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5 craft skills of the digital strategist part 5: assimilation

This is the 5th and probably final part of my series on craft skills of the digital strategist.  I say probably because I will no doubt think of some others which I might squeeze into an also-rans article at a later date.

Anyway, here it is.  And it’s a biggie.  And it’s perhaps the most under-rated skill of all.

5. Assimilation

When was the last time you ever heard of ‘assimilation’ as being a skill?  Well, someone once said to me that it was the most important thing a planner should be able to do.  At the time I said, ‘Oh yes, I can do that,’ and then I had to look it up in a dictionary.

Definition of assimilate in English:

VERB

Take in and understand fully (information or ideas): Marie tried to assimilate the week’s events

1.1 Absorb and integrate (people, ideas, or culture) into a wider society or culturepop trends are assimilated into the mainstream with alarming speed

(Of the body or any biological system) absorb and digest (food or nutrients):the sugars in the fruit are readily assimilated by the body

Regard as similar; liken:philosophers had assimilated thought to perception

3.1 Become similarthe Churches assimilated to a certain cultural norm

As I understand it, I think that for strategists, assimilation means a few things:

  1. Being able to use the available knowledge about a subject, decide what is relevant, and really understand it – and by being the expert on something make sure that everyone else on the team understands the important information too – e.g. the significant bits of the context, the direction, the vision, the challenges, and so on.  Get everyone on the same page, in a smart way.
  2. By being the expert as described above, to be able to truthfully and wholeheartedly put yourself in the shoes of the target audience, the client or even the brand.  Like method acting, it’s method planning.  Be your customer and ask, ‘why do I care about this?’  Be your brand and say, ‘Does this suit me?’
  3. Thirdly, assimilation is about making connections between all the bits of information, knowledge and insight – the more interesting connections you can make, the better chance you have of coming up with something that will be interesting to your creative teams, to your client, and most importantly, to your target audience.

This skill is not really something that can be taught.  It is something that comes with practice if you know what to practice, and it’s likely to be a thing some people have a head start on because that’s the way their imagination and understanding works.  It’s probably therefore the hardest skill for some strategists to learn, and for some strategists, it’s probably something they do without even knowing it is a skill.

I’d agree though, with the original point that person made to me quite a long time ago, that being good at assimilation is perhaps the most important thing that identifies a great strategist/planner.

Do let me know your thoughts on assimilation.  Do you think it’s a skill?

And please do also give me any feedback you have about the 5 skills I’ve talked about this week.  Can you think of any more?

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5 craft skills of the digital strategist part 3: wireframing and sitemapping

So yesterday I said I’d treat you by talking about how I do some things that designers do – but I do them badly.  Why would we do anything badly?  Well, read on if you’re interested.

3. Wireframing and sitemapping

Some digital agencies have UX and IA people who just do wireframing and sitemapping, and sometimes this is the job of the designers in an agency.  However, strategists should understand this stuff and be able to do it (even badly) in order to a) visually explain what they think should happen (since designers tend to be quite visual) and b) because it helps us to understand how designers think and c) therefore brief them better because we’re on the way to proving the theory is correct by beginning to put it into practice.example wireframe

If you understand how designers think, you can communicate with them better.  That means they get a better brief.  And you’re more likely to see a product you know will match your users’ (and the client’s) requirements.

At Equator, our strategy team uses Balsamiq Mockups for wireframes.

The thing is, you’re looking at the mockup on the right, and, you’re thinking, that’s crap, and you’d be right.

Wireframes aren’t meant to be nice.  They should look crap, and that’s kind of the point.

Then the client knows it’s just a sketch, which means you can discuss the principles of the user experience and the layout and the exciting ideas you have rather than whether the design fits the brand guidelines, and your designer can laugh at your incompetence and do a much better job than you ever could when it comes around to designing the thing.

We also use xmind in our team for sitemapping.  It is a most infuriating user experience.  If you know of a better sitemaps software that doesn’t cost too much, let me know.

Anyway, tomorrow, we’re going to talk about something completely different.  Presenting.  Presenting is a really important and surprisingly underrated skill.  It’s something that strategists are expected to be born able to do, and, since we’re largely introverts, who like thinking a lot and not talking to large groups of people, it’s not something that always comes that naturally to us.

 

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5 craft skills of the digital strategist part 2: Qualitative analysis

So yesterday, we heard about why getting to grips with data is vital for digital strategists.

Today, it’s all about getting away from your computer and talking to real live people in real life:

2. Qualitative analysis

Probably the most important thing digital strategists need to do is ask ‘why would the consumer care about this?’ and yet all too often we don’t spend as much time with our target audiences as we should.

Ad agencies do, as their clients pay for them to hold focus groups, both to look for insights and to test their creative work.  Digital agencies tend to be seen as further down the food chain (although not always) and are supposed to just make things without questioning them too much – but we should be doing the same as our advertising counterparts and starting from first principles: what is the insight? What is going to work for the people who are actually going to use this?

