Digital strategy: why, how…wait…why again?

I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few months pondering questions of strategy, partly because I’m a deeply boring person and partly because it’s sort of my job.

I was half following the discussions at today’s Leeds Digital Lunch which was attempting to define (or at least explore) the question of a city-wide digital strategy for Leeds, now I was only following things at a distance, via Twitter, so there is no question that any sort of nuance was completely lost on me but it did make me even more sure of a few things that’ve been on my mind of late.

Every now and again I’m asked to help define a digital strategy, whether that’s at work or inputting into things other people are doing elsewhere.

Let me say this now, and loudly (imagine all this is written in caps): a digital strategy, on its own, is a pointless thing. Completely pointless. You may as well have a ‘chairs strategy’ or a ‘conversation strategy’ or an ‘indoors strategy’. Saying you have a digital strategy, or you need a digital strategy doesn’t really mean anything. I understand why these conversations happen, digital (especially in the arts sector) has come to be an awful, nebulous, catch-all term for…well, sometimes it seems to cover anything that involves electricity, or technology – i.e. it is so broad and indistinct as to be almost completely meaningless.

Someone said recently (and I forget who so, sorry): “it’s a layer.” Now, the fact that they didn’t really define what ‘it’ was seems to back up my earlier point, but this definition seems to get closest to what I think people are describing when they talk about ‘digital’. And this brings me to my second point of frustration about the drive towards a digital strategy, it isn’t really a thing, digital (or at least what I think people mean when they say ‘digital’) is reaching a point of all-pervasiveness which means it enables, represents or engages with almost every single thing we do. In and of itself it isn’t really anything, social media is just conversations and other socially interactive behaviour but carried out and represented via the internet and web-enabled technology. Take it out of that context and into the real world and it’s just…talking and that. The same could be said of many, many ‘digital’ activities and functions – ‘digital’ (and yes I’m keeping the apostrophes every time I write it) is something that bleeds into everything your organisation does, and if it doesn’t at the moment it will do in the not too distant future. The advance of digital, technological development and all that jazz has fundamentally altered (or some might say irrevocably damaged) industry after industry, and it’s not going to stop.

Your digital strategy, if we’re still admitting that it might be a thing that exists, should be something that exists in terms of how you’re going to think about every other element of what you do. It is something that enables other activity. It is, in my view, probably more influential over tactical activity than your strategy itself.

“We aim to reach new audiences” – strategic aim. How you achieve that can be done in any number of non-digital ways, however digital can also play a part in helping you meet this aim in conjunction with the non-digital, revelation time – you do not need a digital strategy to accomplish this.

Saying “we aim to reach new audiences online by filming our work and putting it on youtube” is NOT A STRATEGY, that is a description of tactical activity.

All too often I see and hear people describing a succession of activities that don’t really have anything at all to do with anything and trying to call that a digital strategy. Being more active on social media, improving your website, creating more content, making better use of your data – not a digital strategy. Just ‘doing more stuff online’ isn’t strategic if you don’t have any clear idea about WHY you are doing it.

The sooner we stop thinking of ‘digital’ as this thing we can put a ring around the better, the relentless speed at which technology develops (and behaviours and attitudes along with it) means that the moment you start trying to define it you’re already out-of-date and becoming less relevant with each passing moment. People get far too hung up with specific technology, or platforms. We should be able to step back and look at what we are are trying to achieve and assess the tools available to help us do that. Now many of these tools are likely to be technological (or ‘digital’) in nature, however we don’t need a separate strategy to tell us that. I really feel that a sensible organisation would have, by now, realised that the ‘digital strategy’ debate is a distraction, it should simply be part of everything we do, because it probably already is.

So there we have it, my two problems: 1) I think a lot of people misunderstand what strategy actually is and 2) a digital strategy makes no sense, “it’s a layer”.