Why and How You Should Create a Digital Playbook

Paul Boag

A digital playbook is a valuable tool in bringing order to your digital chaos and educating stakeholders about digital best practice.

Have you come across the term “digital playbook”? I smile every time I read it. It is such a vain attempt to make web governance sound fun!

But just because policies and procedures aren’t as appealing as the oh-so-sexy world of CSS Grids or user experience design, doesn’t mean we can ignore it.

In this article, I want to explore what a digital playbook is, why it matters and how it really doesn’t need to be as dull as the term web governance implies.

Most of all, I want to try to persuade you that creating a digital playbook is worth the effort. But before that, let’s define what I mean by a digital playbook.

A digital playbook is similar to its sports counterpart. It is a series of strategies and techniques to ensure an organisation is successful in the digital field.

Thanks to Ivelin Radkov from Shutterstock for allowing me to use this image.

What is a Digital Playbook?

The term playbook comes initially from sports and refers to a collection of strategies a team would employ to help them win.

In our context, it refers to a series of strategies and approaches an organisation adopts in its digital delivery to help them succeed online.

There is no one right way of producing a digital playbook because it needs to adapt to an organisations culture. But if you are looking for examples to refer to, you cannot do better than looking at the UK Government’s Digital Service Manual.

The UK Government Digital Service Manual is an excellent example of a digital playbook.

Although “digital service manual” doesn’t sound as appealing as a digital playbook, it is an excellent collection of best practice and organisational strategies.

However, the one thing that will strike you when looking at the UK Government’s service manual is how comprehensive it is and how much work must have been involved in its creation.

In truth, your first pass at a digital playbook doesn’t need to be anywhere near as comprehensive, as I explain below. Nevertheless, let me try and persuade you that it is worth the effort.

Why Have a Digital Playbook?

Why is your organisation failing to reach its potential in the digital field? Is it because you are incompetent at your job, or are these scenarios familiar?

  • Clients or stakeholders don’t understand the fundamentals of how digital works.
  • You have painful confrontations about the best approach to a project.
  • You face conflicting organisational priorities.
  • You are always jumping from one ‘urgent’ project to the next.
  • You have the same arguments again and again.
  • You find yourself endlessly explaining the same things to clients and stakeholders.
  • Your team and digital lack a clear focus and direction.
  • Clients and colleagues expect your team to conform to their way of working.

If so, then you really could do with a digital playbook. It can be a transformational tool in many ways. In fact, the above list could have been considerably longer.

For a start, a well produced digital playbook can be educational. It can help clients and colleagues understand how digital works and why it is different. It can teach them about how digital projects are run and what best practice looks like.

But even more importantly a digital playbook standardises and formalises the way you work as digital professionals. That transforms how others see you. Instead of seeing you as a bunch of ‘techies’ who build their ideas, you become a legitimate team of professionals in your own right.

That allows you to take control of digital. Because you are the ones writing the rules, you define the direction.

Strangely, a digital playbook also defuses a lot of potential confrontations. It is a lot easier to point a colleague at a policy that says they cannot have what they want than to just say no.

That is because people understand that policies are applied equally to all, and so it feels less like you are saying no to them personally.

You will be amazed at how the attitudes of others change when you have a digital playbook. We have a tendency to naturally fall into line with things we see as rules, even if those rules are not formalised.

Actually, now I think about it, that might be a British thing. But the principle still stands!

Anyway, hopefully, you can now see the value in creating a digital playbook. The next question then becomes; what should go into one?

What Should a Digital Playbook Contain?

What a digital playbook contains is entirely up to you, and dependant on the challenges you are facing. For example, if you find yourself regularly under pressure to add even more elements to your homepage, it might be necessary to have a policy around that. Alternatively, if your stakeholders try and skip usability testing some educational material about its value may prove useful.

Don’t be afraid to start with something simple. It can begin simply enough, and then expand over time. If you think you need to create a comprehensive guide to all things digital, you will never start.

The US Government’s Digital Playbook is much simpler than its UK counterpart, consisting of a single page.

That said, me merely saying it can include whatever you want isn’t very helpful! So below I have made a few recommendations of sections you might want to add.

When you start out, those sections will probably only consist of a single page, but over time they should become increasingly detailed.

If a section doesn’t seem appropriate, drop it. If something you want to include doesn’t fit, create a new section. It's all very flexible.

Okay, let’s jump in.

The Role of Digital

I often find that many undervalue their digital team, or are even dismissive about the role digital plays in organisational success. That is why I recommend at least a single page outlining the value of both your team and digital itself.

But more importantly, this page can also be used to shape colleagues expectations and perceptions of your team. It is an opportunity to move their view of you as implementors to being seen as digital leaders.

It can also be used to set some parameters about how the organisation uses digital. If you find that colleagues are using digital in ways that are detrimental, then this is the place to set some limitations.

Guiding Principles

Just as important as the role of digital is how the organisation chooses to approach digital projects. Often known as design principles, your guiding principles are your opportunity to enshrine digital best practice in organisational thinking.

Principles.design is a great repository of design principles that you can use for inspiration.

Guiding principles are often a list of ten or so best practices that act as a framework for decision making. So for example, a principle might be “we make decisions with data”. In other words, the company carries out testing to make decisions rather than relying on opinion.

Guiding principles are a useful tool for gently course correcting stakeholders during a project and reminding them of what best practice looks like. Also, because they are short, snappy statements, they are easy to remember or even turn into posters or other internal comms collateral.

Planning a Digital Project

How often have you been approached by colleagues or clients who are ill-prepared for whatever digital project they want to undertake? They either have only a vague idea of what they want to achieve or have planned the entire thing in excruciating (and often entirely inappropriate) detail.

