For the Moms and Mums of Digital Professionals Everywhere

I’m writing this post for three reasons:

  1. My parents still don’t understand what I do as a profession
  2. It’s a role that intrigues and baffles people in conversation
  3. I’m interspersing freelance planning work with searching for full-time digital strategy roles which vary across agencies
  4. Having absolutely decided no more side-stepping from accounts to strategy, I felt I needed to affirm my position and desired fit

Here is my story.

I fell into digital strategy/planning as an account manager who enjoyed interrogating data and spent way too long art-working presentations.  In terms of data analysis, I spent a lot of time thinking about stuff, sometimes too much. Questions were important and if they sprung to mind, I had to ask them. Once they were out there, I felt compelled to try and answer them.

With regard to articulating such questions and answers, agency presentations have many roles to play, including:

  • Defining a landscape (what’s going on in the world)
  • Explaining next steps on a project (A, B, C)
  • Illustrating and rationalising strategy (this is where you need to be in 2013 and this is how we’ll get there)
  • Reporting progress (this is where we should be, this is where we are)
  • Justifying an investment (you should invest $X here to reach X% of your target audience, increasing sales by X%)

But they are also about inspiring clients … theatre, giving clients a brief vacation into a world just beyond their expectations. I spend an equal amount of time thinking about how to inspire people!

Digital agencies are still relatively young, though many fly very successfully on their own now. As such, most of my planning roles have emerged in agencies. Digital didn’t come with a manual and though digital strategy positions have often been well designed, they have rarely been strategised. 

So what is a digital strategist?

Well, for non-industry people (our mums/moms) I have two analogies…

Firstly I describe myself as a detective because digital strategy first and foremost is about solving problems. It involves the investigation of the world around a problem (competitive landscape, macro-environment, micro-environment) and then of course the interrogation of the problem itself. It involves profiling the stakeholders of a project, interviewing them, capturing motivations (critical), evidence (necessary to support assumptions) and feedback to identify anything we didn’t know we didn’t know.. Sometimes as feedback emerges, a digital planner must cross-reference it and then gather people into a room to report back on progress made. 

Secondly I describe myself as a personal shopper with Digital as the supermarket packed full of web, social and mobile products. As a personal shopper, I’ll often walk a client around the store, asking them what they’re looking for and for whom they might be shopping. I might point out what’s in fashion and I’m likely to ask them what they would like to spend. They might come in raving about an outfit they’ve seen on Pinterest, but if it doesn’t suit their shape, I’d advise on outfits to suit them specifically.

Finally, if you remember nothing else…  “I help companies invest their marketing budgets online to get the best possible return.”

Still too woolly for you?

I’ve developed digital marketing strategies for a range of companies and the digital planning process can vary based on a company’s budget, culture, objectives and timescale. Below are some of the stages (springing consciously to mind) that support a digital strategy:

  • Brief (what we think is the problem)
  • Project audit (review of scope of problem, identification of key stakeholders, secure all background information)
  • Company audit (if there are gaps from previous stage, internal interviews and surveys at client company to help define the problem we’re trying to solve)
  • Campaign activity review (analyse marketing activity over the past year – what worked, what didn’t work, existing social platforms, website  – in terms of user experience design and analytics, performance of online ads etc)
  • Competitor profile (who does the client believe to be the competition?)
  • Competitive landscape (benchmarking competition in broader environment. Are there are any forms of competition or challenges we might face that haven’t been identified?)
  • Social landscape (if social monitoring software subscriptions are available. These can be expensive and as such, smaller companies may not access them and larger companies may have limited license use)
  • Social landscape review will also reveal what existing channels and platforms exist to survey specific audiences, such as a client’s CRM (customer relationship management) database
  • Survey (survey design is critical to get the best response)
  • Survey analysis (identify patterns/data clusters, gaps, questions) = largely quantitative research, with small amount of qualitative feedback
  • Form sketch personas
  • Use gaps from survey analysis to build questionnaires for telephone interviews and focus groups  = qualitative research
  • Design questionnaire
  • Test questionnaire
  • Complete qualitative research
  • Use insights to develop full personas
  • Collate all data and discuss findings with client
  • Develop strategy
  • Prototype
  • User testing

Many companies already have a reasonable amount of demographic information on their customers, but often less information about their digital behaviours. So when I research an audience (usually a client’s customer base), here are some of the things I’m trying to find out:

