What the hell does a digital strategist / planner do, anyway?
Someone asked me the other day to explain my job function. I started to talk about one thing and then another and then another and then another…and then I stopped when I realized I was jumping all over the place and said, “I think I need to visualize the structure and get back to you”.
This was an eye opening moment for me in many ways because over the past 2 years my responsibilities have grown, shifted, adapted and redefined themselves on a need-based timeline. I know what I do on a daily basis; I know no day is ever the same; I’m in a needs-based position. I am also cognizant of having the word strategist in my title; it begs for a “functional” definition of what do you “do”? Not what do you “think”– but what is it that you “do”, what do you “produce”?
So I’ve gone through this exercise to sketch out what is I think a digital strategist/planner does. (based on my personal experiences and what skills I believe are needed for optimal cross-channel marketing integration)
The net-net: I believe a digital strategist provide guidance to departments: account, creative, UX and production & works as a liaison with departments such as UX, IT, project management and analytics. We facilitate the path for others to define and design sustainable ideas, quality engagement initiatives and memorable experiences across digital channel opportunities, and sometimes I even create those paths alone, by myself.
So what defines the role and responsibilities of a digital strategist/planner?
Depending on where you work and what skill sets you have access to/are surrounded by, your responsibilities could spawn over multiple areas of “digital” selling, account planning, ideating, connecting, and developing content and/or experiences for anything that is digitally consumed.
When you work for an advertising agency with AOR accounts, seldom do you find digital planners that just focus on web, or just focus on tablets and apps, or just focus on search or social (multiple positions are contingent upon the scope of work that can support each discipline). Smaller social-only shops may have those positions, as do media planning/buying agencies. So for those of us in large agencies, our knowledge spans across all available digital communication opportunities. And, in addition to understanding the opportunities digital planners have to package them as “valuable investments” that tie to larger brand strategies when selling in ideas to the client.
First and foremost, I think digital strategists need to be aware of and fully fluent across all aspects of traditional strategic account planning inclusive of the category they work in as well as the target attitudes and behaviors so we can define appropriate and actionable initiatives. I also believe digital planners should hold a degree of excellence in cross-channel, media and most importantly propagation planning. Social initiatives are nothing without the understanding of and planning for amplification and influence amongst the consumer voice, that garners earned media for the brand.
I also wholeheartedly believe the best strategists have also been the best producers of content in their former job functions, and are able to utilize those skills that carry over into their strategist role. I believe the digital strategists who have never touched, contributed to, created or designed any digital experiences lack the functional knowledge and crucial nuances that comes with the strategic insight and recommendations. I don’t believe you can have one or the other- I believe you need a T-shaped set of skills.
When speaking directly about the digital channel (b/c it is only one channel of many for which all types of communication disciplines can be filtered through) it is an enormous task to identify the best opportunities for your brands objectives. There is much ground that is covered across the core communication conduits such as web & mobile (phone & tablet) for which content, assets and experiences are designed for target consumption and optimal response.
These conduits are inclusive of websites/destinations, mobile sites/destinations, video, gaming experiences, apps, display advertising, search optimization, media planning & buying, hardware/devices, software, APIs, social experiences, social CRM, analytics measurement, and most importantly user experience design—all of which produce actionable behaviors that drive what I call an “affected respondent” (someone that responds favorably to the designed call to action of your initiative.)
Defining sustainable ideas and experiences; a collaborative effort
With the advent of new digital communication entrants everyday there is a need to be agile and iterative in our approach to problem solving through digital mediums. What worked last year, or last month might not be appropriate for tomorrow. A digital strategist needs to be experienced and knowledgeable across the dynamic and ever-evolving digital environment.
- Mobile: 500+ devices across multiple operating systems
- Tablets: 28 tablets in market by 2012 on multiple operating systems
- Social: Iterative environments all around- just take a look at the new implications for marketing & measurement strategies across the Facebook platform per the announcement of their new product updates at the f8 conference
- Web: HTML vs. HTML5 (I did hear the “5” will be going away soon)
- Search: Google changes their algorithm all the time, new strategies are needed to stay current and optimized
Because of the iterative nature of any digital medium, it’s very rare that I have ever suggested a “1 & done” type approach like publishing a book; it’s nearly impossible to do that with digital initiatives.
For instance web-based initiatives should never be packaged without search optimization or awareness drivers like display, paid search of social engagement integration. It’s a package deal across the owned, paid and earned media structure. One doesn’t work well (enough) without the other.
Most often digital plans are recommended with analytic reporting sructures, content refinements and updates. However, sometimes this may be a new process/way of thinking for many marketing clients who are used to having 1 line item for a “project or campaign” and at completion it’s checked off the list. This is not the case within the digital realm, where 1 line item might be inclusive of 5-8 sub-tactics with infinite endings.
Where does the digital strategist fit in?
I also believe successful strategic and tactical execution is a collaborative effort amongst the digital strategist and various contributing departments.
- Partner on category knowledge, brand objectives/strategies and consumer/persona insights, attitude and behaviors
- Gather insights on consumer behavior as it related to digital media/device consumption and usage (ATU)
- Establish current mindset and desired behavioral change for consumer personas
- Establish 360 holistic touchpoints around the consumer engagement efforts
- In tandem with media planners, establish 3rd party media partnerships (content & engagement opportunities) and space (buying)
- Review emerging opportunities online, mobile, technology, social and participate in ideation brainstorms
- Evaluate digital creative for optimal user experience (UX)
- In tandem with account planners, help establish content cadence for appropriate message distribution/engagement touchpoints
- Partner with UX/IA to establish use cases, proper wireframes/prototypes and optimal user experience flow
- Liaise with project management and development to establish proper technical and functional spec documentation
- Design usability testing methodology and documentation
- Identify KPIs, benchmarks and reporting structures (monthly/quarterly) for initiatives and campaigns for ongoing data analysis, insights and refinements
Can 1 person do everything?
We’ve all encountered the negative chatter surrounding “jack of all trades master of none” and I have seen/read how many digital planners have fallen victim to that catch phrase due to the lack of understanding/misperception from others on what it is that digital planners are responsible for—-certainly not for lack of intelligence defeat; rather due to the impossible task and limited capacity our brains allow to know and do everything at the level of an expert. Note: see Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers for has for more on that topic. (and anyone that says they can be an expert in everything is lying. Just sayin.)
- There are strategist out there that focus solely on social engagement and building brand experience through social channels.
- There are strategists that focus solely on defining KPIs and measuring program analytics.
- There are strategists that focus solely on connection planning and 3rd party media partnerships – identifying the right brand with the right space to be communicating with consumers in.
- There are strategists that focus solely on search, display campaigns and optimized landing pages.
Sometimes these strategists work for different organizations and are working in silos (not ideal). Sometimes there are no specialists within any one digital specialty and you are left to your own devices to maximize your own knowledge and/or shared resources around you.
Either way the definition of the position is subjective in nature; as I mentioned it’s a needs-based position and completely dependent on your clients/business and current working environment- organization or freelance based. I am glad I went though this exercise; now I have a concise talk track, for this month anyway. But, as with our evolving digital landscape I’m sure it will change next month and the next and the next…it’s all about being agile.