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Digital Strategy – old magic, new tricks

19 Jun 2017 by Steven Giannoulis

I'm currently documenting my 'methodology' for creating sound digital strategy, and what strikes me is that there’s no ‘special digital strategy sauce’ that makes me more special, more current and more in the know than non-digital strategists. I’d like to position what I do in digital projects as a superpower, a dark art or a magical calling bestowed on us chosen few. Reality is, I’m doing the same sh*% that has underpinned good marketing strategy since Eve promoted her ‘apple’ to Adam.

As more things change –  technology advances, consumer expectations sky-rocket and sources of information explode – the fundamentals that make a good marketing and communication strategy remain even more relevant. It’s not to say there aren’t some things that apply specifically to digital, but we can say the same about every communication medium.

When developing a strategy for a digital project like a website, we must carefully balance the needs of the client and the user. It’s easy when they perfectly align but, frankly, that just never happens.

Let’s start with the client. A digital project always starts with understanding what we are doing and why. What’s the business objective? A good strategist gets to the heart of a brief – the why – rather than just focusing on just capturing the what and how. In my experience, the why will always come down to delivering revenue or cost-savings, enhancing reputation, driving efficiency or quality and/or managing risk. The quicker you can determine which of these is the primary driver, the quicker you can work out what success looks like and how to deliver it.

Then we move to the communication strategy. Where does the project sit in the client’s wider communication programme? How does it integrate with other activities, offline and online? These days a website can be both the fulfilment piece at the end of a promotional chain and/or the gateway to starting two-way dialogue with customers via social media. Understanding where it sits in the wider sales or engagement process influences how we design and structure a site and its content. And of course, there’s the wider industry and competitive context your online presence co-exists in.

And then there’s our target audiences. Who are they? Why do they come to the site? What do they want to know, do and feel?  What content is important and why? What engages them and what turns them off?  When do they come? Not just time of day but where in the decision-cycle? Where do they come from and how do they get here – desktop, tablet, phone or cross-device? Lots of questions, many which clients can answer, some we understand with research and others we observe through analytics and testing.

Digital strategy is an exercise in balancing the needs of clients and audiences.

There’s lots of talk about good UX, and you can’t deny its importance, but a good user experience won’t necessarily drive the outcomes the client needs.

I may be the odd-one out here but I always start with the client need first. After all, they’ll judge our success (and they’re the ones paying!) I develop a small number of high-level approaches that I think will deliver the result the client needs. These usually come from a combination of experience, research and on-going reading and learning. I run these through a top-down checklist in my head. How would this strategy manifest itself in site architecture, navigation, content, story-telling, interaction, experience, integration, SEO, tracking, sign-up/fulfilment, etc? Talking myself through these answers eliminates some options and ensures the remaining ones are better considered.

The final step is to apply a bottom-up client-led review of the remaining strategies. Audience by audience. Will this strategy drive this audience to the site? Will it give them what they need in a way that will engage them? What’s the primary user journey? What would make them dive deeper into the site, stay longer or explore more pages? Will it drive them to buy, call, email, subscribe, like, comment, watch, or whatever other action we need them to take?

Most strategies fail in execution which is why I see clarity as the single most important aspect of a good strategy, digital or otherwise. The more-single-minded the strategy is the easier it is for clients to understand it and for designers, developers, content creators and others to work out how to best apply their expertise to implement it effectively.

So, there it is, a glimpse behind the digital strategy curtain. Disappointed that it’s not exactly magic and more science than a dark art? And as mysterious as I try to make it, I’m just an old dog doing the same old tricks, in a new medium, that strategic marketers have done forever.

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