What is the definition of digital strategy?
“What is the definition of digital strategy, anyway?”, a client asked me during a conference meeting. In front of 15 people. Luckily, I like to debate things like this with my incredibly geeky friends, so I wasn’t at a loss for an answer.
A set of ideas which inspire a move to a lasting position of advantage through distinctly digital methods.
As you can see, in this article I give you this 6-part definition of a good digital strategy up front. Then I strip it down to basics — the dictionary definition of strategy — and reassemble it, bit by bit. What are the 6 bits?
- a set of ideas
- that inspire
- a move
- to a lasting
- a position of advantage
- through digital methods
By the way, this definition applies to a digital strategy supporting any business function — so not just marketing but, for example, operations and supply-chain management (see IKEA case study below).
Is the term digital strategy overused or misused?
But speaking of marketing, let me digress to what inspired me to make a definition 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.” …!! If that were a LinkedIn recommendation, it would win the award for Best LinkedIn Recommendation of All Time.
Naturally, I tend to pay attention to what Mr. Bird says, especially when it has to do with my lines of work, where strategy has its place. A while back, however, he commented on Twitter:
Fair point, querulus dificilus — 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; how do you describe your job if not by its functions?
Maybe 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.
Nevertheless, some people are strategists and some digital strategists. So what is it — what is the definition of digital strategy?
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.
A position of advantage through sets of ideas, not solitary ones
Every year books are written on the subject of business strategy, such as 2011’s Good Strategy / Bad Strategy, by Richard Rumelt. 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 themselves 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 digitalized infrastructure +
high-end design [and ubiquitous design-thinking]
= incredible results
None of these ideas are patented. And IKEA’s competitors could easily ape any one of these ideas, 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 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.“
Strategic ideas should stipulate action
Some of my favorite reflections on business strategy come from Blair Enns, the author of Win Without Pitching. For Enns, a strategy is not just 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, good or bad, a strategy. What’s often lacking is an adaptation of that strategy to the digital ecosystem, where uniquely digital approaches bear the most fruit.
So movement over time is an integral part of the definition of strategy we’re assembling (one reason a content strategy is such an important digital approach, by the way — it makes you get out the calendar.)
Let us march against Philip
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?
I have nodded yes to a rational appeal to implement a strategy, yet not felt inspired. To inspire don’t we have to appeal to something deeper than job duty: values, standards, pride, identity? We do if that’s where our strategic advantages lie.
I think a good strategy doesn’t just describe a move to a position of advantage, it inspires one.
Time frame is important to the definition of digital strategy
Meanwhile, and 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 a one-off thing. 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 positioning 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 philosophy 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 the hiring strategy of the business was: 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 yield results, decade after decade. Or at least three decades, hopefully.
Big ideas for 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 weren’t just clever words — they were big-picture marketing strategies based on a profound understanding of macroeconomic trends, cultural shifts, and psychological insight.
As a result, they 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 the principle of lasting is still innate to strategy.
Digital strategy and content from distinctly digital methods
Having set it aside to talk business strategy, let’s put digital back in the definition. What is digital?
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 technologies. But more importantly, it signifies uniquely digital methods of solving problems. We’ve learned and codified these methods steadily over the last twenty-five years, and they’re vital to our definition of digital strategy.
In fact, the sine qua non of digital strategy, the superbly versatile thing we call, for lack of a better word, digital content, requires distinctly digital approaches.
Putting it all together we come full circle:
Digital strategy: a set of ideas which inspire a move to a lasting position of advantage through distinctly digital methods.