Why digital business planning needs to be a top priority for business leaders.
You’ve heard the phrase, “when you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail”. This is cognitive-bias based decision making. Not that it’s always a bad thing; we all need to put out the fire in front of us on a daily basis. Keep doing that when it makes sense. Hammer that nail.
But ask yourself, if ALL I’m doing is putting out fire after fire, hammering nail after nail, is something else at the core of the real problem at hand?
In a previous post, we wrote about the importance of continuous optimization, utilizing a “test and learn” approach to progressively improving performance across your digital channels. What you gain from taking a step back from this approach is a better understanding of the more foundational issues that may be the cause of those fires.
Understand your changing market opportunity.
Digital Business Planning
We’re all aware, as modern marketers and customer service providers, that digital isn’t a department or a rogue group of individuals within the IT group, but rather a collective business perspective representing the way the general market now expects to do business with us.
Digital strategy is the means to an end. The end is a business model that is far more adaptive to change, quicker to respond to market demands, and operationally more efficient when serving customers throughout the buyer journey.
We view our client engagements as an opportunity to provide a clear view of the near-term and longer-term opportunities that begin to evolve our clients' business with digital at its core.
But where do we start exactly? And what activities will provide the most value?
Following is a primer that outlines several of the digital business planning activities we most often work on with our client partners, and the value each has in moving the business toward true digital maturity.
Know before you go.
Auditing & Research
A current state audit (Heuristic, Behavioral, and Performance) is a critical first step that helps guide the following digital business planning efforts. Understanding where we are is always an important factor in determining where we need to go. Otherwise, we might be flying blind, and that’s not a great way to set up for success. And while most of our clients have a clear sense of where they stand, often the day-to-day operations can make it difficult to step back and view things with a fresh perspective, at that 10,000 ft level.
The value in taking the time, and dedicating the disciplined effort, in understanding what has historically worked and what’s not currently working will highlight the gaps where initial “quick win” opportunities are hiding, sometimes in plain sight. Addressing these smaller fixes will also offer a bit of executive-level breathing room and allow you to then focus on the heavier-lift digital planning activities that will inevitably have a greater impact on the organization.
Another way to think about it is this: your broader digital business strategy will help define a future state brand reputation and customer experience, but the roadmap to get there could take many quarters, or perhaps years. An audit should also bring visibility to the nearer-term opportunities that might require smaller, more incremental change, in order to drive a desired result.
For example, a complete audit of a brand’s ecommerce site might reveal the need for a full-scale content strategy that moves the brand towards the role of publisher - a fairly significant shift that might require new resources, a substantial design and build effort, and ongoing internal support. But that same audit could highlight basic user pain points, like a confusing step in the check-out process, that might require only a few days of effort to resolve, resulting in an immediate uptick in sales.
Audit to help guide a plan for the long-term, but don’t overlook the near-term opportunities that drive immediate results, even those small ones.
Know your customer.
But really, do we know our customers? It’s often the case that organizations at one time ‘did’ know their customer well, but times have changed, and many brands have struggled to keep pace. As their customers’ needs have evolved, the brand offering and how it engages has largely stayed the same, and that can be a tough situation to correct.
For our friends in the financial services industry, KYC is of course a little more specific, and regulations mean certain customer information is required in order to operate, but of course, that serves a completely different purpose: to help counteract money laundering and other nefarious crimes and not necessarily to improve customer engagement.
For the rest of us, knowing your customers isn’t a one and done endeavor. It’s a continuous process. And that’s where our work around behavioral-based personas comes into play. When segmenting customers into groups where the needs, pains, and gains (opportunities) are similar, you start to develop a clearer picture of how to serve them better over time. You avoid a simple one-size-fits-all approach to delivering services and experiences.
The value of this effort will allow you the opportunity to assess the priority of customers that have the most value to your business, and the effort required to improve how you do business with them.
For B2B brands, behavioral personas are especially critical, as we know from experience, many enterprise sales processes involve a buyer-side group of individuals from across the business at all levels. This multi-buyer scenario is unique in that it requires a brand to truly know the needs and expectations of each team member, delivering tailored content and an experience that aligns with the individual needs of each person. The ‘behavior’ in this case needs to be understood across the group, and a plan needs to be developed that addresses each person on a somewhat personalized basis. In this case, knowing your customer means knowing how they interact with each other as they collectively move through the purchase process together.
