One thing is for certain; things change — and in digital — change is rapid and disruptive. New software solutions, communication platforms, and devices for access and sharing are developed and launched at an exponential rate. Many of these present new and unique opportunities brands can and should take advantage of, but more often than not these new solutions enter an organization organically, under the radar and without strategy or governance. A few years back when Facebook took off as a corporate marketing channel, a global company could within weeks have a dozen company pages in multiple languages without as much as a user guideline or a process for storing log-in passwords in place.
Recently, in the wake of major accidents and corporate scandals company leaderships had to stand and watch as people dealt serious blows online to their brands’ reputations as the public vented their frustration. Others observed start-ups skyrocketing past them using a fraction of their communications and IT budgets. This became eye-openers and companies finally see the need to have digital strategies, governance and processes in place to spur innovation, customer loyalty and to guard and monitor their brand online.
But with this new management awareness and scrutiny of digital programs comes the question: what are we doing and why are we here? Not in regards to the corporate website, that discussion was over by the turn of the century, but this never ending parade of new channels and platforms. This question cannot be answered with clicks, likes and views. Management wants to know toward which business goals are our resources being spent and what are we getting in return.
Where do powerful strategies come from? How do some companies develop strategies that enable them to outperform others regardless of the state of their industry or the economic climate? How does a company get the essentials to work in regard to the company’s strategies such as leadership buy-in and follow through on implementations and performance management without being slow, rigid and check box focused? Developing strategies is a tough and sometimes messy business, and getting past PowerPoint presentations to real-life implementation is virtually impossible for some companies before they slide back into business-as-usual.
Yet, some companies succeed time and time again. Is it the extra spark of creativity that gets the enthusiasm from management ranks down to the tactical implementers? Is it the internal teams feeling that they are on to something, something great, that could work if we only put our hearts and brains into it, or is it that an organization and the people involved are not afraid of failing, that they have a self-assured sense about them, a sense that makes them feel that they can take risks — calculated risks, and that makes the organization feel empowered.
It is probably a combination of the two: creativity that sparks enthusiasm among employees and the self-assured willingness and strength to take risks. In addition, these companies have a good methodology for pilot testing of new initiatives and programs and processes for implementation and performance measurement. This makes them quick and agile in a fast paced technology landscape where customers’ habits and expectations move faster than what most companies are able to and where disruption from start-ups and new product introductions is the new order of business.
The third factor is leadership, and that cannot be emphasized enough. A company leadership’s buy-in and active and ongoing involvement is a vital success factor. Without it a strategy process is almost certain to be added to the huge graveyard of ‘paper strategies’ and never see the light of day.
Digital programs have been instrumental in growing the number of touch points between organizations and their customers and suppliers. With this comes an increased focus on how digital systems can be used to add value to the business.
But in most companies that I talk to data from different programs are analyzed independently of each other and much information, especially from the communications side of the business, the unstructured and mostly text based data, is not properly studied at all. In many cases this has to do with lack of resources and shortage of digital talent sufficiently experienced in data analysis, but in too many companies this is ignored as inconsequential data. Data generated from customer behavior is never inconsequential — it is paramount for success.
A manual sweep through the social sphere can provide a seasoned analyst with valuable insights, but to get a better read on a brand's standing among stakeholders software is used to crunch the data. Therefore, sentiment analysis and trend mining of online content are increasingly becoming an important part of strategy research.
This is especially true for consumer brands or businesses and organizations that provide the infrastructure for our lives such as energy companies, the health sector and telecom, where the conversation volume generates enough data for proper analysis. Technically, analysis of open source text and trend mining refers to the use of software to harvest online text-based data, and in most cases it refers to social media and blogs, places where customers can comment and provide their opinion. Trend mining using multiple data sets are commonly referred to as big data.
In data driven organizations it is increasingly recognized that all business units have a pivotal role to play in driving digital strategy and governance practices forward. In these companies critical business processes often span multiple business units and directors rely on information provided by digital systems for their decision-making. This calls for horizontal teamwork for developing, implementing, running and measuring the effect of digital programs.
