How to build a digital strategy

Episode 2: How to build a digital strategy: The questions we ask to get started

Designing a digital strategy can seem like a daunting task, especially when you consider all the moving pieces you need to integrate, the complexity and dynamism of the media and the changing demands of the various stakeholders. The best way to achieve this is to break it down to a series of digestible sections and steps. In each one, we will focus on answering specific questions. And that is where the digital strategist lives, in a series of questions that seem very straightforward, but are often overlooked in the rush to execution.

So let’s get started. The 7 areas we need to explore are:

  • Client objectives and expectations
  • The target audience and their journey to purchase
  • The competitive environment
  • The client positioning
  • Timing
  • Resources
  • Other campaigns, messages and initiatives

They always say you should start with the end in mind, so here goes:

We need to understand client objectives and expectations. What are they? Be specific with this and take as much time as you need. Try to make them quantify this because it really is the single most important thing you need answered. What does success look like? Is it a positive ROI? Is it a revenue target? If it is either of these, then what is the specific number? Is everyone in agreement with this objective? Are there any secondary objectives? Why are these objectives important? Are there short term versus long-term objectives and expectations? When asking about objectives, try to make these as macro as possible so you understand and are later able to really communicate the value being delivered by your strategy and the impact it has on the business. Then be absolutely clear with them what they expect to be the contribution of your strategy to these overarching objectives. Digital campaigns don’t exist in a vacuum, but are influenced by a wide range of factors.

Now that we have thoroughly annoyed everyone by badgering them to be specific about expectations, we have to translate these business objectives into digital key performance indicators that support them. For example, if the objective is an ROI metric, then the most important digital metric is likely to be a cost per acquisition or a cost per lead. In order to translate the latter into the former, especially for businesses that transact offline, we have to understand the target audience and their journey to purchase.

The starting point in understanding this is once again to ask questions of the client. More often than not they will have gone through this exercise and will have a very clear sense of their target audience. In the best cases, they have developed detailed personas of these people and have a very clear picture of their journey to purchase through stitching together various online and offline data points. If this is indeed the case then your life got a lot easier. There isn’t too much more digging involved, perhaps asking questions in order to understand if there is regional variation in the profile. If they don’t have any answers to these questions, as is sometimes the case, then it’s time to start conducting some research, but more on that another time. All I’ll say about this is that once you conduct this research and compile the target persona, remember to secure explicit agreement from the client on what you’ve put together before you put it into action.

The next step is to have a clear sense of who the competition is and what they are up to. Again, lots of questions here but a word of caution; the client often has a clear idea of what the competition looks like in a traditional sense, but may be unaware of what the competition looks like online. What I mean by that is that there are often online competitors who are doing good or interesting work and grabbing market share from them that they are unaware of. This is often the case where the client is the market leader and an established brand. It is also the case where the competition may not come in the form of a single national competitor, but a series of ‘largest locals’ in each market. So on the back of any input provided by the client, it is important to conduct your own research to understand what these competitors are doing online and to find if there are any others that the client is unaware of.

We now turn our attention back to the client in order to understand their particular positioning. What is the brand tone and voice? What is their identity and unique selling proposition? Why would I buy from this client versus a competitor? In short, what makes them so special? This is critical in order to differentiate the client online. Differentiation is important because it not only helps the brand stand out in a crowded marketplace, it also helps fight against the pull of commoditization and allows the client to fight on fronts that aren’t only price related, which of course is important if they aren’t the cheapest in the market.

The last 3 questions are the ones that will help us really understand the likelihood of success: the timing, resources and other campaigns. Basically, is the client willing to give the strategy the necessary amount of time to succeed or will they expect immediate results? Short-term results are possible, but the expectations around the scale of these results need to be closely managed. If the expectations for short-term impact are aggressive, the resources that need to be deployed against these need to be equally aggressive. Remember the old adage, speed, cost and quality…pick 2. Finally, what infrastructure is already in place? Are you starting from scratch or is it a sophisticated web environment that you are taking over? What other initiatives, for example branding and broadcast campaigns, are running in support of the digital strategy? It is tempting to advise a client to pour all their resources into digital campaigns, but I can attest based on painful experience that when investments in brand and broadcast are eliminated, this often has a seriously negative impact on digital success.

If the client is unwilling or unable to adequately support the digital campaign through the appropriate budget or resources, including nimble approvals, or is not supporting the campaign through other sources, or is unwilling to give the campaign the adequate amount of time to mature, then expectations typically need to be managed. But that is a subject for another time.

To summarize today’s episode, the first step in developing the digital strategy is to get answers to questions that explore the 7 areas of the client business, namely:

  • Objectives and expectations
  • The target audience and their journey to purchase
  • The competitive environment
  • The client positioning
  • Timing
  • Resources
  • Other campaigns, messages and initiatives

Next week on octopus, we will change our focus away from the work to the people and explore the role of the digital strategist. Please visit 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.

Access the podcast in iTunesStitcher or Soundcloud or listen below now.

7 thoughts on “Episode 2: How to build a digital strategy: The questions we ask to get started

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s