Is there any more misused phrase than digital strategy?

simon In this guest post, Slingshot Digital’s Simon Corbett argues the meaning of digital strategy is widely misunderstood by those that should really know better.

Most people I come across who talk about digital strategy, and their ability to develop it, don’t know what it is. In fact so often they simply don’t know what strategy is full stop. They use the phrase digital strategy as replacement for what they really mean – a list of cool stuff they think the client can do in digital.

So before we talk about what digital strategy is let’s just clear up exactly what it isn’t.

Digital strategy is not a list of goals, a target or objectives. Those things are great at focusing people on the things that you would like to accomplish, or the success metrics for the business, but they are not a plan of action that will lead you ultimately on how to win. How often have you looked at an articulation of a strategy and it is simply a to-do list? A great strategy might populate a to-do list… but it sure as hell isn’t one. Digital strategy is not just a list of digital tactics. In fact it can be easy to think that because a brand has got a large footprint in digital it must have a clear strategy. In fact, being pretty much everywhere in digital often means the opposite is true.

Neither is a lofty vision or ‘blue-sky thinking’ a digital strategy. Yes you might want to be the online retailer of choice for digital natives but wanting that doesn’t get you any closer to actually achieving it. I would strongly suggest that blue-sky thinking has no place in anything that seriously attempts to guide a business to success. Blue-sky thinking might look great scripted on a wall in a cool warehouse office in Sydney’s Surry Hills… but not in a battle plan for success.

And finally, we must not mistake a great digital idea as a strategy. It’s just an idea, which is great, but it’s not a strategy.

So what are the attributes of a digital strategy?

Make no mistake, strategy is about focus and direction. Strategy is about sacrifice and tough choices. I often say to the team that if we are rolling strategy into a client and some stakeholders are not upset and disappointed then likely we are not delivering true strategy.

Put simply it’s about making tough calls on what to do – choosing the path that leads to success and neglecting the many paths that do not. This will almost always mean that some people won’t get to do what they want or get their own way. It is almost impossible to please everyone with a strategy. However the secret here is to try and get all stakeholders involved as much as possible in the early stages of development of strategy. Firstly this ensures that everyone actually understands what a digital strategy is and the possible ramifications of focusing all efforts, energies and resources in one particular approach. Personally I have found going through this process collaboratively with clients always allows you to come back to this anchor point when dealing with their disappointment about things not going their way.

I truly believe that a great digital strategy should be easy to understand. This is obviously different to it being simple as some strategies can be extremely complex and difficult to execute. But they must be easy to understand and articulate because only then can they be universally understood and communicated. I have a client right now who has a digital strategy that was written for them a couple of years ago. It is a 100-page word doc of 10-point type. I look at it and think I would struggle to read it let alone execute it. The master of strategy Richard Rumelt would call it ‘bad strategy’, which of course is worse than no strategy at all.

Finally digital strategy must be realistic – it must acknowledge and confront honestly the obstacles to success. A strategy is a way through a difficulty, an approach to overcoming an obstacle, a response to a challenge. If the challenges to success are not clearly articulated, understood and defined then it is difficult or impossible to assess the quality of thestrategy. I know that I am in a room with smart digital people when there is a lot of honest recognition and discussion about the challenges that exist and that can – or cannot – realistically be overcome. A good strategy leverages the assets and resources available and recognises the pressures and restrictions which exist. As we said earlier ideas can be blue-sky – strategy cannot.

So what’s my definition of digital strategy? As many of us know there are many, many definitions of what strategy/digital strategy is – just bang it into Google and be amazed. I would be mad if I proposed I had the definitive definition of digital strategy. And I think it far less important to be able to roll out a super snappy definition of digital strategy than it is to understand the key tenets of it.

However to stir the honey pot here is the definition of digital strategy according to my Gospel:

A digital strategy outlines how to leverage all assets, people and resources available to apply digital in the most meaningful way to help the business win.

And he’s off!

Simon Corbett is the managing director of Slingshot Digital


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