Why and How to Adopt a Digital First or Digital by Default Approach

Paul Boag

The terms digital first and digital by default float around the boardrooms of a growing number of organisations like a bad smell. But what do they mean and are they an approach worth adopting?

If you have come across either the term “digital by default” or “digital first” you would be forgiven for being confused. Buzzwords like these can be a useful shorthand for those who know what they mean. Unfortunately, all too often people do not, or at the very least, do not share the same definition. The result is that they can often do more harm than good.

In this post, I attempt to clear up some of the confusion I have observed with these two terms. I then go on to ask whether the idea behind the buzzwords has any real value and if so, what we should be doing about it.

With that in mind, let’s dive in by defining digital first and digital by default.

What Is Digital First and Digital by Default?

The first thing to say is that both digital first and digital by default fundamentally mean the same thing. As I see it, we can define these terms in the following way:

Digital first and digital by default refer to a shift in organisational culture away from favouring traditional channels to prioritising digital ones.

It is important to note that digital first and digital by default do not suggest replacing traditional channels with digital ones. Instead, they are seeking to redress a bias towards conventional channels and behaviour.

People are bad at adopting new working practices. Once we find an approach that works, we tend to stick with it, even if circumstances change. That is understandable because it would be inefficient to second guess every decision we ever make.

However, following the same old approaches only makes sense as long as circumstances remain the same, and since the arrival of digital that is not the case. The world is changing, and our working practices need to adapt. That is the philosophy behind digital first and digital by default.

The question then becomes, “does your organisation need to be adopting the digital first mindset?”

Should You Be Considering a Digital First Approach?

There are often telltale signs that those within an organisation have not truly embraced a digital by default mindset and that more active steps need to be taken to encourage it.

Company branding is often an excellent place to look. Most companies create their branding style guides from a print mindset, despite digital being the primary communication channel for most organisations. Sure, there will be a passing reference to digital. But often colour choices, typography and layout guidelines are unmistakably created primarily with print in mind.

Brand guidelines are rarely digital by default
If your brand guidelines focus more on print than digital it could be an indication that you need to adopt a digital first approach.

Thanks to Ryan Hammond for the above brand guidelines.

The creation of brand identity is a classic example of where a digital first mindset would help. By designing for digital by default and then retrofitting for print (rather than the other way around), we much better represent the reality of the modern world.

Then there is content creation. All too often content is created for offline sources first and later adapted for the digital world if it is adapted at all!

Take for example universities. Most prospective students access course information via the website, yet in many cases, universities create course information for a printed prospectus before handing it off to the digital team.

Not only does this mean the University has not optimised the content for its primary delivery channel, but it has also failed to make use of the benefits of digital. For example, digital would allow us to run multi-variant testing to optimise our copy before publishing it in print.

Copy should be created digital first
Being able to test copy with digital before rolling it out to print channels makes a lot of sense.

Thanks to Macrovector from Shutterstock for allowing me to use this image.

But this isn’t just about optimising our deliverables for digital. It is also about changing our mindset.

Spotting Issues in Company Mindset

Take for example a press release. For years this was the backbone of getting the word out about a company announcement. But then the world changed, and we saw the decline of traditional press and the rise of the blog.

It didn’t take marketers long to realise they must have a blog, and they also needed to reach out to bloggers. To an extent, they adapted to the new digital reality, but in other ways, they did not.

Instead of creating custom content aimed at the blogger community and suitable for their blog, they merely started pushing the same old press release to these new channels. I receive dozens of press releases every week, despite not being a member of the press!

If you send me a press release, this is the reply you will get.

This inability to fully transition to a new mindset has historical precedent. When electricity first appeared, factory owners were quick to replace their waterwheels and steam engines with generators. Yet, a decade later they were still building those factories by the water despite not needing it for power. They had not embraced the full ramification of the changes, and that is what digital by default thinking tries to encourage.

I worked with the Samaritans a while back. If you live in the UK, you will no doubt be aware of them. For decades this fantastic charity has provided a telephone hotline for people who are feeling suicidal.

Today we communicate through many more channels than telephone, and the Samaritans have adapted accordingly introducing text and email. However, they have struggled to be as effective in these areas as they are on the phone and have failed to embrace instant messaging or voice over IP services.

That is not from a lack of desire, or recognition of the need. It is just not a part of the Samaritan’s culture and heritage. For a start, they still refer to people who contact them as “callers” no matter what channel they use. The mindset is still orientated around the telephone despite their best efforts.

If you find yourself in this kind of circumstance, then a digital by default approach may well be appropriate. But how do you implement digital first thinking? What does that even mean?

How to Implement a Digital by Default Approach the Right Way

Senior management announcing one day that your company needs to be digital first will not get the job done. In fact, it is likely just to cause chaos, because nobody will have a clue of what digital by default will mean for their role.

People cannot see how their working practices are out of date otherwise they would have changed them already. People do not intentionally work inefficiently! That means they are going to need help working out how digital should be changing their role.

Unfortunately, this help cannot come from senior management. Not only does the executive not fully understand the ramifications of digital themselves, but they also don’t understand enough about their employee’s jobs to be able to help them adapt.

Management are not in a position to advise employees how to be digital first.

Instead, companies need to be educating employees about the potential of digital and working with them to establish the ramifications of all of this on their roles. In essence, companies should be equipping staff to identify changes they need to make themselves.

At its heart, this is about implementing an internal communication campaign and providing professional development training. But this is a lot more than an email announcement and an afternoon workshop on “introducing digital”.

That kind of approach would be inadequate if all we had to do is teach people about digital. But we have another challenge too. We have to help people overcome their fear of digital.

Helping Staff Overcome Their Fear of Digital

When I work with companies to implement digital transformation programs one of the biggest barriers to overcome is fear. People know that digital will bring change and people fear change because they don’t know what it will mean for them or their role. At the very least it will require them to work differently and changing is hard work. At worst it could make their job redundant.

All of this means that before you can start helping people change and adopt digital first thinking, you need to convince them that this is a good thing.

Typically I do this through an internal comms campaign. I will use a variety of tools to get people onboard from regular newsletters and blogs to lunchtime presentations and away days. But underlying all of these techniques lies a single message. I focus on how being digital first can help make people’s jobs easier.

But there is another critical factor too. I also ensure that the communication campaign is not one way. By involving employees in the process, you empower them. You put them in control of what changes happen, and that alleviates the fear. It also encourages buy-in because they feel ownership.

Once you have them on your side, the next step is to start giving them the knowledge and tools to integrate digital into their workflow. That involves a lot of education through workshops, video learning, service manuals and more. But it also consists in giving them the freedom to challenge the status quo and do things differently.

Depending on the company, that might mean changing the way management assess staff or permitting them to make mistakes.

Every company is different because every company has a different culture and ways of working. It is easy to throw around phrases like digital by default or digital first, but making them a reality in a company takes commitment, investment, and sensitivity towards employees.