What is a digital strategy?

Rocket on laptop

A digital strategy is a document where you outline a plan for all of the elements of your digital and online suite of marketing tools, and how you are going to apply them to build your business. When writing a digital strategy, it’s important to think upfront about what you are trying to achieve. Is it designed to increase brand awareness? Is it to drive sales? Is it to educate your market to remove barriers to the previous two? Or is it a bit of all three?

One of the main aims people have in their digital media strategy is to drive more traffic to their website and generate more sales (either in site or through a bricks and mortar venue). To do this, you need to truly understand what your customer wants, what makes your offering unique and how best to connect with your customers online.

Social media plays a huge role in your digital media strategy but of equal importance is your website and its search engine optimisation. The one thing that connects them all is content: generating compelling content that people want to like, share and engage in is the gateway to achieving brand awareness, removing barriers and increasing sales. Getting it right means you build more connections which opens up your reach. It’s important to be consistent in your approach. You need to engage regularly with your customers/clients and update your site and social media channels with new content on a regular basis. Content is king, connections build your business and consistency keeps you in your customer’s eye.

You may be tempted to look at business strategy documents for inspiration when writing your digital strategy. After all, their format is well established. However, as is so often the case when looking to other mediums for guidance, they don’t always fit the digital landscape. A traditional business strategy focuses on two key components: a long-term roadmap for business growth and budget forecasting. Unfortunately both of these elements are hard to replicate in a digital strategy. You may know where you want your business to be in 5 years, but you can't possibly know where technology will have evolved to beyond even 12 months. 

Return on investment (ROI) for digital and online investment is less tangible and has more abstract pathways, and timeframes are short and often opportunistic. The temptation is to constantly be immersed in the ‘doing’ of digital without a specific plan. This temptation needs to be tempered with linking action and engagement in a targeted and strategic way, by using clear and meaningful key performance indicators (KPIs) as a guide and measure of success.

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Digital strategy lifecycle

Writing a digital strategy for your business is not as intimidating as it sounds. It’s just a document outlining how your business should handle the different aspects of digital from the website and mobile to email, social media and digital marketing. Creating a digital strategy that looks 3–5 years ahead is unrealistic, technology just moves too fast. Equally, accurate budgeting is difficult when the landscape is evolving at such a rapid rate.

A digital strategy therefore has to take a different approach. It doesn’t need to cover everything in huge depth, but instead should cover a time span of 3–12 months of implementable actions, with clear measurements and regular points of decision as to what is working linked to your sales and growth targets. A digital strategy needs to focus more on creating a detailed program to make the right decisions as new technologies emerge, and when to pivot and try something new rather than defining everything up front.

Scoping your digital strategy

The exact scope of your digital strategy will vary depending on your business and what you do. In most cases a digital strategy should encompass:

  • Website – What features should you support on the website? How do you decide on content? Who is responsible for site maintenance from design, content and technical perspectives? How often do you update?
  • Mobile – How responsive is your existing site? Do you need native apps? If so, what platforms will you support?
  • Social Media – What platforms are you going to support? How are you intending to use social media? Who is responsible for it? What policies exist around acceptable behaviour? How are negative events handled? What is your posting frequency? What platforms will you use paid posts and advertising? What are the KPI's?
  • Digital Marketing – How are you going to raise your online profile? What is your search engine optimisation strategy? How will you ensure that your blog or news page is widely read? Will you use search engine or social media advertising? How will you engage with other businesses and promote each other organically?
  • Email – How do you use email to engage with your existing customer base? Do you send out regular emails? Would an email newsletter help your business if so what frequency? Do you use online tools to make your email marketing easier to manage? How do you collect email addresses? How do you ensure that privacy of your customers is protected?

In each area, the digital strategy should look at the benefits these technologies have for your business, assess its current performance through quantifiable measurements and make recommendations over the short and long term.

Thinking about your budget

Your digital strategy may have some elements outside of your expertise. If that’s the case, it may be that your digital strategy recommends getting in experts to provide more detail in certain areas. It is better to know your key skills and your limitations than leave the strategy vague. You do need to write the strategy with a budget in mind, or at least understand that some of the recommendations will need to be implemented incrementally and are going to cost actual money or an in kind investment of time. 

