Digital Transformation in 2015

If you read my column with any regularity, you know I recently moved from a small social mobile advertising start-up to a digital post at Edelman, the largest independent PR firm in the world.

An interesting transition, to say the least, but one I made quite deliberately. I’ve found it immensely important to always be looking at digital marketing from new perspectives. I also love uncovering the commonalities across contexts. While vernacular, process, and partners tend to be different, marketing fundamentals are remarkably enduring.

While the diverse perspectives are still fresh, I thought I’d dive into some of the common themes, challenges, and opportunities that stand before digital marketers as we look toward 2015.

Across brands, agencies, and technology vendors, the most common theme continues to be the eternal “digital transformation.”

In my opinion, Altimeter Group’s Brian Solis has done some of the best research and analysis around digital transformation. Well worth the read. In his latest report on the subject, Solis offers what I think is an elegant and precise definition of digital transformation:

“The realignment of, or new investment in, technology and business models to more effectively engage digital customers at every touch point in the customer experience lifecycle.”

He goes on to share that 88 percent of the executives he spoke to are undergoing some sort of digital transformation effort. Remarkable.

Digital transformation isn’t new, we’re more than 20 years into this “trend,” but in many ways, much of our organization is at best woefully ignorant and at worst scared of the digital world.

Many years ago – things have likely changed – I was leading an agency account team for a global beer brand. At the time, in the U.S., there were two – yes two – digital-specific employees in the entire organization. They both were media buyers. Granted, they filled many of the gaps with digital agencies and technology consultants, but this was a very clear indicator of their digital maturity.

I spent many years at a global footwear and apparel brand as well. When I joined the company as a digital project leader, my team, and the e-commerce team as well, lived within the research team. Yes, consumer insights. This evolved over time and we eventually ended up within the brand marketing organization and e-commerce within retail, but still, what is it about digital within the enterprise that’s so perplexing?

Constant Change

There’s no end state to digital transformation.

Digital is constantly changing and a commitment to investing in technology and business models that engage digital customers is an exercise in ongoing agility and adaptation.

During times of chaos and constant change, it’s our instinct to minimize risk and costs by being cautious, dipping toes. But what happens when change isn’t temporary? When we can’t ride out the storm? When we need people, systems, and ideas that are constantly adapting to the changing consumer?

Software companies have largely made this shift. Legacy software companies know they must now constantly innovate or be disrupted. Twice annual product updates are death, weekly, or even daily rolling updates are now the norm. Software itself is now disintermediated, it lives in the cloud in a constant state of connected chaos – they, too, have no choice but to evolve their teams and processes.

Agencies are quickly making this shift. Traditional agencies have taken their sweet time, but where once it was OK to be a DR shop or an above the line AOR, there’s a great race to the digital middle where every type of agency must have digital capabilities. This causes chaos within agencies and their holding companies and makes it even harder for brands to clearly plan and partner for digital success.

Digital Permeates Ever Deeper

Non-digital-native brands and their leadership have been the most resistant to this transformation. These organizations are not built for such a dynamic environment. They are purpose-built to design, build, and distribute high-quality products and services at scale, over and over. This requires process, discipline, and a focus on quality control and consistency across the supply chain. For a while now, marketing has felt the biggest impact from digital – and that makes sense – but in 2015 we’ll see the urgency of digital transformation permeate deeper into the enterprise.

Digital Sales

2015 will be a disruptive year in how sales organizations use digital technology.

From LinkedIn and its new Sales Navigator tools for “social selling” to the growing list of sales tech start-ups (here’s a crazy list), sales leaders, as with their marketing colleagues, are being forced to re-examine systems, skills, and approaches. Digital transformation time.

Internet of Things

2015 will be another big year for connected devices, but that doesn’t take much insight to predict. What I’m not seeing much buzz about is the implications of this tidal wave on organizations beyond marketing touch points. Sure, there will be many new devices we’ve never thought of, but more disruptive will be when all of our everyday objects become connected. In 2015, many companies will be forced to assess and react to the implications of managing digital products (change is constant), having access to rich and plentiful consumer data (can they keep it safe?) and how they play within their key ecosystems (do they have the right partners?).

As digital technology permeates this deep, marketing’s digital transformation will look like a tree-top zip line ride (exciting and fun).

What Color Is Your Parachute?

From my new perch, as I look across companies and industries and inward through the matrix of an independent global agency, I see digital transformation efforts everywhere. Interestingly, while they are all driven by digital customer behavior, they are all unique in their own ways. Not only is digital dynamic, it’s also incredibly complex.

For some, the transformation efforts are early and are focused on implementing fundamental technology around CRM and marketing automation.

For others it’s about getting their first-party data together so they can start to build models of ideal customers as they enter new markets.

And others are building a network of diverse teams who can collaborate in real time to aggregate, produce, and distribute compelling streams of content across multiple channels. Reinventing publishing.

Whatever is driving your transformation, 2015 will be a year full of change and surprise. Instead of taking it as it comes, reacting to the next fire drill, or doing what you did last year, start to build an organization built around the dynamism of digital itself. And consider yourself lucky, the future of digital transformation for your colleagues in the rest of the organization will be much more tumultuous and painful because they don’t have your experience or customer-centric DNA.

I’ll let Brian Solis take us out…

“While early in its evolution, digital transformation represents the next big thing in customer experience and, ultimately, how business is done. Those companies that ‘get it’ and invest more in learning about their digital customers’ behaviors, preferences, and expectations will carry a significant competitive advantage over those that figure it out later (if at all).”

Related reading

Overhead view of a row of four business people interviewing a young male applicant.