Digital is bigger than you thought, but that’s OK!

This week a question has come up which made me stop and think: “What is Digital?”  After 20 years working in digital agencies, software companies and data businesses I felt a bit like a fish being asked: “what is water?”  When I did answer, I realised that it wasn’t anything like as simple a question as I thought.

You see Digital used to be a channel, the email replaced the fax, the web page replaced the magazine, and the e-commerce website replaced the bricks and mortar store.  All very 21st century but other than change some of the equipment on our desk, nothing very different.  That’s the digital channel at its simplest.

So far so good, but that only brings us to the early 2000’s in terms of the change that digital has wrought.  What about eBay? What about Google? What about the iPhone? What about Facebook? And shared documents and video hangouts and…. Yes.  There’s a lot more to digital.  But that’s OK.

Well it is and it isn’t, there are a lot of people working in charities who “get” what digital is without being able to express it, they can sense that there is more to be gained than we’re currently seeing, but they’re held up because they don’t have a shared understanding of digital actually “is”, how far it goes.

So I’d like to throw this out there as a starter for ten.  I believe there is not one, but four fundamental elements to digital.  Here’s what they are:

What we talk about when we talk about digital

1: A new way of talking: The Digital Channel

OK, so we get this one, right?  We send emails and create web pages instead of writing letters and producing magazines, right?  Well, kind of, but what we need to remember about the digital channel is that it is so very young.  It’s entered the mass market just a decade ago, and it’s still figuring out what it wants to be when it grows up.  This means that as far as we’re concerned, The Digital Channel is a Moving Target.  It’s no use thinking that we can go through a period of change, get “web” sorted and then just settle back and keep cranking the handle we need to figure out how to rebuild the boat whilst we’re sailing it along.  And remember, we’re sailing against the tide, so if we stop to do a refit, we immediately lose ground against the expectations of our supporters.

2: A new way of acting: Digital Marketing

As well as giving us a new channel for the written, spoken or visual word, Digital gives us new ways to find people and put that word in front of them: Facebook ads, Google Adwords, email marketing, SEO and integrated digital campaigns.  These are fundamentally different beasts from almost any advertising which has gone before.  Why, because of the change in the model that advertising has stuck to for a while. 

“Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is, I don’t know which half”. John Wanamaker

Wanamaker died in 1922 and it’s taken the best part of a century for marketers to solve the problem that he pointed out.  But here’s the thing.  They have solved it – for digital promotion at least.  So when you spend money on online advertising, you know EXACTLY which half of it is wasted.  And you have the power to use that information, but as another great hero once said, “with great power comes great responsibility”. If you know that some of the money you spent on the last campaign was wasted, you have the responsibility not to waste that money next time.  That means that we need to shift away from being swayed by stunning creative (aka pictures we personally like) and persuasive focus groups (aka people who agree with us) and rely instead on cold hard facts: specifically Randomised Control Trials.  Digital marketing means that we can, and we must target our advertising spend where it will achieve the best results for those we serve.

3: A new way of listening: Digital Social Networks

Social media, right?  You’ve been on Facebook, right? Maybe you’ve even come off Facebook?  What are online social networks? Places where people talk to each other (and exchange novel other forms of communication too).  They are far more than just a handy place with some eyeballs in front of which you can place your digital marketing (see above).  Digital Social Networks fundamentally change how we communicate.  The cost of conversation with those that we are only vaguely in touch with has dropped, practically to zero.  That means that our fundraising engine just gained a gear (more on that later) and it also means that we are expected to listen.  Social media isn’t a broadcast channel, it’s an opportunity, and an expectation to create content worth sharing and listen to what the community says about us.

4: A new way of thinking: Digital Analytics

Finally analytics.  And I don’t mean Google Analytics (that’s part of 1 and 2).  Digital Analytics in our organisations means that something absolutely fundamental has changed.  In the past, strategies were set years ahead, locked down and followed through.  Some worked and some didn’t.  In fact, from looking at the charity sector at the moment, you’d have to say that there was quite a lot that didn’t.  What Digital Analytics does is allow you to measure, collect, gather and present information about what’s working and not working as it happens.  That doesn’t just mean changing tactics, like in 2, switching to the most well-received version of the text, it means feeding that data real-time into strategy and allowing the strategy to develop in response to what the numbers are telling us happens in the real world.  If demand for one of our services suddenly drops, we should know about it, and do something about it far more responsible than just raise an eyebrow and a smile at the underspend at the end of the quarter.  Reporting used to tell us what had already happened some time ago, so long ago that our strategy for the next period was already locked in.  Analytics, however, tells us what is happening now, and we must think fast and think well in order to use that information to tell us what to do next.

5: A new expectation: Digital Culture

Yup.  I really did that, something changed between me writing the early paragraphs of this article and getting to the end.  Digital huh!  So what is Digital Culture?  Well when you combine the impact of the points above, practically free communication, real-time feedback on where we put our efforts, a need for authentic connection and an expectation that decisions are supported by data, rather than by who’s the loudest voice in the room, what do you get?  It changes the culture.  Today’s workforce expects more flexibility, but also more autonomy over what it’s doing (after all, they can see the data too right), and because decision making and communications are real-time, they expect to be communicated with and involved in decisions in realtime, not once a year at the annual organisation planning process.  When we mix the digital folks, with these expectations into the middle of charities, with their relatively slow pace of change, it’s no wonder that there’s a real drive to change.

So there you have it.  In four (plus one) paragraphs.  What does digital mean? A communications channel that’s a moving target, a requirement to overrule our gut feel with Randomised Control Trials, a need to actually listen to what people are saying about us and respond authentically, and a need to talk and decide in the language of data.  Plus the other stuff that changes as a result of those four.

That’s what I mean by digital.

Until next time…

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