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Stop Delivering Fluff: 3 Principles for Building a Meaningful Digital Strategy

Jun 2018

If you’ve ever spent time browsing agency websites, one cliché you’ll stumble upon is the service offering of Strategy. At first glance, you might not even think twice about it. Everyone wants their work to be strategic, right?

Well of course they do, but the problem here is that strategy is often spoken about in the abstract. Is strategy a phase? A conversation? Maybe just a shared or assumed understanding? Is it something that needs to be documented? And most importantly, how do you know if it’s any good?

Over the past year we’ve been asking ourselves these questions, and more clearly defining the role and application of strategy on a digital project.

Our goal was to create a lightweight framework we could use to explore, design, and document a digital strategy with our clients to serve as the foundation for our work together.

In this article, I’m going to outline the most important 3 principles of our approach, and in a subsequent article, describe the framework itself and how we roll it out during a workshop.

Principle 1: Strategy should be a deliverable

While the idea of offering Strategy as a Service is well intentioned, in practice it often suffers from a lack of substance, clarity, and commitment. Too often these details are glossed over and go undocumented, leading to much larger issues down the road.

Similar to design comps or a functioning codebase, a project’s strategy should be tangible. It should be the product of process and collaboration, and be outlined in a deliverable acting as a guidepost for the rest of the creative process.

The strategy delivered and agreed upon should be treated as the north-star vision for the project, and both client and agency should be committed to realizing what’s outlined in the strategy. Without this commitment, a project is reduced to going through the motions of a creative process while hoping what’s delivered hits an imagined target of success.

Principle 2: Strategy should be about systems, not products

Any digital project, whether it’s a website, app, platform, or marketing campaign, lives inside a larger context. A project belongs to a department, and a department to an organization, each area having their own goals and interests.

When starting a new project, it’s easy to view it as a singular body of work with it’s own level of performance and measures of success. But the truth is, your project doesn’t live in a vacuum. It’s an integrated piece of a larger system that contributes to the broader goals of your organization.

Thinking about your project from this perspective can help reveal new opportunities for innovation. Not only can the project individually add value to the work you’re doing, but how can it play a supporting role in other areas of your organization?

Apple’s approach to product over the past 20 years is a classic example of a strategy built on systems.

Apple Devices

A single product, the iPod, turned into an iPhone. Then the App Store, iPads, iWatches, Home Kit, Health Kit, AR Kit, and the list goes on. Apple has created an entire ecosystem of connected devices and platforms to deliver the Apple Experience to users. This systemized offering not only brings more value to Apple customers, but has clearly benefited the company, having created an endless number revenue streams.

This system-oriented view is a big part of the strategy discussions we have during our workshops. In many cases discussions will start hyper-focused on a single product (eg: website, app, etc..) but after some evaluation, a much better–and simpler–approach is found that makes larger impacts across the organization.

Principle 3: Strategy should focus on experiences, not functionality

To avoid sounding like another design cliché, let me unpack this…

The strategy for most digital projects begins in the wrong place. Its often based on presumptions around what should be built, and focused too narrowly on inconsequential details.

In these cases, details of a project (its design direction, feature set, functionality improvements, etc.) get confused with the results the project should generate. The strategy jumps the shark by immediately discussing solutions rather than determining if their direction is actually solving a problem.

In the digital-world, this type of strategy can be seen in a startup endlessly chasing its next feature to launch, while simultaneously making their product bloated and confusing. Or, organizations who presumptively build a website, thinking it will magically connect them to customers.

Unfortunately, this type of product-level thinking is short-sided. It focuses too closely on product commodities: features and functionality, rather than what’s really valuable: shaping the attitudes and behaviors of users themselves.

When building a digital strategy, you should start with determining the attitudes and behaviors you want to instill in your users. Then, focus on designing experiences that help shape these outcomes.

This innovation at the experience-level provides more value by targeting users themselves. It expands the context of “performance” to include the entire relationship a user has with a product, and measures success not by the way something functions, but on the results it has.

As an example, Netflix is a company that takes an experience-level approach to the way it innovates. In addition to providing users with access to watch films, Netflix has created an entire ecosystem for delivering an improved entertainment experience to users.

Netflix has changed the way we experience entertainment by creating original content, releasing seasons of TV shows collectively rather than week by week, and by creating a robust technology platform that not only delivers entertainment seamlessly to devices of all shapes and sizes, but does so in a way that’s curated specifically to our own tastes.

By improving the experience, rather than just the product itself, Netflix has become the standard how we now consume entertainment. It’s not surprising “Netflix and chill” and “binge watch” are now synonymous with our leisure time.

As such, a project’s strategy should align the goals and intent of the project with the experience it delivers to users. After this has been done, the specific ways of aligning these two areas (with products, features, design, etc.) can be evaluated and documented.

Wrapping Up

These three principles represent the most important aspects of the changes we’ve made to our own process of delivering strategy to our clients. In my follow up article, I’ll discuss the framework of our strategy workshops, where we walk clients through various exercises and design methodologies to help craft the strategic recommendations themselves.

As always, if you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to reach out. If you want to learn more about the importance of strategy and innovation in the urban space, or want to schedule your own workshop, you can do so right now on our website.

Bryant Hughes Partner / Technology Lead

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Denver, CO
80211

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Minneapolis, MN
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