A Digital Planning Review
Yes I know, everyone talks about digital. And everyone wants to do it. Especially for planners, it’s one of the topics that you cannot lose sight of. Most recently I had some interesting conversations with planning colleagues and I found out that there are basically three types of positions in the discussion. The first group are the real traditionalists who still think that digital is a hyped topic and some even argue that there is no such thing as digital planning and strategy. The second group are awed traditional planners who are a little bit intimidated by digital and see it as a huge mystery. And the third group are the planners who work in and with digital and wonder what all the fuzz is about. Because they don’t make a big difference.
Far from knowing what the correct answer is, I have my own opinion on this. Especially since I moved from a rather traditional agency to a digital one. After more than a year in a digital agency, I thought I might write a little summary and review of my experiences so far.
First of all: Yes, digital planning exists. Of course it does, why shouldn’t it. There is also digital strategy. I mean it is pretty obvious that you can plan a lot of things in life. There are city planners, career planners, even wedding planners. To plan something just means to mentally anticipate future steps and to lay them out in a plan. That can be done with pretty much anything. Why shouldn’t it be possible when it comes to digital communication and marketing activities. And Strategy. Strategy is a specific analytical + creative way of thinking in order to find the right solution to a problem – the best possible way to reach a goal. I am sure all planners are thinking about digital stuff as they are thinking about any other area of their work. So please stop telling me, there is no such thing like digital planning or strategy. It is already part of most planners’ daily work. I think however that it will not exist as a separate discipline. Digital already is an integral part of marketing communications and as such part of any planners’ job. Planners are always thinking across disciplines and communications channels. The most uniting perspective is always the one of the consumer. And people just don’t make the big difference between different types of media. And as online and offline worlds intertwine more and more this distinction is just not natural.
Secondly: I also realized that my general approach to projects hasn’t changed that much and that I am thinking about the brand, the target audience, the competitive environment, the market, the business and marketing objectives and all the other stuff as I did when I was working on rather traditional projects. Still I realized that there are some areas in digital that require the adjustment of the planning mindset and approach. Inspired by this blog post on ‘How to do digital planning’, I created my own little summary of learnings and rules from the digital world. It is a far from complete list of very practical things that I think need to be done differently, when it comes to digital planning vs. traditional planning.
I had huge respect for the digital world because of all the technical stuff. Although I must admit, that some general understanding and the knowledge of some buzzwords can help sometimes (especially during lunch breaks with your techie colleagues), as a planner you do not have to understand the technical backgrounds. It was never critical for planners to understand the technical equipment of the film crew for a 30 second spot shooting. The same is true in digital. It is not important how the app works but what it does and more important what you can do with it.
Think product not ad
I already had some interesting discussions about this with many people. I know that some of them cannot hear this any more. I don’t mean that we just create products and are all like IDEO now. Of course communication will be a very important part of what we do. Still the digital end result, the product that you work on with your colleagues (it may be a website, an iPad app, a little widget, an online campaign) is something that actually offers a functionality and as such is something that is actually used by the consumer, not just looked at. Therefore digital is in some cases very close to the actual product or sometimes even becomes the product. Therefore thinking about digital always requires a little bit more design thinking than communication thinking. The question is not: What should the recipient think, when seeing this ad? It is rather: What should the user do, when using this app?
Become truly user/human centered
For planners the consumer / target audience / the human being is always at the centre of attention. Still, most traditional planners very much pride themselves with being the ultimate branding experts. While the brand still matters and is also an important part of digital planning, the user and the way she/he interacts with digital tools is even more important. The key question always is: Why would someone use this? What is the added value?
Think in experiences
Having the user and the digital product in mind, it is more about dynamic interactions, communication mechanics and processes rather than trying to unearth the ultimate insight to build one key message on. Digital is often based on a sequence of interactions, that the user partly co-creates. The overall experience comes from all the little details adding up. And this experience is more and more driven by conversational elements. So the feedback elements need to be included into the planning from the beginning.
Broaden your understanding of competition
The brand’s competitive environment in the digital space is much broader than in the offline world. In the classical sense the competitive focus is on the product level. In digital, brands are also competing on the content level. With apps, brands are now also competing on the ‘service/finding solutions to everyday problems’ field. Digital can be many different things and whatever the final product is, the competing offers from a user perspective might be very different from the classical understanding of competition.
Embrace the creative hydra
I was quite surprised to learn all the different roles within the creative department. Normally planners work with two kinds of creatives in the advertising agency – the art guy and the copywriter. In digital there is the information architect, the concept developer, the motion, screen and interface designer, the copywriter and that is just the creative department. Because there are also the techies – the developers and programmers. Of course these are the text book roles. Not every digital agency has people exclusively for all these roles. No one is a pure specialist and most of the time, you will find colleagues with a lot of skills. After a while I found out, who does what and especially who does what best.
Be flexible with the brief
Due to the complexity and diversity of projects and people you are dealing with, there is not the one creative briefing template. The challenges for the creatives can come in many different shapes and sizes and so should the briefs.
Become a digital nerd
Digital is about many different things. Therefore the broader the skill set and the former planning experiences are, the better. There are so many special topics the planning department should at least have an opinion on: online media, web analytics, search, apps, mobile, CRM, eCommerce, social, blogging, direct, newsletter, games, monitoring, targeting and so on and on. And that is just the digital stuff. All the other classical elements are still important and should be integrated into the process. Therefore it is important to have a diverse team with people from different backgrounds in the planning department. And it is even more important to learn as much as possible from the colleagues.
Hunt your feed reader
To keep up with all that stuff and all the trends in digital, it is really important to have a well organized feed reader. It is kind of frustrating to see how much stuff there is. Just two days of not checking the GoogleReader and the all items sign is at (1000+). This can drive you mad, but one of the key tasks of the job is to not just keep up but to be a little bit ahead. Watching trends and into the future has always been an integral part of planning. In the fast paced digital world this has almost become a Sisyphean task which needs to be done anyway. Fortunately there are many helpful tools to navigate through the digital jungle.
Educate on the right hype
Most trends and marketing hypes at the moment are driven by technology. Therefore the clients rather consult their digital agencies. In comparison to planning in traditional agencies, the digital planner has even more educational tasks. Clients have a much higher need and desire for being taken by the hand and getting educated in technological trends. And they also want to trust in the foresight of what is a hype and what is really relevant for their business. Whatever the new topic is, the planner needs to have an opinion on it. And there are a lot of new hypes every week.
Just do it
This was one of the tips from the other blog post and one of the reasons why I started this blog. As planners, we are familiar with a lot of other mediums and touchpoints. We watch TV, read magazines, we walk around the city and see outdoor and ambient advertising, we shop in supermarkets and of course we surf the internet. We are all users, consumers and recipients ourselves. And the more we use a medium we understand it. Now the internet is a whole bunch of media and tools and apps and websites and social networks. So the more you actually use it, the more you will learn about it. One of the reasons I started this blog and the posterous account and all the other digital stuff is not because I thought that I am particularly good at it or that I have something super important to say. But to get familiar with the tools and to make my own experiences with it, is really helpful to understand the mechanisms. The people we are trying to reach and engage with are doing that as well. So just do it.
That is my list so far. Let me know what you think and would add. I would like to keep on discussing about digital because it is such a fascinating topic.