Digital Is the Answer. Now What’s the Question?

Digital Is the Answer. Now What’s the Question?

In early 2007, I wrote a piece for Mediapost about the need for brand marketers to become video content makers. It began, There’s an old advertising joke that goes like this: “The answer is a 30-second spot. Now, what’s the question?”

Today, you could make a similar joke, simply replacing the word ‘digital’ for the phrase ’30-second spot,’ and have a pretty fair indictment of the many marketers who presume that digital is the solution to the questions that haven’t yet been considered.

This might seem like an odd statement coming from someone who makes his living as a digital strategist — but I’ve always seen digital as a (emphasis on ‘a’, as opposed to ‘the’) means to an end; not the end itself. Digital is a lens through which you view business and marketing strategy, and not a silo strategy in and of itself. So while it can certainly be said that anything that can be digital, will be digital, it doesn’t necessarily follow that everythingwill be digital. (There’s a difference between anything and everything, of course…) So digital may not be categorically good for whatever ails you. But let’s assume for the moment that digital is, in fact, an answer — if not the answer — to a challenge your business is facing right now.

 If the Answer is Digital, What’s the Question?

Actually, in my mind, there are two key questions every digital decision must answer. (This is different, of course, from the 10 — or more — questions leaders must ask about whether their digital decisions are panning out for their organization.)

  • How will digital allow us to create more value for our customers? The idea that digital is, at its core, a pathway to customer-centricity is hardly new — and that’s what this one is all about. In what ways does digital allow you to serve your customers better than you could before? And would your customers agree that you’ve created value for them?
  • How will digital allow us to capture more value for our company? This one is all about benefit to the business. Does digital create opportunity, increase efficiency, stave off a threat? If at the end of it all we’ve created something customers love for the way it brings value to their lives, will our shareholders love it too for the way it brings profit to the P&L?
Not Or. And… 

But here’s one more critical point. It’s not enough to ask ‘how do we create more value?’ or‘how do we capture more value?’ Every digital strategy must do both. Allow me to repeat that: Every digital strategy must. do. both. If the choices you make in digital don’t create value for your customer, it’s not worth their attention. If they don’t capture value for your company, it’s not worth your investment. Period. End of story. (OK, not really, I still have plenty more to say…)

One or the other won’t cut it. One and the other will. Marketers’ failure to grasp this fundamental balance weighed heavily on my mind when I was kicking around the early social media marketing space at crayon, and continues to haunt the social sub-sector-of-a-subspecialty-of-business even today (insert tired quip about the ROI of putting on your pants in the morning). I can hardly count the number of times ‘the consumer is in control’has been trotted out as justification for all sorts of ill-advised and ultimately ineffective things that might seem great for the customer but have no discernible effect on the company. (Although if we’re being honest, so many things marketers think create value for customers fail at that goal as well. Hello, content marketing — for dandruff shampoo — I’m looking at you.)

Digital ‘traditionalists’ ( you know, the digital ad guys) suffer from an opposite affliction. Despite roots that run deeper than its younger social and mobile siblings, straight-up digital advertising is actually a space ripe with innovation. But… Programmatic buying? Native ad units? Segmentation, profiling and behavioral targeting? Retargeting? Fantastic for operational efficiency and better for budgets (great for the company) but we’re kidding ourselves if we think we’re creating value for the customer. More relevant offers, better personalization, predictive targeting, you say? Who exactly wants that? (Nobody… Asked and answered.)

Digital Isn’t the Answer. It’s the Question.

Which brings me back to digital as the solution to problems that have yet to be posed. And an idea that maybe digital isn’t the answer at all — but is instead the truly core question. Create value for our customers. Capture value for our company. These are the real answers. Now, the question is: What role can digital play in helping you achieve these goals?


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