Negotiating the digital maze

All businesses, from small design groups to FTSE 100 companies, face the same challenge: how to manage the problems and opportunities presented by digital technologies. Managers need strategies to tackle this. They need to adapt their culture, reorganise and grab the opportunities.

The digital revolution is on a par with other scientific revolutions. Internet technologies have changed our world and continue to change it – look at Web 1.0, 2.0 and now 3.0; look at the frightening global power of Google. The Internet is the new world in which organisations are having to redefine themselves.

Managers tend to react in one of two ways to digital communications – they either retreat into their comfort zone (where every day is Groundhog Day) or they climb aboard. The groundhogs, often the 40-plus pre-Internet generation, are intimidated and marginalised by technobabble. The more adventurous managers see the technology as an enabler.

Of course, the impact of digital depends on the type of creative business – product design, packaging, graphic design or advertising.

Ask yourself what business you are in. If you were setting up shop again, what kind of business would you build? Some consultancies are design-led, some see design as a function of business need. It’s worth reviewing these fundamentals. Digital is there for clients to get closer to their customers. They expect designers to understand how digital can be harnessed for their benefit. If you’re set up as a ‘me-too’ creative shop, now’s the time to think, ‘how can digital help me differentiate more by helping clients through the digital maze?’

If you have a niche position, it’s advisable to reaffirm what that is and use digital to strengthen your position. Why not ask your clients where they want to go with digital? Don’t be afraid to have open discussions with them. If they aren’t groundhogs, they will welcome an open debate.

Ask yourself if you are thinking about the end user? Users interact and can be watched and tracked, so the onus is on groups to understand them.

For some clients their key audience may be suffering from e-mail and Web fatigue. Ironically, they may respond to printed material. This proves that general industry research is not particularly valuable – what you need is data on specific audience behaviour and fresh qualitative research.

Do you insource or outsource? Insourcing has advantages because it protects a design group’s position and brand. However, outsourcing offers significant advantages, access to creative and technical expertise and minimisation of fixed overheads. The solution probably lies in a judicious mix of full-time people and the use of selected partners to provide the best of both worlds.

Do you have to be a technologist? If you’re a design manager and/or a creative, you’re not going to become a digital technologist overnight. You don’t need to be one, so long as you have people around, in-house or as partners, who have worked in digital full time for years who you can trust.

Even then, don’t believe everything they say. When you ask two good Search Engine Optimistation specialists about optimising for Google you’ll get two different analyses. Given the vastness of the subject there are now pockets of deep, specialist expertise… no one person understands all there is to know about digital channels.

The hardest lesson is realising it’s not all about visual design. First, ‘digital’ is not just ‘doing websites’, it’s about the whole digital communications mix. This includes social media, broadcast e-mail, viral marketing, SEO, banner advertising and e-commerce. It’s more than creating sites, it’s about getting people to sites and tracking outcomes.

Second, visual design is a small, albeit important, part of digital communications projects. Even then, the visual element has to answer the needs of the audience, so it must cater to the lowest common denominator. If a key audience is represented by a businessman sitting in an airport in Angola with an ageing small laptop and a slow connection, there is little point in designing for a Safari user in London with a 22-inch colour monitor, broadband and two gig of RAM.

This makes it more important than ever for managers and creatives to grasp commercial dynamics. They need to understand clients’ businesses and how they should be using digital. This can provide the basis for sustainable growth.

Guy Lane is partner at The College

Embracing revolution
• Don’t be afraid of the technology
• Use specialist technical knowledge in each new field
• Strike a balance between insourcing and outsourcing
• Tailor visual design to your client’s technical capabilities

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