The new insight into business areas from this model provides many opportunities for innovation and new thinking as a diversity of talent come together, but it may also create some major headaches when people with strong digital knowledge are hired into units not accustomed to hire or manage such talent. Therefore, change management plays an important role in implementing digital strategy and governance into an organization for the first time.
A formula-driven approach to strategy work might be appealing to many. There is safety in methods, lists and check boxes. Great, but our thought processes are not linear and not everything has equal importance. That said there are underlying elements that are essential for strategy development. You need to know yourself, your market, your customers and the systems and platforms you are developing strategies for, and, yes, the strategy team should follow a process. What I am saying is — don’t fall in love with the process, fall in love with ideas — then test and analyze the heck out of them.
You don’t have to be a digital strategy consultant to see that technology and the integration of data streams are happening at a breakneck pace. Therefore, in a perfect world your digital strategy process should be fast, agile and implemented by stacking pilot tests of prioritized strategies backed by a rigorous performance measurement program. But we don’t live in a perfect world.
I know this is true because in a perfect world I would work less, have more time with my family and move at will between the ocean and snow packed mountains. In reality we have to deal with corporate politics, problems that are causing revenues to drop, and constant attacks from competitors.
This has a tendency to prolong the process and shift our focus mid-stream, and lack of funding can prevent us from testing new programs as thoroughly as we would like. To stay on course and keep focused requires leadership. Success or, more moderately, a good result is all about your people, their engagement and their buy-in.
With big data emerging as a standard framework for decision making digital strategy and governance have taken on an increased importance. Marketing and sales have been among the early adaptors that have found return on their big data investment. A clear driver is the rapid growth of programmatic marketing campaigns.
Programmatic campaigns are dynamically triggered by predetermined events and ads are deployed according to a set of rules applied by software and algorithms. For a modern marketing organization the leap from programmatic to big data in not hard to justify after you have experienced the increased return from your online campaigns. Often the leap means that unstructured data (i.e. social media text mining) is added to your structured data (i.e. online analytics and ad platform metrics). This enables you to analyze the differences between behavioral patterns and what your customers and targets are actually saying, and this gives you a much better planning environment.
A holistic digital strategy will set you up to take advantage of these trends, and governance is the framework you use to optimize your digital programs and reduce overall risks from the systems. My goal is that my book — Always On: Digital Brand Strategy in a Big Data World — will provide you with an understanding of what it will take to develop, implement and run a digital strategy.
It is not meant as a rigid process document you must follow. Companies have different needs and live in vastly different environments. The internal structure of your organization and the market in which you compete is not going to adapt to your digital strategy process, you must find a process and methodology that works for you. But there are four things you must keep in mind:
Think fast – the pace of digital development does not give you the environment and the luxury of time. I do not promote hasty decisions made without all available information, but if something is not functioning optimally you could lose money and customers if you do not correct it, and the faster you can do it the better. Your teams must be composed in a way and mandates given to promote a decentralized decision environment supported by a culture that accepts and is willing to take risks.
Be agile – Even with the best planning, and even if pilots have been deployed to stake the course it could turn out to be the wrong tactic. Stop it and try something else. If the last 20 years have told us anything it is that the digital landscape changes and the pace of change is constantly speeding up. Don’t wait for the market to change. Change the market. Be the disruptor instead of being disrupted.
Be ready – If you are set up for quick decision-making and your organization is agile and able to change, then you really just need to be ready for two main things — opportunity and risk. If opportunity knocks, scale it quickly and if your reputation is under attack in social media, mobilize. Positive and negative crisis preparedness is vital.
Always on – It is a given in today’s online marketplace that you are perceived as being always on. Make sure your governance programs for both your systems and platforms keeps it that way.
Arve Peder Øverland is partner at id.management and author of a new book, Always On: Digital Brand Strategy In A Big Data World.