Digital is NOT a strategy

In recent years the terms ‘digital strategy’ and ‘digital transformation’ have come to prominence, as businesses look for the best ways to use new technology, to improve their operations and gain competitive advantage.

Towards the end of October 2019 I was invited to speak at the relaunch of the Maidstone Kent Digital Meetup. I decided to give a provocative presentation to stimulate some debate about what ‘digital’ really means for business today. The title of my talk was ‘Digital is NOT a strategy’ – because I strongly believe that digital technology is a tool or tactic that will help you to achieve your overall goal and objectives, but it is not the ‘magic bullet’ in and of itself, and it just doesn’t make sense to me to plan a whole strategy around it.

This means that I had to stand up in front of a room full of ‘digital experts and enthusiasts’, many of whom were representatives from ‘digital agencies’ who sell ‘digital strategy’ and ‘digital transformation’ as part of their core service offer, plus other less tech-savvy business owners who have or may be thinking of procuring this kind of support.

I was therefore a little nervous about the response I was going to get… would they shout me down and disagree?

I started off by sharing my understanding of what ‘digital’ means and suggested it would be useful to look at applying this term to three different areas: business models, operational processes and marketing communications.

I shared this data listing the top 10 companies in the US by revenue from 2008 and 2018 to illustrate how just a decade ago the biggest businesses were in retail, oil and gas, financial investments, automotive and telecoms. With the exception of Microsoft and Google, they did not have ‘digital’ at their core. Now the list is dominated by the Tech Giants: Apple, Amazon, Facebook, who have joined the software and search engine companies.

Then I spoke about the dictionary definition of ‘strategy’, which means ‘a plan of action designed to achieve a long-term goal or overall aim’. It comes from the Greek strategia, which is a military term meaning ‘the art of the general’, and refers to a high level plan to achieve on or more goals under conditions of uncertainty.

Certainly every business needs an overall strategy and plan, and I would suggest that each of the key areas of the business will need a more focused strategic plan too – e.g. a marketing strategy, an HR strategy. Rather than thinking about the technology and tactics first we need to get clear on our objectives and overall goals. This is where to start when drafting a strategy. And rather than thinking about your product or service that you want to sell first, I suggest beginning with your customer – how can you add value for them?

Strategy is all about asking the big questions:

  • Who? (Who are we and who do we want to become? Who are our customers now and who do we want them to be?)
  • What? (What are we selling?)
  • Why? (Why do we do what we do?)
  • Where and when? (What actions need to happen where and when to move us forward?)
  • How? (How are we going to communicate? How are we going to serve our customers best to add most value?)

At the end of my presentation at the October 2019 Maidstone Kent Digital Meetup I was joined by Kenny Cox of Snapwire Software for a panel discussion facilitated by Chris Willmott from Pentascape. We talked about how easy it is for businesses to get distracted by the latest new ‘shiny thing’ from a tech perspective, and whether ‘digital transformation’ is now an outmoded term. This opened up into a wider conversation with the audience about how digital is now integral to all aspects of business, and we need to adopt a ‘digital mindset’ to think how best to use technology to our advantage.

You can read more about the Kent Digital Meetup on the Pentascape blog and find out about upcoming events here.

If you’d like some more pointers on what to include in your Marketing Strategy and Business Plan please read my next blog here.