David Foster Wallace told a story that went something like this: Two young fish were swimming along one morning. They passed by an older fish. “Morning boys! How’s the water?” asked the old fish. The two young fish swam on. A moment later one turned to the other and asked “What the hell is water?”
I’m sure he told it better, but the heart of the story is a simple insight: it’s easy to lose sight of the context that we exist in. For the last few years, digital has been the focus for most marketers. It’s changing the way customers engage and how they make decisions. As organizations adapt they are creating special digital initiatives, organizing dedicated teams and channels, buying up agencies—and so digital becomes a word that divides.
From a business perspective it makes sense. We organize things into orderly domains with the idea that it can be better managed and measured. But digital is different; its value lies in its ability to connect, to enable us to find our own paths, build community and create our own value. We can’t assume that the mindsets and processes that have defined business for years will enable organizations to engage the real power of digital today.
The kind of change that digital suggests—and customers are coming to expect—is larger than a project or a department. We have to open up and follow the flow of digital through and across the organization.
Let’s take a standard web redesign project as an example. We know it’s UX and UI design. They typically happen with reasonable amounts of collaboration. Then there’s frontend code and backend development on a CMS platform, another pretty clear point of integration. But a web redesign is never just a web redesign. To deliver the kind of utility and experience customers expect, the work can reach deep into technology strategy and enterprise architecture, content strategy, product, customer support, data integration and more. All these factors influence what you can build and what you can deliver through your website.
It takes a lot of effort—and a lot of trust—to bring teams like this together effectively. The opportunity is clear: Digital experiences can deliver real utility to customers, create value, and earn a place in their lives. But most businesses are not there yet, and it’s a problem.
Reading the experience
Every day, across the digital ecosystem we see examples of businesses getting digital wrong. Engagements that start from a broadcast and audience mindset; internal turf wars over ownership of platforms; a focus on meaningless metrics; content marketing strategies that automate the streams of 3 steps to… and 7 kinds of… rehashed fluff and call it “nurturing.” All are symptoms of organizations trying to fit digital into business as usual. No wonder 30% of marketers say that their organization’s inability to adapt is limiting them from becoming the marketers they need to be*. This is more than an internal challenge, though because by now digital has taught your customers how to read the language of experience. Digital experiences bring them closer than ever before and they see the gaps in the experience, the broken promises and disconnected touch points for what they are—an inability or unwillingness to make the connections necessary and put the customer first.
Digital offers a unique opportunity precisely because it doesn’t fit into the ways of working that were developed to manage traditional products and services. It requires new approaches that are oriented to networks and experiences, rather than audiences and channels. The best way to look at digital isn’t as a campaign or a project. The most useful definition of digital is one that connects you, your organization, and your client: Digital is a way of engaging that reveals the truth of an organization’s vision and capabilities.
Today, organizations that can connect the stories they tell with their systems, their people, and their vision are the ones that create the opportunity to connect with their customers and earn a place in their lives. The more you force digital into siloes and quarters and groups competing for resources, the less digital can do, and the opportunity to make stronger connections with your customers will be lost to those who can.
Your local water company doesn’t have two hydrogen departments and one oxygen department—their product doesn’t exist as individual elements. And neither does yours. It’s not brand or technology or channels but the ability to weave them together that enables organizations to succeed. Digital is important, but connection is everything.
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