Digital Strategy - why it's important and what you need to know when selecting a digital strategist

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Strategic planning, in the digital context, is no different from strategic planning business-wide.  A digital strategic plan calls out the core activities a business must undertake to move the business in a direction that meets the business vision.  The only difference is, this done in the digital context.

Businesses become frightened when they hear the term "digital strategy", but in essence, it's a business' "digital action plan"...  

A plan of activities that must be undertaken by the digital channel to drive the business closer to its vision.

The purpose of this article is to explain the importance of digital strategic plans (and the planning process) and provide helpful tips on how to find and a digital strategist who is right for your business. 

Selecting a digital strategist is one of the largest challenges businesses face.  The good news is, there are many things to look out for when applying due diligence.  Below is a list of the most important...

Years of specific experience in strategic planning in digital

There is a lot to be said for having longevity in the field of digital strategic planning.  The business community is a small one in Australia and New Zealand and news travels very fast (especially bad news).

If a digital strategist is underperforming everyone will know.  Longevity is a positive signal.

Testimonials/References

Having brands and logos on a website does not mean a client is happy with a digital strategist's work.  Seek out testimonials where the comments state the standard of competency, specifically in strategic planning and implementation, was high.  

Request references and call existing clients.  Even though references are hand-picked, you can quickly determine if the digital strategist is a good fit for your business needs.

Experience in strategic planning AND implementation

It is very easy for digital strategists to read blogs, regurgitate statements made by others, and incorporate this into their strategic planning documentation.  

Unfortunately this is common.  

The true test in the calibre of a digital strategist is in their ability to implement their plans.

Why?

It is the process of bringing the plan to life that brings true value to the client.  One of the most common issues in project implementation, is the digital strategic plan becomes lost in translation by the various vendors involved...

  1. Analysts
  2. The architecture integration team
  3. The design team
  4. The development team
  5. The project manager 

The project manager is one of the primary culprits due to their focus being on time/quality/cost.  Many will argue "quality" means the plan is being followed, but most project managers interpret "quality" as maintaining costs and meeting deadlines.  

As a result, when it comes time to think dynamically on issues or hurdles, project managers make changes to suit deadline and does not inflate implementation cost.

Because of this implementation reality, it is the role of the digital strategist to work closely with the project manager at all times, auditing the conduct of all groups listed above to ensure the integrity of the plan remains intact.  

If at any moment vendor conduct dilutes plan integrity, it is the role of the digital strategist to step-in and lead/coach/mentor the vendors to keep them on track.  

If changes need to be made that affect time and/or cost, it is the job of the digital strategist and the project manager to inform business stakeholders.  

This is crucial, stakeholders need to understand how changes in implementation will impact the plan.  Only the digital strategist can articulate this because the strategic plan (which they created) becomes the reference point for decision making.

Vendor conduct resulting in the straying from the digital strategic plan, during implementation, occurs 100% of the time

The digital strategist remains with the client and measures impacts

This is an extension of the previous point (implementation) but is different and equally important.  Digital strategists who work with the client after their plan has been successfully implemented says a few things..

  1. The digital strategist backs the strategy created.
  2. The digital strategist has a sense of accountability for the strategy created.
  3. The strategist can measure and monitor impacts.

The process of measuring and monitoring verifies if the planning (and implementation) was a success.  BUT if the outcomes are substandard, a good digital strategist will assist the client in applying immediate step-changes to meet business expectation.

This process of verifying the impacts of his/her planning makes the digital strategist significantly better compared to those who don't.  This enables the digital strategist the ability to see what worked and what didn't.  

For the digital strategist, this measurement process enhances the potency of future strategic planning projects.  This allows future clients to benefit from a digital strategist who builds up a significant foundation of planning, implementation and outcome based experiences.

As a business, the measurement process needs to be a standard inclusion for a strategic planning project.  It's worth the extra cost to the business.  If the digital strategist does not want to engage in this part of the process, it becomes a signal of their competency.

