“What is the definition of digital strategy, anyway?”, a client once asked me during a conference call meeting. In front of 15 people. Luckily, I like to debate things like this with my incredibly geeky friends, so I wasn’t entirely at a loss for an answer. But it’s one thing to know something and another to articulate your knowledge of it. So I stammered a fairly unsatisfactory definition of digital strategy, walked home cringing, and started improving on it.
On much reflection (I’ve revised this 70+ times since 2012), here’s what I think a digital strategy is:
A set of ideas which inspire a move to a lasting position of advantage through digital thinking.
This article is about creating a digital strategy by asking: what is its definition? First I strip the subject down to basics — the dictionary definition of strategy. Then I reassemble it, piece by piece. What are those 6 pieces?
So the next time a strategy is presented to you, analyze it against this definition. If it meets all six criteria, it could be a good strategy.
This definition of digital strategy applies primarily to sales and marketing. But can you really separate the design of marketing strategy from the design of the thing (product, solution, service) being marketed? No. So you could think of it as digital strategy for product marketing.
Is the term digital strategy overused or misused?
But speaking of marketing, let me explain another motivation for elaborating a definition of strategy in the first place. Many years ago, business thinker and writer David Ogilvy said of his counterpart Drayton Bird: “Drayton Bird knows more about direct marketing than anyone in the world.” …!!
Naturally, I tend to pay attention to what Mr. Bird says, especially when it has to do with my work, where strategy has its place. A while back, however, he commented on Twitter:
Why do people describe themselves so ludicrously here? As in "visionary", "thought-leader", "strategist" etc.
— Drayton Bird (@DraytonBird) August 30, 2012
True — to describe yourself as a visionary or a thought-leader is kind of like calling yourself legendary, unironically. Cringe time.
“Strategist”, however, describes a job function; and how do you describe your job if not by its functions?
Part of what Bird is getting at is that the “strategist” label gets overused, or even misused. According to Google Trends, the term “digital strategist” has become increasingly ubiquitous. And as Bird has pointed out, the word strategy by itself is regularly misused to describe a simple idea or a set of tricks.
I use the strategist word to describe my work less and less over time, partly because I have the same reaction to its overuse that Drayton Bird does. And as the 2 bobs (sage management consultant David C. Baker and subversive sales coach Blair Enns), point out, using the word strategist as a descriptor feels kind of like an inelegant hack for saying, “we’re smart”.
Nevertheless, some people are strategists and some digital strategists.
Setting aside digital, let’s look at strategy itself. The Oxford English Dictionary defines strategy as: “a plan of action or policy designed to achieve a major or overall aim.”
True, but too vague. Applies to all walks of life. In the context that Bird refers to, people are using the term with regard to business.
Every year books are written on the subject of business strategy, such as 2011’s Good Strategy / Bad Strategy, by Richard Rumelt. It was the first of many business strategy books I turned to after being challenged to define its meaning on that conference call. The book’s premise is that a good business strategy is hardly ever just one idea or one point of distinction. Instead, a business strategy is a set of ideas that are interlinked and complementary.
By itself each idea within such a set may not be unique or proprietary, but combined they create a unique position of advantage.
He makes a case study of IKEA’s strategic (and digital, by the way) formula:
inexpensive Asian manufacturing +
ubiquitous big-box retail presence +
heavily digitized infrastructure +
high-end design [and ubiquitous design-thinking]
None of these ideas are patented. And IKEA’s competitors could easily ape any one of them, or maybe even two together.
But it would be extremely difficult to copy all of them at once. By putting these ideas together into a cohesive set, IKEA has created a strong position of advantage in the home furnishings market.
Note that there’s nothing wrong with proprietary IP, be it patented or just kept secret. But that’s not the only outcome of ideation and innovation.
Regardless, I’d summarize Rumelt’s definition of strategy as: “interconnected sets of ideas for gaining and maintaining a competitive advantage.“
Some of the best reflections on strategy come from the aforementioned Blair Enns, the author of Win Without Pitching. For Blair, a strategy is not just an idea, but an idea that has action baked into it. Strategic goals and the move towards them are one and the same.
Strategy is an idea that describes a move to a position of advantage.
~ Blair Enns
Most organizations that digital strategists work with already have a strategy. What’s often lacking is an adaptation of that strategy to digital, where uniquely digital approaches bear the most fruit.
So movement over time is an integral part of the definition of strategy we’re creating (one reason a content strategy is such an important digital approach, by the way — it makes you get out the calendar.)
By the way, speaking of “Good Strategy / Bad Strategy” is it enough to describe the move to the position of advantage? Or do you also have to inspire that movement? Here is where strategy and rhetoric (eg. copywriting) become one. Or at least share DNA.
Have you ever nodded yes to a rational appeal to implement a strategy, yet not felt inspired to do so? I have.
To inspire, we have to appeal to something deeper than logic or job duty. To what then?
Values, standards, pride, identity. In fact, our strategic advantages as businesses are probably those things we’re most proud of.
So a good strategy doesn’t just describe a move to a position of advantage, it inspires one.
Mat Ford speaks to the ability of a leader to inspire action in describing the “Burnt Tongue” mental model. And Mat points us to Sir Lawrence Freedman who speaks to the inspirational quality of strategy in his book, Strategy: A History: “Not only does strategy need to be put into words so that others can follow, it works through affecting the behavior of others. Thus it is always about persuasion…”.