  • The websites they use
  • The social networks they belong to
  • How they use such social networks, 
  • The type of mobile phone they have
  • How much they use their mobile phone
  • What sort of apps they download 
  • How long they spend on different websites and apps

My friend’s mom looked horrified when I explained this recently, but of course commercially aggregated – this data is anonymous. Saying that, there are a number of tools now which profile conversations across social networks. If you’re tweeting about how much you love or hate Pepsi or Nike, you can bet that your comment has been sucked up for sentiment analysis. Every time I publish photos on Flickr, the website logs whether these photos were taken with my SLR camera or iPhone4S. I set my location on Twitter. Do I have privacy concerns? Sometimes, but I also hope that in building up a better picture of me, companies will learn to send me more targeted promotions, in the most convenient format, at a sympathetic frequency. And to a degree… if you work in online marketing, you sign a pact to sell some digital soul.

Once I understand a client’s audience(s) – typically the group(s) of people who buy the product(s), both in terms of a demographic profile (age, gender, geography, household income etc) and digital behaviours, I can then build the relationship between a client and digital channels. These insights pave the way for hypotheses on how and where customers will be most responsive; influencing the design of websites, mobile optimised sites/pages, mobile apps, Facebook Pages, Facebook apps, display advertising, Search advertising, Search Marketing (how to improve your listings on Google pages), Twitter profiles, the content of tweets and much, much, much more… Most importantly, the knowledge I draw as a Digital Strategist helps me understand the relationships between all of those different digital channels listed above. Only by connecting these dots can we amplify the response, benefit from the sum of the parts and generate the best possible return on a digital investment. We call the sum of these digital channels  – the ecosystem and each property in the ecosystem should have a meaningful influence on everything else. 

Basically, we’re a different species away from our days where we took our printed leaflet and we put it online. For those of you who’ve never considered the cost of such things, it is REALLY EXPENSIVE to develop a website + mobile + Facebook app + the management of a Facebook Page and Twitter + advertising.  Given so many people are online now, this makes Digital a very viral medium. If companies handle Twitter and Facebook badly, word gets around very quickly. If they develop a badly designed mobile app, the best case scenario is that people will complain about it. Worse case – a company gets minimal feedback, misses a great announcement opportunity and the app gets lost in the appys of mobile mediocrity.

For non-industry folk, perhaps you still see Digital as the Internet…. the World Wide Web. A sea of websites and laptops. Still, I know I’m not the only ambassador to defend Digital as the invisible force that now underpins every single touchpoint between a brand and human being, because both Web and Mobile are simultaneously diverging and converging. A more elegant expression of such phenomenon can be found in “Design for the Real World. Human Ecology and Social Change.” by Victor Papanek and on page 193 there is a section which goes a good deal of the way to explaining some of the complexity we find and face:

“If the industrial revolution gave us a mechanical era (a comparatively static technology of movable parts), if the last 100 years have given us a technological era (a more dynamic technology of functioning parts), then we are now emerging into a biomorphic era (an evolving technology permissive of evolutionary changes).

We have been taught that the machine is an extension of man’s hand. But because of enlarging scale even this no longer holds. For 5,000 years, a brickmaker was capable of making 500 bricks a day. Technology has made it possible for one man with the right kind of backup machinery , to make 500,000 bricks a day. But biomorphic change obsolesces both the man and the bricks: we now extrude building skin surface, i.e. sandwich panels that include heating, lighting, cooling and other service circuits.”

In a recent interview when I explained how many tech meet-ups I go to, I was pressed on “why?” and challenged for detail. Below is my answer, with a little extra crafting from hindsight:

  • Generally I prefer hearing stories to reading them. I get a lot of energy from people
  • As an aspiring geek, I use these spaces to improve my TIQ (tech intelligence quotient)
  • At art college (many moons ago), we were encouraged to document our own thinking and expose ourselves to the musings and reflections of others. At the time, we did this through paper log-books and I often included anything that could be physically taped down on paper (including a salt-dried frog). Now I do this through documenting thoughts in notes on my iPhone, Pinterest, Posterous, Flickr, Facebook and Twitter
  • Who knows where the Next Big Thing is going to come from… but I’m not convinced it will be from Twitter, Google or Facebook, or that Mashable will get there first. As we navigate this “biomorphic era”, digital opportunity may not come from the angle we expect