in Career Development

Getting Good at Digital Strategy

I wrote a post just over a year ago Things that I read (a response to a really nice email) that offered some recommendations on relevant readings for anybody interested in getting into digital marketing (or even marketing in general).

Tonight, I’m extending that post into the areas that I think anyone in digital can focus on to strengthen their strategic muscles.

First off – I need to say that I believe firmly in the idea that real strategy is NOT the determination of what channels or tactics need to be used in a given project, but the understanding of how a business works from its processes, to its people, to its technology, and ultimately – what it’s objectives are. If you’re armed with a full understanding of the above items, you’ll find the solutions can be cost effective and drive real business results like sales instead of awareness.

Without getting a grasp of the above, it’s planning work, but not strategy. And getting an understanding of people, process, technology, and measurable business objectives doesn’t come from reading about the latest technologies online, or what the hottest ad campaigns look like. It comes from asking good questions, and having been down similar paths a few times before. Which really means having experience across nearly every vertical in business.

So with that rant out of the way – here’s what I hope will be a good primer for anybody looking to become a strategist in the digital space (and I’m assuming others too, but I can only speak to the world I know).

1. Real World Experience

I’ve been reading countless resumes over the last few weeks in search for a Sr. Strategist within our digital practice at Environics Communications and while there have been many talented people in the list (at least on paper), very few of them seem to have any deep experience across key verticals in the marketing / communications industry. Specifically in automotive, finance, consumer package goods and tech.

In my experience, these are the toughest verticals to work in – clients are more demanding, budgets and timelines are under constant watch, and agency competition is fierce. If you have no experience in any of these verticals, or in just one or two, you may want to ask to be put on accounts that deal in these spaces.

2. Technical Prowess

Unfortunately, it’s all too easy to say that we understand technology today. It seems to be transparent and all around us from smartphone apps, to online tutorials on code and design, to articles from Mashable that talk about the latest startups. But the reality of technology is that it’s not nearly as sexy as we like to think it is. Don’t get me wrong – I’m a total nerd when it comes to this stuff, but I’ve also been fortunate enough to have worked directly with systems integrators on enterprise systems. The proud men and women who have to deal with all kinds of messy situations from rewriting other people’s code from the ground up, to figuring out why a login form doesn’t work on the back-end of a banking system that only 100 people will ever use.

Gaining a strong technical understanding comes from systems analysis, which doesn’t often happen in the agency space. So unless you work for a systems integration company that employs business or systems analysts, I’d recommend learning about systems analysis at your local university. Most decent schools will offer these types of courses as certificates, much like project management.

What you’ll learn from systems analysis is much like learning about a business’ objectives and culture. How to ask good questions, specifically about what systems your client is connected to, and its ecosystem within the company.

In addition to systems analysis – it’s becoming increasingly important to be able to empathize with developers and appreciate how much work is involved in what we often take for granted. You don’t need to become a developer, but it’s worthwhile (and fun) to take up coding on your own time. I highly recommend Code Academy to get started with basics like HTML and CSS, and when you’re ready to get into web programming – check out Javascript is Sexy, The creator of the site has done a phenomenal job of helping a lot of people understand a linear path to going from a complete novice to intermediate developer in just two months.

3. Business Savvy

Having gone to business school myself, I know there is a certain confidence we get from graduation that we’re equipped to understand the ins and outs of any business, but what we quickly learn is that businesses don’t work the way we were taught. We learn from case studies that brilliant minds come up with brilliant ideas, and through a series of identifying problems, focusing on a specific issue and acting on a solution… We somehow increase revenue.

The reality is that most businesses would prefer to operate on the “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” principle. Unless a competitive threat has emerged, or revenue is suddenly vanishing, businesses prefer to operate on a “Business As Usual” basis, looking to optimize as much as possible. And this is especially true of their marketing efforts.

Being able to understand your client’s business means understanding the make-up of their universe, from what’s happening in their industry, to what drives their overall business, to how their personal bonus is calculated each year. I’m serious about the last item – in most cases, your ability to help their marketing efforts, has a direct impact on whether or not they’ll get a raise or a promotion next year.

Business savvy obviously comes with asking your clients lots of questions, but also in performing constant research about your clients’ overall industry. Who are the key players, what are the emerging trends that you can help them capitalize on, and which mental models need to be applied to your thinking to ensure that you’ve thought of all the pieces of the marketing puzzle in your planning efforts.

This brings us to my favourite knowledge set

4. Mental Models

Mental Models really are part of being business savvy, but they warrant their own heading in this post. Every good strategist operates on mental maps, frameworks, models and otherwise guiding rails, to help them think about how to solve a problem.

Unfortunately – searching for “mental models” yields a number of different definitions. The Wikipedia entry is probably the most relevant, but it’s SO BORING. So I’m going to try to break it down quickly and simply.

We’ll use the automotive industry as an example.

When you buy a car, you likely go through five key phases of decision making:

  1. Awareness – “Which brands should I be thinking about?”
  2. Engagement – “Of the top brands I’m looking at, what do their cars look like? What are the differences?”
  3. Opinion – “Which one do I like best? How do I feel about the price of each option? How do the options make me feel?”
  4. Action – “I want to buy THIS car – I’m contacting a dealer now”
  5. Advocacy – “I’m proud of my purchase, and everyone should consider purchasing the same car”
These five steps are commonly referred to as the Marketing Funnel – if you search for it, you’ll get spiffy images like this one:
This is a mental model that we use to make sure that we’ve considered all the digital tactics necessary to support consumers in buying one car over another and that each tactic aligns to the next. Awareness tactics lead into engagement, leading into opinion, etc.

Being able to apply mental models to business problems will allow you to not only choose the right solutions for their clients, but will allow you to also visualize exactly how and why your plan will work.

I always recommend practicing the use of the Marketing Funnel for any client. It can take some time to get comfortable with it, but in my experience, it is the most powerful of all mental models in the space of marketing.

That’s all for now – If you’re reading this and you found this helpful, please let me know either in the comments, or on Twitter.