Why 'digital strategy' should be nixed from your lexicon

It's become shorthand for anything digital, but when technology truly connects, consumers take notice, writes the director of strategy for Siegel+Gale

"Digital Strategy" has become a catch-all term, thrown around in meetings to describe things that many businesses now believe they need in order to succeed. It is often conflated with social media strategy. And too often it gets boiled down to "we need an app."

But "digital," in and of itself, is not a strategy, and it isn’t limited to social media. Digital tools help engage customers, and digital channels help reach them. When approached this way, digital can become more than a "check the box" exercise in your marketing plan. It should be a meaningful extension of your entire brand experience strategy.

As marketers, our strategic goals should be much the same as they’ve always been: attract new customers, retain the existing ones. If, instead of asking, "What’s our digital strategy?" what happens when we frame the marketing challenge this way: "How can we create a personalized experience for customers … and do it on a mass scale?" Brands should be using digital advances to improve the customer experience by making it more personal, simple and compelling.

Technology makes connections personal. Digital touch points have expanded our expectations for how we connect with consumers. Yet many companies hide behind the technology: go to our website for information, but please don’t call. "Live chat" online with an automated service agent. Or they ask consumers to follow them on social media, but don’t deliver on engagement. 

When a company actually connects, customers take notice. Take Geico, for example. The insurance company leveraged a strategy that crosses all channels, using digital to foster a more genuine sense of connection. It has an award-winning app, an easy-to-use website and a strong social media presence. But it also provides customers with tools to connect with their service agents. Geico employees have personal email addresses, so you can begin a dialogue with a customer service agent, and reach them directly. When you call, they sound genuinely happy to help, making customers feel valued and connected to the company.

This is not a revolutionary idea, but it is rare. Companies that excel in connecting with customers recognize that "digital strategy" isn’t just about using the trendiest new apps, or blasting content (even if it’s targeted) out into the world. It’s about examining the tools at our disposal, and using them to create a more personal connection.

Optimized back-end technology improves the front-end experience. Companies often examine the customer experience to identify needs, pain points, and opportunities for engagement. A digitally smart company recognizes that its IT systems play an important role in decreasing frustration and serving customers more efficiently. 

Take the customer service call center for industries such as airlines, cable/telecom, and even public utilities. People engage with these companies for different reasons, across a wide variety of touchpoints, many of them digital. But if someone is calling that 800-number to speak to a customer service, it’s usually because they have a problem. 

When I call Time Warner Cable, its system can identify my account based on my phone number. This sets an expectation for a seamless transition to a live rep, and a more efficient call overall. However, when back-end systems don’t align, that initial promise of efficiency is quickly undermined. To begin a call, the service rep must still take time reconfirming account information, and this occurs again with each transfer. Instead of immediately helping solve my problem, poor use of technology forces service representatives into repetitive questions that make the experience more frustrating. 

In contrast, consider United Airlines. The airline has integrated its Mileage Plus service desk with the United app, so when I call them through the app the system already knows who I am. The representative can skip the slew of identification questions and simply ask, "How may I assist you today?" Right away, we are connecting in conversation, and focused on solving my problem. 

Digital tools should work the way people want to use them. Many companies do need an app to round out their experience strategy. But, just because you build it, doesn’t mean they will come. To become a truly engaging tool, it must feel like it was built for your customers’ needs, not in response to trends.

For example, do you remember Facebook’s Poke app? Copying the successful momentum of Snapchat, it allowed users to send messages, images, or videos to their friends that would disappear after a few seconds. But the launch of Poke was a response to a trend, a land grab in a growing space. Similarly, the Slingshot app that followed sought to "improve" Snapchat with a range of features, but instead it was neither intuitive nor seamless—not how consumers wanted to communicate. Neither app’s premise aligned with Facebook’s brand of openness and neither fulfilled customers’ needs or reflected an understanding of their behaviors.

It’s admirable when a company embraces risk to try new things, and also when it knows when to let them go. But whether your digital approach requires rapid iteration or careful planning, it has to start with an understanding of your customers. Valuable, sustainable digital tools should both align with a company’s brand and integrate seamlessly into a user’s routines and expectations. 

"Digital" is a critical component of any marketing strategy; it should span internal silos to put the customer experience at the center of every decision. At its most effective, a company’s approach to digital should reflect an understanding that even the most high tech tools are used by people to connect with people.  

Lisa Kane is Director of Strategy for Siegel+Gale, a global branding firm.

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