The solution to this problem is a section in your digital playbook dedicated to how a digital project should be planned. This section is primarily educational in its content but can also be used to stipulate some specific approaches. For example, maybe you prefer a set of user story cards rather than a brief.

Whatever the case, being able to point stakeholders at specific pre-prepared advice kicks off projects on the right foot by establishing your leadership and professionalism, while also setting expectations.

How We Prioritise Digital Projects

Another common point of conflict with colleagues is the prioritisation of projects. Often colleagues come to a digital team with urgent jobs because they have failed to plan ahead or they expect the team to fit in with their schedule.

Most digital teams have more work than they can handle and so decisions have to be made about prioritisation. However, nobody wants to hear their project is the one to be shelved or delayed. It leaves people feeling like they have been singled out.

To avoid these problems, it is worth having a transparent and well-documented policy for the prioritisation of work in your digital playbook.

By referring people to this kind of policy, you make it clear that you are not being difficult or singling them out but instead just fairly applying the same approach to all.

A policy for project prioritisation like my digital triage technique will help manage client expectations.

What policy you use is up to you. However, you might want to check out my article on digital triage.

How Digital Projects Should be Run

Earlier I suggested you include a section helping colleagues plan out their project. Well, it is equally important to explain to stakeholders how you propose running their project once it is initiated.

Doing so achieves four things:

  • It educates your colleagues about best practice.
  • It reassures them that you have a tried and tested approach.
  • It establishes your team's credibility.
  • It puts you in control of the process.

In your first iteration of the digital playbook, this doesn’t need extensive detail. It can just outline the necessary steps a project passes through. However, over time you can unpack some of those steps in more detail to include methodologies around testing or prototyping for example.

Ongoing Management of Digital Content

You and I understand that a digital project doesn’t end when it is made live. Websites need to be maintained and evolved over their entire lifetime. Yet this is a foreign concept to many of our colleagues who are used to the print mindset.

That is why it is good to spell out these long-term management issues in your digital playbook, and in particular, the obligations stakeholders have in this regards.

For example, you might want to introduce a policy around content management and in particular its retirement. Stipulate how often you expect content owners to update their content and under what circumstances content will be removed.

Content legacy is one of the most significant challenges faced by digital teams, so your playbook is the ideal opportunity for tackling it.

Your playbook should address the issue of site maintenance and content legacy.

People Needed to Deliver

Although not essential, a digital playbook is also an excellent opportunity to educate colleagues about the different roles involved in digital delivery.

In my experience, many underestimate the complexity involved in digital projects and the level of collaboration involved in making a project happen successfully. They also underestimate the skills of digital professionals.

The digital playbook can be an excellent opportunity to outline some of the different roles involved and show some of the skills that those fulfilling these jobs will require. That can also be quite useful when stakeholders think they can ‘do the copy themselves’ or ‘get their print designer to do the visuals’.

Compliance and Governance

One area that should definitely be included in your digital playbook is any governance or compliance rules that the company has to operate under.

For example, what is the companies policy on holding user data or the use of cookies?

If we don’t take control over compliance governance, this is what we will end up with.

Some of the rules in this section will be legal requirements, such as GDPR. However, some will be less black and white, but nevertheless just as important, such as the companies policy towards digital accessibility.

A digital playbook is a great place to formalise some of that best practice into something with some more organisational teeth.

Technology Considerations

Finally, use the playbook as a chance to help stakeholders think through some of the technical considerations of a project. Questions about hosting, SEO, testing, backup and integration.

That is also an opportunity to educate the reader about responsive design and cross-browser support.

Once again, it is as much about educating stakeholders about how complex digital projects can be as it is laying down guidelines.

That idea that a digital playbook is an education tool is fundamental to its success.

How Should You Approach Your Digital Playbook?

Let me be clear, a digital playbook should not be an ass-covering tool. It shouldn’t be something you point at to justify some decision or your refusal to do something.

A digital playbook should first and foremost be an educational tool. That means people will need actually to read it and that means it needs to be engaging.

It should be written as advice and best practice, not a list of rules that have to be followed. It should be written in a helpful and engaging tone. In short, stakeholders should find it useful.

One way of doing that is to make sure it prominently answers stakeholders questions. Avoid lecturing people, but instead, focus on addressing their problems and concerns.

The presentation is critical too. It should be easy to scan, make lots of use of imagery and where possible rely on video as much as on the text.

Finally, make it visually attractive and easily accessible. You will probably feel a pressure to put it on your company intranet somewhere. Avoid this unless your intranet is indeed a useful and vibrant place!

In my experience, most intranets are where documents are sent to die. Instead turn your digital playbook into a site that demonstrates the best practice the playbook promotes.

If your intranet is a place documents go to die, consider a tool like Frontify to present your playbook in.

I know what you are thinking; this sounds like a lot of work. How then do you make it happen?

How to Make It Happen

As I have already said, this doesn’t need to happen overnight. Start by merely creating a list of guiding principles. That is simple enough and will immediately make a difference. That will encourage you to go further.

Also, make sure you assign the job to a single person. If it is everybody’s responsibility to produce the digital playbook, nothing will get done. I am not saying that this person needs to write it all. But you need one person in charge of it. They can then bully other content contributors.

As for finding the time, well in my experience we find the time for things that we consider essential. The question is, how important do you feel a digital playbook could be for your long-term success?

Yes, creating a digital playbook will cost you time in the short term, but it will ultimately provide substantial time savings.

If you are honestly struggling to find the time, then check out my post “32 ways to find time for what matters” or just hire me to write it for you!

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