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Every digital rocket needs a launchpad

Every digital rocket needs a launchpad John Ounpuu

In May, NASA announced the discovery of 1,284 new planets beyond our solar system. It's exciting news. The idea of life on alien worlds has always had the power to set the human imagination alight.

But before we get too excited, let's consider just how unlikely life here on Earth actually is. Most astronomers agree that a very long list of specific preconditions must be in place before life can emerge on a given world. Did you know we might not be here at all if the moon didn't help stabilize our climate? Or if Jupiter didn't shield us from asteroid and comet strikes?

The point is, life is fickle. It only happens when the conditions are just right. And here's the thing: the same holds true for breakthrough digital work.

The easy part is getting excited by the possibilities. We all see the success stories -- the viral hits, the jury prize winners, the shiny new tech -- and our imaginations are ignited. It's more intoxicating than a three-martini agency lunch.

But then the hangover sets in as the pitfalls of actual execution get in the way.

Big ideas wander off course. Overstretched teams buckle under pressure. Ballooning digital budgets end up wasted on expensive new tech that yields questionable results. Organizational silos get it the way. Pressure to keep up leads to knee-jerk thinking and copy-cat tactics. And all the while, the pace of change continues to accelerate and the level of complexity keeps increasing.

It's overwhelming.

But if I'm starting to scare you, don't worry. Breakthrough digital work may be fickle. But in our world -- like all the other worlds out there -- if the right preconditions are in place, great new things can indeed come to life.

So here's the task facing modern marketers who are serious about tapping the full power of digital: build a solid launchpad that'll enable you to launch those rockets with confidence.

With this in mind, here are a few of the most important prerequisites for breakthrough digital work -- along with some specific tips on how to tackle them in your organization:

A strong digital strategy

In these fast-paced times, stopping to plan can feel like falling behind. So strategy can fall by the wayside. It's true, some elements of traditional strategic planning do feel out of step with these fast-moving times. After all, what can a 3-year roadmap be in today's ever-changing world beyond a hopeful work of fiction?

But when you reduce strategy to its essence, it's actually more vital than ever. As Harvard professor and management guru Michael Porter tells us, strategy is essentially about choosing what not to do. And in these complex times -- with digital ecosystems expanding fast and so many options to choose from -- choosing what not to do is nothing short of mission critical. Here, then, are some tips to build a strong strategic foundation in your organization so you can put your focus where it counts the most:

  • Practice asking why? And train your team to do the same. Asking this simple question is all it takes to shift the focus from tactics to strategy.
  • Build a modern strategy toolkit. Focus less on theoretical models and fortune-telling roadmaps and more on decision-making tools that help you stay focused while you adapt to ongoing change and make decisions in the moment.
  • Don't call it strategy. If the word itself sounds a sour note in your action-oriented org, call it something different. Rebrand it. It doesn't matter what it's called as long as it gets the job done.

An obsession with customer needs

Today's customers have more information, choices, and power than ever before. It's not surprising, then, that the strongest digital work is inherently customer-centric. For this reason, your launchpad needs to include an organizational obsession with customer needs. And a shared understanding that your most valuable customers are actually allies to be courted, not targets to be hunted.

And the benefits of customer-centricity don't stop there. An obsession with customers can also help bridge organizational silos -- a common challenge for organizations trying to create a unified customer experience. Here are some tips to help you tap the power of customer-centricity in your organization:

  • Use planning tools like customer journey maps. Journey maps put customers at the center of the planning process across all channels -- leapfrogging those silos and painting a full picture. Recent research from Salesforce show that high-performing marketing teams are eight times more likely to use this approach.
  • Balance business and customer metrics. Performance metrics can drive both good and bad behavior. So make sure your team members are just as motivated to make customers happy as they are to meet those revenue goals.
  • Listen constantly. These days, customer needs, behaviors, and expectations change fast. Successful marketing departments will shift customer insight-gathering from an occasional event to an ongoing practice.

Digital-ready marketing operations

According to a recent study by Gartner, nearly all marketing organizations are embracing digital -- merging online and offline into a single marketing machine. But only one-third of marketers report that digital techniques are fully incorporated into their marketing operation.

Why the huge gap?

Simple -- change is hard. Even harder when the ground beneath your feet is shifting fast. The easiest option, of course, is to build digital capabilities through new talent or new tech. Both can be a good starting point. But it actually takes more to truly adapt. Here are some tips for bolstering your operational model to strengthen your digital launchpad:

  • Look to the tech world. No one's better at working at internet speed than the companies that are driving the rapid change marketers must cope with. More traditional organizations should, therefore, look closely at the technology sector for inspiration as they look to evolve and modernize marketing operations.
  • Work in products, not projects. This tip is drawn directly from the tech sector, where product management has emerged as a critical discipline. Everything the marketing team does -- from websites to campaigns and even new capabilities like content creation -- should be planned and managed with the mindset of creating a product, not a discreet project with a start and end date. Something distinct and valuable that grows, evolves, and becomes even more valuable all the time.
  • Go lean to stay nimble. This lesson, too, comes from the tech sector, where techniques like the Lean Startup Method have replaced the traditional waterfall planning approach. This method allows you to validate ideas through frequent test-learn-optimize loops, working gradually towards the best solution in harmony with your customers -- and avoiding undue risk and waste along the way.

Launchpads will never be as sexy as rockets. It's true. But here's some more truth: you can't have one without the other. So if your organization is truly committed to pursuing breakthrough digital work that drives real impact, don't start by looking up to the night sky and lighting the fuse on that bright, shiny rocket your agency wants you to buy. Instead, roll up your sleeves, rally the team, and get to work on that launchpad.

John Ounpuu is co-founder of Modern Craft, a digital strategy agency specializing in unbiased advice on unifying and optimizing the full digital ecosystem.

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