Qual research is an art form and it doesn’t just mean focus groups, although moderation of groups is possibly the hardest and most pointless or useful qualitative thing you can do (depending on your point of view.)  I’ll probably write more about moderating at some point.  I kind of love and hate doing it all at the same time.

The good thing about groups is you can see what ‘real people’ say to each other about something – in a good group you can see real conversations about the topic unfolding in front of you.

The bad thing about groups is all the things people say are bad about focus groups – there’s always one opinionated person who biases the outcome, they bully everyone else into agreeing with them, people are on their guard and don’t say what they really feel, and so on.  You don’t get the truth in a group blah blah blah.  I don’t think groups are right for all digital projects, but they can be right for some things, for example, getting to understand the basics of what people think about brands, and to test different routes and territories.

Maybe you get better results from an online panel but so far I’m yet to be convinced.  No one seems to turn up for those, and they take forever.  You don’t get the immediate response you get in a real room.

I agree that interviews and user testing are more useful than groups for certain things, e.g. understanding how people use websites and for gathering detail.  But focus groups are useful and they should never be discounted altogether.

A skilled moderator will navigate the dynamic of the group pretty quickly, and stay on top of things.  They’ll tease the insightful stuff out of the quiet people and make sure the opinionated people feel heard but don’t dominate the chat.  A skilled moderator goes in and stays open to what people are saying all the way through.  Above all, you need to be a good listener and be aware that sometimes the subtext is more interesting than what people actually are actually saying.   Those are the skills digital strategists should have.

Maybe the strategists who are skeptical about groups just haven’t had decent research training.

Tomorrow, let’s have a change of scene and talk about why it’s important for digital strategists to think like web designers and have some of the skills – but be quite bad at them.

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5 craft skills of the digital strategist part 1: Quantitative analysis

The role of the ‘digital strategist’ is a hard one to define, because it takes many forms, depending on type of agency, client, location, and a number of other variables I can’t think of right now.

Anyway, that’s already been written about quite a lot* and basically what being a digital strategist is, is what being any other kind of strategist should be, i.e. someone who understands their clients’ objectives and target audience needs and knows how to make the two meet somewhere usefully and beautifully in the middle…

I’m not talking about the kind of person you have to be, to be a digital strategist either.  That has also been done.

Instead, I decided to write about the types of skills that come in useful when you are being a strategist in this so-called digital age.  I came up with so much stuff and it ended up being so long, I’ve split it into 5 parts, which I’ll run all this week.  I’ve probably not nearly covered all the skills, there’s such a variety of people who are ‘strategists’, but these are the skills valued by the strategy team at Equator.

So here’s part 1, which is all about

1. Quantitative analysis

Back in the day, as a junior planner in an ad agency, I got all trained up in using TGI and running data to understand and segment my target audiences and look for interesting correlations and so on.  Do they still do this in creative agencies?  I know media agencies still do. (I’ve not done a TGI run for about 6 years since I gatecrashed Mediacom on behalf of a mutual client.)  I hope they do.  Hopefully the questions are keeping up with technology a bit faster than they used to.

No matter, the point is more that digging around in data is really important.  Not only do you find things that are interesting about the people you want to engage with, you also learn to ask lots of different questions in order to find the best route in to your strategy.  You also obviously have facts and not just hunches to inspire, or back up your strategies.

For digital agencies, there’s not that much point in signing up to TGI, but there’s plenty of other useful data sources out there.  The obvious ones are Google Analytics and Comscore, and then there’s nice bespoke ones agencies like People Pulse that MRY/Digitas LBi have (very jealous of that).  YouGov profiler is a nice free one if you’re just looking for a view on who your ‘average customer’ is.

I was once told in an appraisal, a long time ago, that my love for digging around in data was killing my creativity…  So a bit part of this skill is always staying on top of the detail and not getting too hung up on the numbers either.  Like I say, they can lead to the insight that leads to the route, but sometimes you’re better going into the data once you have a hunch and trying to prove that instead.

So there you are.

And hey, I haven’t mentioned ‘big data’ once.

Tomorrow,I’ll talk about qualitative analysis.  You know, focus groups and that kind of thing.

 

*The role of the digital strategist has been the subject of debate across a great many other blogs for quite some time now, and if you’re interested, here are some articles you could read:

Why the role of the digital strategist needs to evolve // Jinal Shah (Pretty comprehensive overview of the role, with very interesting comment discussion on the role too.)

The no-bullshit strategist // Matt Daniels (A thought provoking response to Shah’s analysis.)

Why the world doesn’t need another digital strategist // Mark Pollard (Pollard says, we actually do need digital strategists, just not the way you think we do.)

 

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