Every journey begins with a first step.
Customer Journey Mapping
While the ‘destination’ is usually a transaction, the ‘journey’ is the engagement that either makes or breaks it. It’s important to recognize that mapping out your customer’s journey takes a fair bit of effort, customer research, and stakeholder engagement. But this effort is necessary in bringing visibility in a few ways:
- Roadblocks - Where are customers getting stuck? Are they unable to find their way through the legacy network of bits and pieces that make up your brand’s digital ecosystem? Are you asking them to complete a task they just don’t have the information or ability to complete? Can we smooth out a process and eliminate customer frustrations, maybe leading to a reduced number of customer service requests, or even better, increased conversions?
- Gaps - Where in the journey are we setting unrealistic expectations for customers? Are we assuming they have what they need at a given stage in the sales funnel when in fact, there are gaps and disconnects that no one in the organization is really aware of, let alone tasked with fixing? How do we bridge these gaps and help customers get through processes with ease? Maybe it’s a confirmation email that doesn’t quite communicate next steps. Or a form that requires just far too much information at that particular stage of the process, stopping customers from moving forward. For most organizations with large, complex, and legacy digital ecosystems, these gaps surely exist. The challenge is to find them and mitigate them.
- Missed Connections - You know those old newspaper ads - where one stranger blindly hopes to connect with someone they passed on the street? It seems to us the likelihood of success of those ads is slim-to-none. Where in the customer journey have we overlooked an opportunity to build a connection with customers, something that would clearly improve the experience, simplify the process, or drive immediate gains? Are we overlooking a channel as potentially a better way to reach and communicate? Are we failing to collect customer data that could help us make other improvements down the line? Have we failed to leverage new technology – AI or Machine Learning for example – to provide a more personalized experience?
- Dead Zones - For enterprise clients, with a complex mesh of touchpoints, are we sure all of those legacy products, services, and experiences are even necessary? What could we eliminate to streamline things? Are we directing customers into a Dead Zone that no longer truly services their needs or that of the business? Can we consolidate these separate ‘steps’ into one cleaner user flow? The last thing we want to do is lead customers towards a dead end, creating unnecessary frustration, or worse, abandonment.
- The White Space - Tied to all of the above, this is where we look for opportunities to create truly innovative moments, interactions, and elevated service. For example, think of the Life Insurance startup focused on fixing the overall process - where a nurse comes to you, and a mobile app allow you to track every step of the enrollment process. Finding the White Space requires a broad view of the current state of the business (or industry) to understand where we as a brand can do things completely differently. It lets us throw out the paradigms and begin to define the “what if” version of how we should really be operating. Where can we do something completely new within our vertical? How do we create experiences that set a higher perception of the brand itself? What third-party services or emerging technologies can we leverage to do a better job of engaging customers? How do we create completely new touchpoints that simply work better? Consider that every day, advancements in technology allow brands to do things they simply couldn’t do only a few years ago. How do we leverage this without delay?
As a tool for business, Journey Mapping uncovers the full gamut of opportunities for a brand to evolve is digital strategy at large. The near-term quick wins can create improvements in as little as a few weeks. The medium-term changes might be more involved, addressing existing issues across a month or two. And the bigger ideas, those future-term opportunities give the organization a roadmap for what larger initiatives might need to make it into budget over the following quarter, year, or several years. It’s a means to get organized, prioritize initiatives, and develop a true digital roadmap that can be budged for, acted upon, and measured over time.
We typically develop the Journey around five stages: Entice, Enter, Engage, Exit, Extend. At each of these steps there are behavioral actions and emotional cues that impact how customers act and feel when they interact with your business. More on these steps in a future post.
There’s also often value in mapping out both the current state and the ideal or future state customer journey to determine how the business might need to evolve over time. This brings clarity to the overall effort and resources required to make those changes happen, and how to best manage the level of risk involved in each of those initiatives.
Make sure the left hand knows what the right is doing.
It’s increasingly common for “digital” to be owned in part by different groups across an enterprise organization, and this siloed approach can often lead to a mix of digital platforms and channels being leveraged separately across the organization. As each group has different motivations and objectives, experimenting with new technology in different ways, often this puts strain on the organization’s overall digital ecosystem, creating confusion with customers.