Establish the funding priorities, even if you don’t know the exact dollar value. The big ticket items are likely to be in the initial web and/or app development and perhaps in your brand collateral for digital and images. Smaller amounts can be budgeted as needed for social media advertising and subscription services like Survey Monkey or Campaign Monitor. As the digital environment is constantly evolving, this is a sensible, agile approach to how you develop, implement, measure and evolve your tools to suit your business and customer needs. This acknowledges that your digital assets are never finished, and digital expenditure is an ongoing budget line cut to fit your business rather than a one-off spend.

How to write your digital strategy

The digital strategy for your business is part of your business strategy. In the contemporary business of today, all businesses should be using digital channels to reach their customers. Assuming you have a business plan that isn’t a dusty doorstop, the digital strategy is part of the marketing, sales and communication section, and, like a good business plan, relies heavily on a clear understanding of your customers, competitors and the value proposition of your business. If you understand where your business fits in the wider landscape, then you can use this information to determine where to focus your efforts online. 

The most important thing is to figure out where your existing customers (and potential new customers) spend their time online. Are your customers teenagers chatting with friends on Snapchat, mumpreneurs on Facebook, professionals on LinkedIn, fast-moving tech junkies on Twitter or designers and architects on Instagram and Pinterest? Do they want video, mobile, chock-a-block shops with seamless pay gateways, deep-diving blogs or pretty infographics? Or do they want a combination of all of these things? In some cases, your customer base will be varied and you’ll need to figure out a way to provide value to a number of disparate groups as part of your strategy. It's more likely however that you will have a targeted niche who have more than less in common with you and can be clearly profiled.

Once you have established the “who”, “what” and “why” of what you do digitally, you can make a situation analysis of where you are now. What tools does your business have, what needs to be updated, what needs to be tested, what’s working and what’s not? Are there digital or social media channels that you aren’t using because you or your team need to update your skills? Does your business need to get your website updated and look at the potential return on investment of being able to use more email marketing? Who are the people in your business that are your key digital communicators? These are the types of questions you need to ask and answer before sitting down to write your strategy. The more thought and preparation you’re able to put into your strategy, the more effective it will be and the more easily you’ll be able to identify where the strategy may need to be updated over time.

Your digital strategy template

There are thousands of templates on the internet to help you write your digital marketing strategy; you should use the one that you feel best suits your business. The template you choose needs to be short, sharp and agile. It’s a document that you should keep on your desktop and refer to regularly.

Once your situation analysis is done, revisit your business mission and vision, and how that is linked to KPIs. Now add in the relevant KPIs for your digital tools. These will be things like time spent on pages on website, unique visitors, conversion to sales etc. For social media it will be likes, followers, shares, favourites, retweets, views, pins and comments. Strategically linking your social media channels and then creating content that brings customers back to your website is the objective, so tracking where your page views come from is important.

As you enact your strategy, you should be vigilant about checking your expectations against the analytics from your website, advertising and social media accounts. By looking closely at your analytics in the context of your larger aims, you’ll gain a much better understanding of what’s working and what isn’t and you’ll be able to adjust your strategy for the future accordingly. A digital strategy and your analytics are no use to you in isolation; they need to be constantly checked against the reality of the environment within which your business is operating. If your customers aren’t responding in the way you expected, try something new and measure your results.

Creating and measuring content is another important metric – how often and what are you posting where, what is its reach and engagement? What happens when you increase or decrease the frequency? Where are the hits on your website coming from? Is the time you’re putting into social media actually leading to customers getting to your website? Can you change something to try and improve your outcomes? What posts are you choosing to boost or promote on social media channels, and how does that investment change the engagement graph? Keeping track (weekly) and tweaking regularly (monthly at minimum) helps to ensure that your strategy is fresh and the investment of time and money in your business is commensurate with the revenue it creates.

The two most hardworking parts of your digital strategy should be the spreadsheet you use to measure your KPIs and track your analytics, and your implementation calendar. Your spreadsheet must be simple, measurable and repeatable and make you want to use it. The key output of your digital strategy is an implementation plan or calendar for the year. Use this to map out key events in your business year, and what campaigns you are going to run, the budget, the target, and measurement of success. Break it down into what happens daily, weekly, monthly and seasonally, and who is responsible. Make it as detailed as it needs to be, revise it regularly and place it somewhere prominent in your office. In this way, you can ensure that your digital strategy is a living document and something that you refer to every day.