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Digital Strategy and How to Tell if Your Agency Has Any

  |  March 29, 2012   |  Comments

How to ensure the marketing tactics your company is deploying are the right ones. Part two in a two-part series.

Last month, I wrote about "How to Tell if Your Agency Sucks at Digital" and tips for selecting an agency that actually knows digital and can demonstrate their knowledge about it. Here I will focus on digital strategy and ensuring that the marketing tactics to be deployed are the right ones and will work in a unified manner to drive optimal impact on business objectives.

So What Is Digital Strategy Anyway?

Let's start with a quote from Tery Spataro, New York digerati and chief digital strategist: "Digital strategy defines a brand's competitive positioning and customer needs to achieve a marketing direction for innovation, communication, and marketing" (see: Tery's SlideShare on Digital Strategy). The operative words are "customer needs." By focusing on what the modern, savvy user needs - i.e., information to inform her own purchase decisions - we can more efficiently tailor our content and ensure it is findable. Notice, I didn't say target our message out at customers. This ties back to the concept of "digital is a philosophy" where our focus on users' habits and expectations allows us to put them in the middle and figure out how we can best serve them; instead of putting our own product in the middle and figuring out how to market it.

If "digital is a philosophy," then digital strategy is the mapping of appropriate marketing tactics to the informational needs of consumers in order to drive business objectives in a measurable way.

This definition is based on several assumptions:

1. It assumes business objectives are set in the first place. And that the marketing team knows them and understands them. You'd be surprised how many brand managers don't know the corporate business goals - and just have their own set of brand metrics and objectives that don't lather up. You'd probably not be surprised to learn that even fewer agencies know what their clients' business objectives are - this fact is perfectly illustrated by the dozens of cases where huge clients have awarded a business to an agency only to have said agency go into a mad scramble to hire staff to work on the project. It would be safe to say that none of the new folks have any idea about what was pitched, sold, and agreed to with the client during the pitch. So if they don't know what was pitched or the clients' business objectives, how could they possibly be working efficiently to help the client achieve the desired business impact? They can't. So they resort to pitching a Chinese menu of tactics or coming up with some clever-cool creative ideas, to hide the fact that they have no clue how to drive business impact for the client.

2. It assumes the "missing links" of consumers are known. In most companies, marketing folks are given a product or service created by the product development department to go market. Their task is to figure out whom to target, what message to target them with, and where to push that message out. In the new digital world, where modern users are savvy and also very good at ignoring "interruption media," the role of marketers and their tasks must change. Marketers must now figure out what information consumers need, where they go look for it (online) and how (search), and even what keywords and phrases they use to find this information (search as research). And the task is to make sure they can most quickly find this information and then most efficiently get to the commerce.

3. It assumes there are optimal tactics to use for each marketing problem and that the tactics can be unified to reinforce each other and make all marketing more efficient. Once marketers understand the information needs of customers and where and how they look for this information, then the most appropriate tactics can be chosen to impact these needs. For example, before buying the new Fiat 500, customers may want to know if it's safe, what gas mileage it has, whether they need to go to special facilities for repairs, or how much luggage room the tiny car could possibly have. None of these can be addressed in TV ads or print ads meant for mass consumption. But these are the questions that modern users need answers to before they can proceed down the purchase funnel to make the purchase. Once these missing links are identified, then marketers can choose the appropriate marketing tools, both traditional/offline ones and digital/online ones, to address them and allocate marketing spending rationally. Most agencies cannot look holistically across all channels and tactics because they only sell certain tactics; and their 22-year-old account managers straight out of college have no marketing experience, no business experience, and no experience whatsoever. They can only take orders for the things the agency sells. Nor can management consulting firms help clients in this way because their strategies are entirely theoretical; they have never done any deployment of marketing programs, and they have no idea about feasibility or the time it takes.

Deploying Digital Strategy Through Collaborative Innovation

So how can you tell if your agency, digital or otherwise, has any "digital strategy" or can deliver it to you? Like I said in Part 1 of this two-part column, you can easily tell if they don't have it. They will just pitch you a Chinese menu of tactics without even asking you about your business objectives. The better agencies may do a "discovery" meeting (which is good); but most of these are centered around the creative idea and what message you want to push out to customers.

The way we deliver digital strategy is through a well-practiced process that I call collaborative innovation, delivered through a series of hands-on workshops with client team members from the different departments that need to be involved in the deployment - e.g., marketing, IT, sales, finance, product development, etc. The reason it has to be collaborative is that the client will have in-depth knowledge of their industry, their customers, and the tactics they have tried in the past (what's worked and what has not). These first-hand insights can be combined with our expertise in digital tactics and best practices in order to come up with a "digital strategy" that is informed and practical. Furthermore, the collaboration ensures that the clients' business objectives are taken into account and that all tactics map directly back to it and their relative impact is measurable.

So if your agency talks tactics before they have had in-depth meetings to understand your business objectives and the levers that most impact it, if they talk about the creative message and what you want to shout at your customers, or if their "digital strategists" are young account managers straight out of college, you know what you're getting is neither digital nor strategy.

Run, don't walk, away.


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Augustine Fou

Dr. Augustine Fou is the senior digital strategy advisor to CMOs, marketing executives, and global brands. Dr. Fou has over 15 years of Internet strategy consulting experience and is an expert in social media marketing strategy, data/analytics, and consumer insights, with specific knowledge in the consumer packaged goods, financial services/credit cards, food/beverage, retail/apparel, and pharmaceutical/healthcare sectors.

He is a frequent panelist, moderator, and keynote speaker at industry conferences. Dr. Fou is also an Adjunct Professor at NYU in the School for Continuing and Professional Studies and at Rutgers University at the Center for Management Development, where he teaches executive courses on digital strategy and integrated marketing.

Dr. Fou completed his PhD at MIT at the age of 23. He started his career with McKinsey & Company and previously served as SVP, digital strategy lead, McCann/MRM Worldwide and group chief digital officer of Omnicom's Healthcare Consultancy Group (HCG). He writes a blog "Rants, Raves about Digital Marketing" and can be found on Twitter at @acfou.

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