From the Blog

It has taken me a couple of days to come down from the epic nerdgasm I experienced this past weekend, after using the new Virgin America website. Now that I’ve calmed down a little, and had a chance to organize my thoughts, the first thing I would like to say is: Bravo Sir Richard Branson. Bravo. You just keep on giving me reasons to admire you.

Image of website

So, why am I talking about this in the context of Customer Experience, as opposed to a mere website design? I think anyone who has flown Virgin and then uses the website will quickly understand the aesthetics. The virtually seamless cohesion between the experience of flying with Virgin America and booking tickets with this new website is nothing short of spectacular. Furthermore, by going completely responsive and rethinking the ticket purchasing and check-in process so it is optimized for interaction on any device, this vaults them beyond the competition -and makes our lives as travelers easier, and a little more fun, just like flying with them.

But it’s more than just the enigmatic Purplink (Purple + Pink) look and feel and fun and approachable editorial voice. Just one look at this vine demonstrating the new boarding pass and you will immediately realize somebody has genuinely thought about the needs of their customers (travelers) and then put those needs at the center of every decision they made with this evolution. A lot of organizations are talking about Customer Experience. Few of them are doing it. Even fewer are doing it this well.

And there’s a reason for that. Customer Experience is hard…And it requires sponsorship at the highest levels of an organization to get it right. The design of this experience was not lead by an IT project manager or a marketing director. It was lead by someone with the drive, vision, and, most importantly, the ability to reach across typical organizational silos and rally a cross-functional team around an elegant, simple objective: Reduce friction for our customers when they interact with us most frequently. Make their lives easy when they are on the go.

To that end, a hearty congratulations to Virgin’s CMO Luanne Calvert and the agency she selected for this project: Work & Co, for this stunningly beautiful extension of the Virgin America website. It’s clear these guys get it.

I’ve been providing professional digital strategy consulting to small & medium sized businesses, non-profits, and individuals outside of my day job for the last five years. I’ve also worked on many strategy engagements for globally recognized brands at my day job, both as a project manager and an individual contributor to deliverables.

However, this Tuesday will be my last day after almost ten years working as a full-time Digital Project Manager. I officially start my career as a Digital Strategist the following Monday. Now that strategy has become the primary focus of my professional contribution to the world, I thought it would be interesting and productive to take a step back and develop a better understanding of the roots of this area of work.

The goal of this self-directed ‘Hackademic‘ exercise is to develop a deeper understanding of the concepts of traditional business strategy, and look for ways to incorporate this knowledge with a current understanding and approach to digital strategy practice. In other words: What tools do traditional strategists use? What processes and frameworks do they follow? What value do they create? And, most importantly, how can I use traditional business strategy to be more effective Digital Strategist?

Follow the leaders

Information is like food: You are what you consume. For this reason, I really like the idea of beginning with a list of leaders I should be paying attention to. Fortunately, Twitter makes this very easy. Because this list isn’t only about understanding strategy in general, it includes individuals focused on digital strategy and content strategy, such as my current colleague Dave Wieneke who leads the Digital Strategy Practice at ISITE Design, as well as industry leading exemplars such as Perry Hewitt, Chief Digital Officer at Harvard University. This list also includes leading business publications such as the Harvard Business Review and Knowledge@Wharton.

Next I went to Amazon and searched on topics including ‘strategy’ and ‘business strategy’. Under the circumstances I believe Amazon will generate better results than searching on Google because the ‘Customers also bought…’ feature will quickly lead to more value. Also, because I believe someone who wrote a best-selling book on topic as academic as business strategy probably gets it. The other obvious benefit to this approach is immediate access to their books.

Here’s what I’ve come up with:

HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Strategy (including featured article “What Is Strategy?” by Michael E. Porter)
About halfway through this one. So far the big take-away is Michael Porter’s defining article ‘What is Strategy?’. The short version of the answer is: Strategy is the creation of a unique and valuable position, involving a different set of activities.At this point you may be wondering: a different set of activities? Different than what? You’ll need to read the article for the answer to that.

The Innovator’s Dilemma: The Revolutionary Book That Will Change the Way You Do BusinessA couple of people I admire tell me Clayton Christensen is an important compliment and counterpoint to Porter’s position on strategy. This one hasn’t arrived yet so I don’t have much to say about the book but I am captivated by Christensen’s contribution to the conversation on disrupting higher education, including this recent article on NY Times: Business School, Disrupted.

The Strategy Book: How To Think and Act Strategically to Deliver Outstanding Results
Rounding out the initial set of books to read, I would like to go with someone a little younger, who I personally identify with. Max Mckeown is a straight talking, engaging author and speaker on the subject, with an approachable and practical sensibility I would like to emulate. I’m about three quarters of the way through this book and I am really enjoying the modern case studies and introduction to standard strategy tools, such as Porter’s Generic Strategies.

Test your mettle, MOOC style

At every inflection point in my career I’ve relied heavily on books to accelerate my climb up the front side of the learning curve, with good results. But today there is a whole new class of resources available, which I’d be a fool to ignore: Massively Open Online Courses. That’s why I’ve signed up for Coursera’s Foundations of Business Strategy, taught by Professor Michael Lenox of the University of Virginia. It promises I will learn how to analyze an organization’s strategy and make recommendations to improve its value creation by building your strategist’s toolkit. Unlike books, I will have an opportunity to discuss what I’m learning with the instructor and the other students who are attending the course.

Open to discussion

I think another vital step in hacking your way to understanding any subject is to discuss it, a lot. In the past this might have been a bit of a challenge for individuals taking a deep dive on something as unique as strategy, without the benefit of a traditional classroom experience. However, today there’s really no excuse for a lack of community. At any moment I have access to online groups, communities, forums, meetups, and literally thousands of open conversations happening on the social web via Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIN and more.

