What is digital strategy?
Many years ago, marketing legend David Ogilvy said of Drayton Bird: “Drayton Bird knows more about direct marketing than anyone in the world.” Wow. If that were LinkedIn recommendation, I’m pretty sure it would be considered the “Best LinkedIn Recommendation of All Time”. Naturally, I tend to pay attention to what Drayton Bird says, especially when it has to do with my line of work, where digital strategy has its place. A while back, Drayton Bird commented on Twitter:
True enough — to describe yourself as a visionary or a thought-leader is kind of like calling yourself “legendary,” unironically. Makes you cringe a bit. But “strategist” describes, correctly or not, a vocation as well as an actual job function, one which I’m sure Drayton Bird understands more profoundly than I. What he might be getting at is that the “strategist” label gets overused; over the past 10 years, the term “digital strategist” has become increasingly ubiquitous. And as he pointed out recently, the concept is regularly misused to describe a simple idea or a set of tricks. So what is strategy as a professional practice? And what is digital strategy, in particular?
Setting aside the digital for the moment, let’s look at strategy by itself. The Oxford English Dictionary defines strategy as: “a plan of action or policy designed to achieve a major or overall aim.”
That’s a good foundation but too vague for our purposes because it applies to all walks of life. In the online, professional-profile context that Drayton Bird refers to, most people are using the term “strategist” with regards to something a little more specific: business strategy.
Every year books are written on that subject, such as 2011’s Good Strategy / Bad Strategy, by Richard Rumelt. Its recurring theme is that a good business strategy is hardly ever just one idea or one point of differentiation; it’s a set of interconnected ideas. By themselves each idea within a set may not be unique or proprietary, but combined they create a unique business advantage. He cites IKEA: high-end design + inexpensive Asian manufacturing + ubiquitous big box retail presence + heavily digitalized infrastructure. Competitors can easily ape any one of those ideas, but it’s tough to copy all of them at once. By putting them together into a cohesive set, IKEA has created a nearly unassailable position of advantage in the home furnishings market.
I’d summarize Rumelt’s definition of strategy as: “interconnected sets of ideas for gaining and maintaining a competitive advantage.“
Some of my favorite reflections on business strategy come from Blair Ennis, the author of Win Without Pitching. For Blair, a strategy is not just what your idea is, it’s how you realize it; thought and action are inextricable. I like this definition because it stipulates a plan, without which you don’t so much have a business strategy as a vision.
Strategy is an idea that describes a move to a position of advantage.
~ Blair Ennis
Most organizations that digital strategists work with already have a vision — and a mission. And good or bad, most have a strategy, too. What’s often lacking is neither more platitudes nor a dense tome, but a succinct digital strategy that informs plans of action for creating or refining digital assets and processes.
Meanwhile, the timeframe is another vital part of what business strategy is. It can’t be a one-off thing any more than a business is a one-off thing; a balance between short-term and long-term goals is essential. Strategy is not, for example, a great slogan, campaign, website, or new hire. Instead of a great slogan, it’s an idea that a series of slogans can be derived from. Instead of a great website, it’s a method for conceptualizing and developing websites. Instead of a great new hire; it’s a hiring philosophy that consistently contributes to a great workforce. Etcetera. It’s a well that you can go back to over and over again.
Speaking of hiring, someone I know was fired from a job at a fast food restaurant as a teenager. There was no need to cut him a check, though. He had worked there for 0 days and 0 hours. You see, he arrived late to his first day of work by 9 minutes. I think he had a good excuse, too. But a key part of the hiring strategy of the business was this: always fire anyone who is late to their first day of work, no matter what the reason. For a highly process-driven business like a fast food restaurant, that policy must consistently yields results year after year, decade after decade.
To Ogilvy, a big idea was, among other things, capable of consistently providing results over a period of 30 years.
In his remarkable book Ogilvy on Advertising, David Ogilvy talked about the inherent longevity of the very best ideas, which he called “big ideas.” To Ogilvy, a big idea got results over a period of 30 years. Marlboros are for rugged cowboys. Dove isn’t soap; it’s a skin cream too. These kinds of ideas fit into a strategy and provided Ogilvy’s clients with successful marketing campaigns time and time again, for 30 years or more. Business and life may cycle more rapidly in the digital age than in Ogilvy’s era, but longevity is still essential to digital strategy.
Finally, in the context of digital strategy, digital means based on Internet technology and also implies digital media and design, principally in the domain of the Web, Internet-enabled apps, and email. Putting it all together we get, with apologies to Blair Ennis for ripping off his phrasing, a pretty good definition of digital strategy as something you provide in your work — something you bake into your project planning, creative deliverables, technical solutions, and communications.
Digital strategy is a set of technology-driven ideas that describe a move to a long-term position of advantage.
Don’t @ me, Drayton 🙂