Thinking Digitally...If You Do Digital or Not

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Marketing firms have been understandably concerned about how digital they must be in order to remain sufficiently central to the marketing mix. We’ve lost something, though, by framing this discussion around whether we should actually develop digital properties instead of around the broader question of how we should learn from digital thinking. In other words, we might need to approach our work—digital or not—with a more digital mindset. I want to talk about that, but I also want to talk about how you might go about deciding the degree to which you do digital, too.

At the outset of this movement, there were so few firms developing digital properties that it was actually difficult to make a poor positioning decision. The tools were rudimentary, no one knew what good digital really was, and that world was there for the taking.

Developing digital properties, though, now shows more signs of being a mature market, meaning that there are few gaps to arbitrage. Strong tools are widespread, we have nearly twenty years of experience to inform our work, and suddenly kids in the garage don't seem to own this anymore. (They have gotten bored and moved on to social media.)

The last two decades have ushered in a new medium, but the true impact of digital is barely felt. Worst of all, even digital firms aren't thinking digitally. But—and this is so exciting to say—the promise of digital impact is at your doorstep. If you miss the promise of digital thinking, you'll suffer far more than missing digital itself. I'd like you to consider thinking digitally regardless of the extent to which you develop digital properties. Here are six examples of applying digital thinking to your work, whatever that ends up being.

  1. Object-oriented programming (OOP) didn't suddenly appear on the scene recently and it is properly understood at a deeper level than I will describe here, but the underlying concept focuses on a deeper understanding of what is really happening first. So you don't solve a client's marketing problem by understanding the client, because then you have a one-off solution. Instead, you focus on the marketing problem (that a particular client happens to be facing) and you solve it in a way that can be applied more broadly. That's efficient for you, obviously, but that's not the point: unless you solve problems this way, you'll never get smarter fast enough. And the opportunity to even solve these problems well won't come to you until you narrow your market focus, because pattern-matching requires a more granular level than where most marketing firms play.
  2. Agile development describes a particular approach to the process of solving problems itself. The principles of agile development incorporate the centrality of customer satisfaction, welcoming late-stage improvement suggestions, iterative delivery versus big reveals, face to face communication, trust, simplicity, self-organizing teams, and continued, organic improvement. How did it happen that software architects coopted the concepts you should own as advisors to your clients? That's not good. Time for a long, deep look underneath our assumptions about how best to “control” our clients.
  3. Good digital work lives within UX and UI. Or, "it's about the experience, stupid." We can't assume that we've gotten it right because the data aligns. Screw the data--it just has to be good enough. No, experience has more impact than data. And branding is merely aligned experience from which commerical meaning can be derived. There's so much talk about user experience in the marketing space, and so little rigor to really backfill the talk.
  4. Project management is uniquely important in digital work because of two reasons. First, a larger percentage of the overall activity is project management related (1.4x non-digital). Second, that activity is more front-end loaded and cannot be meted out evenly. The industry most frequently employs "Producer" for an individual doing this, but I prefer my own concept of Resourcing. This involves managing the deadline intervals, the total hours available, the chronological passage of time, resource planning, capacity prediction, quality control, the coordination of outside resources, and establishing pricing that reflects a fair exchange of value (rather than counting hours). Developing digital properties relies more heavily on resourcing because of the organic nature of this work, but we could learn so much by applying the same principles elsewhere. Developers of digital properties have been forced to learn this; we can follow suit.
  5. User-testing is a means to achieve greater effectiveness and to demonstrate more value in our work. In the beginning, the concept was foreign. Then testing moved to expensive, dedicated labs. Then "man on the street" testing carried the day, an obvious over-reaction. Finally, what's possible and what's prudent have merged to give us excellent options. I am shocked, though, at how little user testing is done. Entire platforms spawning hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue sometimes rely only on agenda-infused anecdotal feedback. How does a firm bring digital thinking to their practice? By applying more rigor to their recommendations.
  6. Accessibility opens the discussion further. Canada is farther along this path than is the United States, and now is the time to begin to incorporate this into your practice. Marketing largely circumvented this in the past by inviting only certain people (customers) to the party. Now the party invitation is wide open—that's what digital is. So there should be a reasonably level playing field for customers so that they are not disadvantaged by an external limitation. ADA isn't just about adding a ramp next to your stairs—it's about enabling two-way communication for customers who lack traditional abilities. Again, thinking digitally would bring this scrutiny to your work in marketing as a whole and not just to your work in developing digital properties. This is similar to the idea that "brand" must eliminate the control of messaging.

We've been thinking about how to be digital whether it is applied to doing digital or not, but let me bring this full circle and argue for the two things that form the essential difference around digital as a medium. The first is that customers signal their interest by accepting some sort of invitation and initiating an exchange. The second is that the customer decision journey (CDJ) is more characterized by meaningful, measurable interaction than any other mainstream media. Keep those two things in mind and you'll understand digital. Keep all these other things in mind and you'll understand the more important construct of thinking digitally, whether you develop digital properties or not. Let's be a lot better at what we do!

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