage by giving you my perspective on the subject. I’m going to focus on some fundamentals. How do you build a digital strategy? What is the role of the strategist? What are the attributes? Once that is done I will begin to have other perspectives from people that have established themselves in their careers as digital strategists and others that are starting out.

But before all that, let’s start at the beginning, what do we mean by a digital strategy?

AdWords strategy. Display strategy. Social strategy. Facebook strategy.

Are these in fact strategies or are they something else entirely?

Let’s start by defining what we mean by a digital strategy. I think this is necessary because in spite of the fact that it is a term that is overused; I believe there is a lack of understanding as to what constitutes a strategy. What’s more, some of the more traditional marketers will argue that digital, based on its dynamic and ever-changing nature, simply can’t be strategic. It’s a way to keep us in our place and preserve the perception of the value they bring.

Perhaps the best way to begin exploring this is by defining what is not a strategy. Working on the agency side you are involved in a lot of conversations that start with the question ‘how do I strategically deal with this?’ Sometimes the thing you are being asked to deal with has nothing to do with strategy, and is simply a way to make someone else’s responsibility into your responsibility. It’s code for ‘here’s a flaming bag of poo. Please deal with it’.

The other challenge in understanding what is and what isn’t strategic is the nature of our industry, indeed, of the very medium we work in. Digital media is not static. It’s extremely, dizzyingly dynamic. This represents one of its greatest strengths – it’s constantly reinventing and renewing itself. Platforms, devices and capabilities are continuously evolving. Facebook can and does change the way brands can connect with consumers from one week to another. Marketers hold their collective breath whenever Google introduces a new algorithmic update. Programmatic buying is turning traditional display media buying on its head and mobile is just messing with everyone.

All this change gives rise to the perception that it is not possible to be truly strategic in digital media. I would argue that while it is hard to do so, not only is it possible to be strategic, it is necessary if we have any expectation of results delivered efficiently.

So how do we know if something is strategic or not? The 3 elements that together define a digital strategy are a clear alignment of campaigns with business objectives, a consideration of the complete user journey and a medium to long-term timeline.

Let’s examine each of these in detail. The first question to ask is if this action or task is aligned with an existing campaign or client objective. I use the term client broadly here so it can be either an external or internal client. Ideally this objective would be a business objective, not only a digital objective. Let me clarify what I mean by that. Digital objectives are often things that can be tracked and reported online through tools such as web analytics. Where clients are eCommerce only, business and digital objectives are perfectly interchangeable. However, for the vast majority of businesses that transact offline, a digital objective needs to then be aligned with a business objective, which is often offline revenue, ROI or awareness. For a task or initiative to be strategic, it needs to be aligned with the objective.

The second characteristic of a digital strategy is alignment with the user journey. The user journey to purchase encompasses a variety of touch points, from digital media placements and creative, for example, in social or search, through to the content and calls to action in destination web environments and mobile apps. It is highly unusual for a person to transact with a brand through a single media channel. In other words, an initiative needs more than one channel or platform to be considered strategic. For example, I would argue that there is no such thing as an AdWords strategy if it does not consider the destination environment that we are sending the user to. There are a number of benefits to this way of looking at digital initiatives. The first is that it means that a campaign is going to be more successful. Any campaign that considers and prepares for the entire user experience is automatically going to be more successful than one that is totally focused on what happens in a specific digital media platform and ignores everything the user does once they leave that platform. The second benefit is that since it is more successful, you, as the marketer who conceived and supported the execution of this strategy are now automatically more valuable. The final benefit is that you are not beholden to the vagaries and sudden changes that the various media platforms, Google and Facebook and all the others insist on foisting on us with little or no warning.

This brings us neatly to the final characteristic of a digital strategy: time. Due to its alignment with business objectives and the need to consider the entire user journey, a strategy is typically a medium to long-term initiative. That doesn’t mean that a strategy can’t have short-term elements, it simply means that if there are those elements, they have to be milestones on the path to a longer-term objective.

So to summarize, a digital strategy is characterized as an initiative with 3 elements: alignment with a business objective, alignment with the user journey and a medium to long-term timeline.

Next week on octopus, we will explore how to build a digital strategy. Please visit octopusdigitalstrategy.net for notes and transcripts and to comment on content. I’d love to hear from you. Please subscribe for alerts about new episodes and content. Thank you for listening to octopus. I’m Nasser Sahlool.

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