Deep Knowledge of Best Practice

The digital strategist must have a deep understanding of Digital/eCommerce best practice.  While this is difficult to measure and gain a view of competency, you can gain a sense of a consultant's proficiency in this subject matter by simply asking them their views on its importance.

To help with the type of response consultants should provide, below is an explanation as to why best practice is important and why it needs to be infused into the digital strategic planning process...

Why is best practice important? 

When embarking on the feedback loop and continuous improvement business disciplines (this is where the business uses data and insights to inform future decision making for the business), IF the business has best practice infused throughout, it can be confident all feedback from the consumers (they are engaging with), are needs driven

When NOT on a best practice foundation, the majority of consumer feedback is stimulated by the shortcomings of the digital channel (and the poor experiences) NOT what a consumer truly needs or wants.  This makes the business reactive, resulting in increases in non-value ad operational costs.  This stunts business growth.

Needs driven feedback forms the basis for business evolution and is how a business can closely align its offer to target consumer needs.

Working from a best practice foundation enables the business to grow and evolve faster than predictions and is why new online businesses surpass traditional competitors.  They start on a best practice foundation specifically made for the digital channel.

What should the digital strategic plan look like?

It's easy to say you need a strategic plan, but there are questions that comes with this deliverable... 

  1. What should the strategic planning document actually contain within it?  
  2. What does this document (the deliverable) look like?
  3. How does this document help the business?

Digital strategic plans have two fundamental themes:

  1. The plan will call out the wider business activities and articulate how it will specifically support each of these activities in the digital context.  
  2. The plan will also articulate specific crucial digital activities that must also be activated in order to meet business wide goals.

The document will take all activities (combining 1 and 2 above) and explain how each will be influenced by….

  1. eCommerce/CMS technology (depending on the business model)
  2. Other supporting technologies and business systems (architecture configuration)
  3. User experience design required to create amazing online experiences
  4. The infusion of eCommerce/Digital best practice and what this looks like across each of the activities
  5. The monitoring systems required to capture the important consumer behaviours
  6. How business pain points will be diminished by technology and best practice conduct
  7. The specific conduct of employees to ensure amazing online experiences are fully supported

The above 7 points comprises the bulk of the document, however, there are other potential inclusions that will vary based on the business model and wider business strategy... 

  1. A high-level summary of the business strategy and proposed business architecture  
  2. The size of the opportunity for this business model (a section within this document will inform the business of the consumer demand for the services the business intends on offering)*  
  3. Activities will be prioritised to guide what the MVP and Phase 1 needs to look like**

*Gaining an appreciation of what consumers are looking for in the context of the business offer, contributes to shaping the Phase 1 body of work (also referred to as the MVP - minimum viable product).

**This process not only calls out the MVP, but it justifies the investment for the first phase of work.  The MVP is heavily influenced by the wider business strategy and the short term needs of the business.  

Creating an MVP to deliver short term wins while protecting the long term plan

This is important to mention because short term priorities (such as ROI) can be supported if it comprises part of the long term plan.  While the business can gather immediate benefit from the strategic plan, it is still foundation building for the long term.  This process protects the business from cannibalising long-term needs for short-term gain.  A common flaw in many digital plans.

Conclusion:

There are some other comments to make when considering embarking on an engagement with a digital strategist...

  1. A digital strategist should not try to lock the business into a long-term engagement, even though they should remain for implementation and measuring outcomes.  It is the calibre of his/her work that should prompt a long-term relationship.  Not a militant contract.   You need to be able to easily terminate the relationship, if the planning experience is poor.
  2. This strategic planning document makes up the core needs of the business in the digital context and becomes a crucial part of the RFP process.  Vendors will need to be able to support and bring to life everything stated within this document both in the short term and long.  
  3. The strategic document needs to be written in "business speak" to ensure the executive team can understand every word.  It is this team who must approve the investment so they need to understand what they are signing off on.  This is an important requirement of the digital strategist.

If after reading this you are convinced your business needs this form of planning, call Greg Randall on 021760227 to learn how he can apply the above to your business.


This article was as tagged as Best Practice , Creating Amazing Online Experiences , Strategic Planning

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