But no one puts it better than Cicero, whom David Ogilvy quotes in the introduction to “Ogilvy on Advertising”:
When Aeschines spoke, they said, “How well he speaks.” But when Demosthenes spoke, they said, “Let us march against Philip!”
Sidebar on Digital Transformation
Creating a definition of digital strategy gets confusing because there is digital transformation (concerned with operational efficiency) then there is digital marketing strategy (based in innovation/expertise).
Digital transformation is interesting. The idea is to remake the entire business into a customer-focused firm through digitalization. A side benefit is improved “customer experience”. Wonky digital transformation geeks often say things like, “how can the entire support system, and even the delivery of products and services, create a better experience for customers – up and down the value chain?”.
This is an important question, especially for enterprise organizations looking to reduce the high cost of departmentalized operations rife with hundreds if not tens of thousands of discrete and sometimes analog processes – big piles of paper. How to de-silo and integrate?
So digital transformation may reduce operations costs and may even the revenue needle a little bit by improving customer support, but it’s never going to drastically move the revenue needle like a good digital marketing strategy can.
Ultimately, digital transformation is about efficiency while digital strategy is about business innovation and direction for the long term.
As a matter of fact, a digital strategy needs to be built to last.
Speaking of content strategy, the time frame is another vital part of our definition. That’s because a strategy can’t be a one-off thing any more than a business is. It needs to be well that doesn’t run dry.
A strategy is not, for example, a great slogan, campaign, or website. Rather than a great slogan, it’s a set of ideas that inspire a whole a series of slogans. Instead of a great website, a set of engagement ideas that inspire one effective digital campaign after another. A hiring rule that consistently maintains a workforce over time.
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. The thing is, he arrived late to his first day of work by 9 minutes. I think he had a pretty good excuse, too. But their hiring strategy was simple. 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 yield results decade after decade. Or at least three decades, hopefully…
The position of advantage is at the core of strategy. But if you had a position of advantage for 0.02 seconds – is that a goal worth pursuing?
In his book Ogilvy on Advertising, David Ogilvy talked about the inherent longevity of the very best ideas. He called them “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. Nike isn’t about better shoes it’s about greatness.
Steve jobs talks about Apple’s positioning in this discourse on Apple’s marketing strategy:
Why does Apple exist? Because it believes that people with passion can change the world for the better. And those people crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.
These weren’t just clever words. Instead, they were big-picture marketing strategies based on macroeconomic trends, cultural shifts, and psychological insight. This campaign was launched in 1997 and will easily meet the bar set by David Ogilvy of being relevant for 30 years.
The strategic direction set forth by Steve Jobs and David Ogilvy gave Apple and Ogilvy’s clients 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 the principle of being lasting is still innate to strategy.
If you can only take the hill for 30 seconds, is taking it really a good idea? Is it really a position of advantage?
Having set it aside to talk business strategy, let’s put digital back in the definition. What is digital? And what is digital business strategy?
Had I asked that of my Latin tutor, back in the days of Bush Sr., he might have said: “Well, a ring, I suppose” (thanks, folks, I’ll be here all week).
Today, of course, digital signifies belonging to Internet tech, not fingers. But more importantly, it signifies uniquely digital methods of communication or information experience. We’ve learned and codified these methods steadily over the last twenty-five years. They’re vital to our definition of digital strategy. The question of how to present ideas and information is also called “digital thinking”.
One of the most valuable digital strategy tools, content marketing (aka creating content and distributing it) requires distinctly digital approaches based on digital thinking. TopDraw.com makes the point that having a digital strategy is very important to your business.
Putting it all together we come full circle to our digital strategy definition:
Digital strategy: a set of ideas which inspire a move to a lasting position of advantage through digital thinking.
Threading in the concept of positioning (what you do and who you do it for), I can use our strategy definition to describe my work as a strategist. So here’s my strategy: “Inspire B2B agencies to gain an advantage through positioning-focused content strategies that generate leads over the long-term”.
Other useful remarks on, or answers to, the question, “what is the definition of digital strategy?”
Strategy is the answer to the question: how do we become and remain unique?
The process of appropriately determining your lack of interchangeability
~ David C. Baker, www.2bobs.com
“The lifeblood of a strategist is insights, a simple distillation of a ream of information and data into an actionable statement to inspire creative teams or clients.”
~ Mat Ford, Strategy Umwelt
“in this case, [digital marketing] strategy is not what you do, but how you do it; the research that underpins the methodology and wraps the engagement…”
– Blair Enns, www.2bobs.com
“Strategy to a designer is the thinking that precedes and wraps the design solution. Strategy to a CEO is a series of decisions across all aspects of the organization that leads to a sustainable marketplace advantage and corresponding long-term financial success.”
– Blair Enns, Win Without Pitching
“A strategy is a master plan that will guide your actions and enable you to achieve your goals. A strategy describes how you will get things done.”
– Mike Templeton, Aisleside
“A strategy is defining what you’re not”
– Tim Williams, Ignition Consulting Group
“A concise, high-level approach for reaching an objective using various tactics. “
– Jonathan Stark, author of Hourly Billing is Nuts
“A framework for making decisions about how you will play the game of business.”
– Anne Latham, contributor at Forbes