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A gentle ‘Watch out’ when it comes to using the term digital first...

Updated: Mar 31, 2021

Wherever you turn right now, everyone is spouting the words ‘digital first’. And everyone gets very excited about it. I have too. And it’s fair to say there are very few organisations and business that don’t need or have digital activity within their marketing mix. But what does it actually mean? I must admit it is terminology that doesn’t sit well with me and hasn’t for a while, and here’s why.

The world right now is digitally focused; digitally led; digitally consumed; digital is all around us. It’s a given. But when organisations start to consider what their digital activity needs to look and feel like, there is often a risk that they jump straight into all manner of digital enhancements and tactics before they have carried out some critical steps.

It’s true that we all operate in a more digitally led landscape both personally and professionally than ever before and the pandemic has taken this to a whole new level (who knew Teams meetings would become such a big deal in 2020 for example!). But digital is just a set of channels (there I’ve said it!) just as print and broadcast are.

In marketing our role is to think about the ends first rather than the means – look at the job first and then select the best tool and channels from there. Look at audience segmentation, targeting, positioning and objectives – take the time to properly define your strategy first and discard all of your tools, tactics and channel ideas for the time being. Once that strategic work is completed, the tools and channels should be a no brainer – they should scream out to you.

Research often shows that consumers are often spread across a range of channels and touchpoints both on and offline in which case, marketing tactics should be tailored accordingly. The process of identifying the right tactics to reach audiences should start with media neutrality. In my opinion, there are far too many organisations today that are missing out the diagnosis phase of their marketing strategy and jumping straight into ‘digital first’ tactics without the right foundations and research having been carried out.

I had the pleasure recently of completing the Mini MBA in Marketing delivered by the highly esteemed Marketing guru, Mark Ritson, and he addressed this very point and it made me very happy indeed that he did so. His sentiment was a follows;

· Strategy before tactics

· Media neutrality is key

· Don’t pre-allocate channel budgets until targeting, positioning and objectives have been assessed

Organisations that I and my fellow Directors have worked with have continued to over use the ‘digital first’ phrase as some kind of amazing ‘power tool’ - a silver bullet that will change the world and solve everything. If digital channels are used effectively and are based on sound research, then they certainly can be totally transformational. But, throwing those words into the mix without substance and ahead of proper strategic planning can leave marketing teams on very shaky ground.

So, my take home from this blog for anyone tempted to use the current buzz words of ‘digital first’ to impress your clients or managers is to bite your lip until you’ve done the all-important strategic groundwork. When you’ve done that and if digital tactics support the delivery of your strategy then go for your life and spout ‘digital-first’ to your hearts content to your teams and peers as many times as you want. But, if your ‘diagnosis’ work throws up the need for a more diverse spread of tactics to achieve your objectives cutting across a range of channels, then you’ll be glad that you waited so that you can robustly explain and justify the tactics and channel mixes you’re proposing because they will be based on the correct foundations. This approach also means you’re far more likely to deliver against your KPI’s if you choose the right channels and tactics in the first place. Win-win. 😊

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