As “digital” is no longer only an IT concern, no longer only a Marketing concern, it can become confusing who owns what, and how certain decisions around new technology get made. To be sure, we believe digital needs to be a core concern across the organization, as different groups certainly have different needs that can be served by software, hardware, and design.
In stepping through an Experience Planning engagement with our clients, we look to bring together these diverse groups, to facilitate the workshops and conversations that help to uncover the ideas and expectations for digital that exist across the organization. This gets us to a broad digital engagement strategy that ensures each part of the business is heard, their needs are met, and that digital platforms and channels are utilized in ways that they best serve the needs of customers and the business at large.
For many organizations, there’s also a need for ongoing internal education, and an ability for teams building out digital experiences to better socialize what’s being done internally. Getting everyone on board for how AI might be enabling the business in one area can start to spark ideas for greater use of AI across the entire organization. When one group leads, the others benefit only when it's clear what’s being done, what’s working, what’s not.
Invention is the mother of necessity.
Concept Ideation & Prototype Validation
While this statement has certainly been true since the beginning of industrial times, the way in which we get to new and improved experiences has greatly changed. Long gone are the days of months of research and ideation followed by the big reveal. To keep up with the pace of innovation today, the level of progression from identifying an unmet need to arriving a validated solution needs to happen in mere weeks, not months, and certainly not years.
Increasingly, the Google-inspired Design Sprint approach to solutioning is being utilized as a highly efficient way to get from concept to consumer with new products and services. Our version of this approach (PDF) utilizes a cross-functional team to collaboratively work with our client partners in a workshop environment where we can run through a structured agenda of activities that define the key business problems to solve for, while identifying opportunities for innovation.
Solutioning however, needs to be done outside the vacuum of internal ideation workshops. This is where the value of prototyping and user testing plays a role. This validation approach ensures what we’ve developed resonates with end users in a real-world environment, allowing the collective agency/client team to manage innovation risks where the impact is more easily digested. This approach also greatly helps when teams need executive buy-in for larger endeavors that might require more investment, resources, and overall sponsorship.
Iterate, then repeat, again, and again.
Product & Platform Roadmapping
This is a modern sentiment that’s somewhat founded in nature, think of it as a new take on Darwin’s theory of evolution and survival of the fittest. In today’s fast paced business environment, quick to market is essential and perfection is not the primary goal. Instead, a test-and-learn approach helps us move toward a near perfect solution, one that gets to market quickly and uses real data to understand where we need to improve.
Web platform and software product release versioning are good examples of this roadmap “evolution” principle. But having a defined plan for this versioning is essential. The value of roadmapping platform or product features in advance, and adding to and evolving the roadmap over time, ensures that that the right level of budget and resource support is set against parameters such as consumer demand, development complexity, and overall value to the business. As IDEO puts it: is the solution feasible, viable, and desirable?
It’s clear that having a map is an important part of any journey, and the Roadmap is just that - a vision for the future that we can plan against.
What to look for in a digital consultancy partner.
While the digital business planning activities described in this post are mostly high-level, there is a fair bit of discipline and complexity that comes from performing them correctly. For most organizations, it can be difficult, if not impossible, to go it alone. If you’re beginning to explore how best to utilize some of the tools and methods above within your organization, following are a few considerations to bear in mind as you begin working with a digital consultancy like us:
- Invest accordingly - This is foundational business planning work; apply budgeting that matches its critical importance. If we’re truly helping to invent your future, what is that worth both in terms of funding an overall commitment?
- Involve the leaders - Include people within the organization that are true leaders in each of their respective disciplines and departments, as bravery is necessary to be successful.
- Be open to over sharing - Keep the information exchange transparent, like any good partnership, share what you know, express what you don’t know.
- Avoid the shortcuts - Now’s not the time to take the easy path, this type of work can be challenging. Stick with it and the rewards will be more significant.
- Trust the process - Avoid derailing the approach. Frameworks are there for a reason; they work. And when they work best, they’re supported.
If you’re heading down the path of defining your digital roadmap, looking for a clearer understanding of your customer, their journey, or simply where you should place your bets, consider letting us help guide the process. Interested to learn more about how we support our clients through Digital Business Planning? Reach out, we’d love to hear from you.