Tag Archives: digital strategy

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:


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 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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Transferable skills I have gained whilst on maternity leave

Some of you might know (I might have mentioned it once or twice) that I had a baby in August. She’s lovely. I’m not going to blog about her because I’d bore you to tears. Suffice to say, this is one proud mummy.

No, today’s blog is about all the wonderful things I’ve learned looking after a baby, being a SAHM (stay at home mom), that I will take back to work with me in a couple of months.

I know, it’s amazing. Just when I thought my brain had passed the mushy point of no return thanks to baby talk and operating on 3 hours of broken sleep, there I was, actually thinking, this has been useful for me as a professional person. And as a strategist.

So here are a few skills and bits of knowledge I will take back to Equator with me…

Marketing to mothers

In the hospital I signed up for Bounty. I’ve wished I hadn’t ever since. I’ve been bombarded from day one with a blanket of offers I’m just not interested in. A half price Bumbo?

Some of these emails are irritating as they are about products I am not interested in – and some of them are just useless.

They try to be helpful, and are based around the age of your baby, or at least they are supposed to be. But they can have a negative rather than helpful impact.

For example, a friend of mine was most upset when an email to her from Boots parents club said ‘Now that your four month old is sleeping through the night…’ Her baby was still waking every two hours and she was tired of being told what her baby ‘should’ be doing rather than what was happening to her was perfectly normal and healthy.

I guess what I’m trying to say (I need to get back into the practice of writing) is that most marketing to mothers feels impersonal and opportunistic. It doesn’t feel like its aimed at me, more some 28 year old childless marketer’s idea of what is be interested in.

It feels like because we are a captive audience we can be treated like one.

I’m perfectly capable of googling the best Bumbo deal or finding out what my six month old developmental milestones should be. I don’t need a brand to do that for me and clog my inbox up with it.

I would like to be informed when there are sales on for things I’m genuinely interested in. Boden do this very well, by email and in social media. Their offers are genuine. They don’t send you stuff that you wouldn’t consider. They know you better. Of course, it does help that they’re a brand I want to hear from.

So brands who target parents, my advice to you is try to get to know your audience better. Work to tailor your communications to them, and do it early in your relationship with them. And use technology better. Stop sending emails they don’t open, like Fab.

The role and importance of community

When you’re awake at 3am feeding your baby you can feel like the only person in the world. It can be a lonely time – the loneliest you’ve ever been. But if you’ve got a mobile phone then suddenly you’re not alone because you can instantly connect with other people who are in exactly the same position as you.

There are spaces for communities – independent forums, forums created by brands, blogs, and communities on Facebook and even Twitter.

The learning here is that you can be very specific online about what people are doing and what situation they are in. The fact that much of it is done via mobile is also interesting. I do wonder what mothers used to do before smartphones. I guess the telly was better back then.

Anyway, I’ll be putting myself in my 3 am feeding shoes when I am thinking about users and what they’re really doing, what they really want, when they try to connect with others online.

Always in beta

When you’re looking after a baby – and a house – it’s always a work in progress. You’re always seeing something that could improve or be improved, and you’re always anticipating the next big development.

When we work on the web it’s the same. We should point out the imperfections of the current project. We should plan for lots of phases, even if the later phases are just sketched out. Then our clients can start to anticipate what’s likely to come and plan for it in a way that’s easier for them to manage.


My ability to do more than one thing has improved. Admittedly, my ability to forget what I am doing in a particular room has also improved.

So… Those are some things I’ve learned. And this is the first thing I’ve written in over 6 months. And it’s the first thing I’ve ever written with just my left thumb. I’m calling it progress, but there’s plenty of room for improvement.


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Are propositions still important for digital strategy?

Preparing a training session on creative briefs, I came across this ancient piece of wisdom from 1993.  It’s a document about propositions.  Propositions are the single most important thing you want to say in a communications activity, and also known as the thing that will be carried into the ad (because we were always told that it was the only thing the creative would bother looking at.)

When I was learning to be a planner propositions were absolutely the most important thing we had to be good at.  Propositions are the distillation of the strategy, and should be based on an amazing insight.  (Insights are also apparently out of fashion these days.  That’s a topic for another blog post.)  When I was learning to be a planner a good proposition was a sexy, beautiful thing.  They’re really hard to do well.

Because a lot of digital stuff needs to say more than one thing (and perhaps because propositions are hard to write well) the proposition has dropped off the radar a bit.  Creative briefs have become less tied to insights and propositions and are often about the medium, and the creative discussion is more about the potential for technology.

This is good in some ways because it’s freed up the creative process, made it more fluid and collaborative and exciting.  The strategy is all about the objective, what we want from the activity, rather than the steps taken to get there.

It’s not so good because I feel like we’re moving away from thinking really hard about who we’re designing and creating for.  We need to think about what motivates our consumers, ensure we’re not creating for technology and creativity’s sake. Insights do bring us closer to our consumers’ needs, wants and goals, and help us to connect them to our clients.

It might be that the nature of insights and propositions have to change for the digital age, but I think we can learn from the past in terms of ensuring we keep thinking hard about what we are doing and why, be lateral and creative with insights, and work with our creatives to produce briefs that motivate them.

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