To that end, I’d like to engage in this conversation: Who are the leading voices in strategy you follow? Please leave your comments here, or connect with me on Twitter and let’s chat.

A while back I discovered a or law blog with some content I found interesting so I subscribed. After reading a couple of posts I commented on one and then an interesting thing happened…The author, a criminal defense attorney, introduced me to a strategy for handling commenters on his site I’ve yet to encounter.  It works something like this:

  1. Comments must be approved to be published.
  2. However, (at least my) comments are always approved, with a response from the author.
  3. Finally, (at least my) comments are universally treated with disdain.

I can’t tell you how many blogs I’ve taken an occasional interest in over the years. I usually forget about them pretty quickly because, let’s face it, there’s a lot of material out there. But the approach outlined above is awfully magnetic to my personality. I’m guessing it works on me because I always wanted to have a voice at the grown up’s table when I was a kid.

However, to suggest this is a strategy may simply be giving the blog’s owner too much credit. For a strategy to exist there must be forethought and calculation, as opposed to what amounts to little more than a curmudgeon, responding reflexively to younger, and/or less experienced audiences fumbling around him with a steady stream of discourteous insults and admonitions.

Dennis the menace

Aside from how I personally feel about the author’s treatment, I’m a web content strategist and this approach of treating readers like pests, and some other details are interesting from a professional perspective. For instance, he has taken the time to post his commenting rules and most of them make sense, if not a bit heavy handed…But there’s one underneath the comment authoring section that is simply wrong-headed:

“This is my home and I make the rules.”

Previously, I would have thought the problem with this statement, aside from the grandiosity, is self-explanatory. But perhaps, for older bloggers who are not digital natives, something is not so clear: Sharing one’s thoughts and ideas on a website with no password protection is not the equivalent of having a conversation at a private dinner party. It is the equivalent of standing in a public square with a megaphone. It is to be expected that occasionally someone who happens by is going to pay attention. If it makes the broadcaster unhappy that passersby may even want to discuss those things being shared in public, there is certainly no better example of the roots of unhappiness lying in the delta between expectation and reality.

Of course, a blogger is completely within their rights to ignore unwanted comments. I am a blogger who has, at times, enjoyed very large audiences with some commenters willing to share wildly variant and sometimes deviant perspectives, I can tell you that it is sometimes the best policy to avoid feeding the trolls, no matter how much they increase your engagement score. However, if I do choose to engage readers with a response, shouldn’t the basic rules of civility apply, whether I like what they have to say or not?

Who is to say what the right way to behave in public is? I’ve certainly vacillated in my own ability to behave according to how I think others should. But if a blogger’s goal is to be memorable and retain readers I can no longer advise my own clients, in good faith, that the only approach is to leave out a bowl of honey.

Posted by Jake DiMare at 8:36 pm

So, it’s the year 2011. The internet has been a commercially viable medium for 15 years. The explosion in use of mobile devices and social networks are only the leading edge of sweeping changes to how people consume media and experience brands. Online advertising revenues grew a staggering 15% in 2010…A time when most categories were flat or shrank. Total sales topped 26 billion dollars. Yes, that’s billion with a b.

Remarkably, there are still advertising, marketing and creative agencies out there who have yet to get on board the reality train. They are few and far between…But agencies who only specialize in producing 20th century media such as print and television are still out there. It’s not surprising to learn they lose credibility and market share every minute that goes by.

If this describes the agency you own or manage…Well, there’s good news and there’s bad news. The bad news is you are really late to the party and the chances of achieving success in the ever expanding digital space are diminishing as fast as you can say iPad App. The good news is there could still be a way to catch up. All that is necessary is to recognize your agency’s inability to adapt is entirely your own responsibility and then change everything.

Of course, few are willing to subject themselves to the rigorous personal and organizational inventory that is required to change on such a dramatic scale. Short of that, it will likely be necessary to hire talent or buy a smaller digital agency. Here are few things you can do to improve your chances of surviving this common experience for aging agencies in the 21st century:

Get comfortable with reverse mentoring Your best source of knowledge is likely going to be amongst the younger people in your organization. A designer fresh out of college today has never really known a world without the internet. They’ve had Facebook since they were in High School. There is a paradigm they get…That you don’t. Listen to them.

Do not allow upper management to make excuses Failure starts at the top. Period. If your agency still doesn’t get it at this point the problem isn’t a lack of the right designer or an aggressive enough ‘digital sales person’. The problem is agency veterans and upper management are not on board the reality train. A frightened, older sales manager in the waning years of their career can derail the efforts of 200 uniquely qualified new hires if you allow them to. Don’t let them.

Take a position When there is a complete lack of viewpoint creative is stagnant and sterile. Forget trying to be all things to everyone…The internet doesn’t work that way and neither should you if your plan is to succeed online. The true power of being available in a global market flooded with search driven consumer interactions is you can have a voice and know it is going to resonate with someone out there. Young, modern creative agencies with strategic capability are not afraid to position themselves as thought leaders and they encourage people within their ranks to do the same. Aging, primitive thinkers try to hide behind bland, featureless design for their own brand and just come off as weak and insecure or worse; lazy.

Do your homework This can’t possibly be stressed enough. Don’t hire people if you don’t know what you are looking for. Hiring an expert on the execution side and then hammering them over their lack of strategy experience or hiring a designer and then acting surprised when they are not a great programmer is both ignorant and irresponsible. If you are fortunate enough to find a generalist who can work capably in all of the 20 positions a modern digital agency includes, count your blessings and forget busting on them about not being an expert at everything.