What the heck is ‘digital’ anyway?

Paul Boag

Digital transformation, digital teams, digital strategy. Digital has become a buzzword. But what does it mean?

I write a lot about digital. Heck, I have even written a book called Digital Adaptation. But I am conscious that the term means different things to different people. That without a clear definition the word digital will become a meaningless buzzword. In fact, many are already claiming it is.

There is some truth in this view. Yes, digital is a vague term. But it is a necessary shorthand to encompass some complex ideas. In this post, I hope to unpack the term and provide some clarity to their meaning. I am not claiming these are definitive definitions. They are just my interpretation.

Let’s begin with the term digital itself.

What do I mean by digital?

The term digital for me is a convergence of many technologies and social changes that have led to a new digital ‘reality’. Yes I know that sounds pretentious, but its not far from the truth.

For me digital is the convergence of social media, mobile and the web. Together these have created a new kind of user – the connected consumer. Mobile has put 24/7 access to the web, social media and email in our pockets. This power is reshaping their behaviour and creating a new breed of customer, unlike anything we have seen before.

What is a digital consumer?

Digital consumers are a new generation of user and they see the world in a different way. For them virtual and physical have equal relevance. They carry their friends and family everywhere they go via social media apps on their mobiles.

When buying an item they are more likely to consult their network than listen to traditional advertising.

They share everything online and have a different view of privacy. Whether it is picking a holiday destination or choosing a university. The connected consumer will share and seek advice on their choices. They will stand in a store seeking real time opinions from friends or scan products to see if they can get a better deal online.

They live in a world where the competition are a click away and so they have come to expect exceptional customer service. What is more they are not shy in expressing their dissatisfaction within their network of friends and beyond. This gives them enormous power and they know it. The power balance between consumer and supplier has shifted.

Many consider the digital consumer to be apart of the millennial generation. The truth is that this new digital behaviour stretches from the millennials all the way to the baby boomers. It shows no sign of slowing.

This new kind of consumer is finding and choosing products in a completely different way. They are also demanding ever higher levels of service. Unfortunately too few organisations have adapted to meet their needs.

That is why we are seeing a growing number of organisations talk about digital transformation.

What is digital transformation?

Digital transformation is not what many consider it to be. Many see it as an attempt to integrate emerging technologies into business processes. In fact, digital transformation is only to do with technology on a superficial level.

Digital transformation is about meeting the needs of the new digital consumer. This does involve some adaptation in how organisations approach technology. But often it is more about altering business processes.

Most organisations are configured for the mass media, mass market era. Consumers move through a traditional sales funnel with some digital elements bolted on.

Digital transformation steps back and looks at the customer journey of the new digital consumer. It looks at how those consumers interact with an organisation both online and in real life.

The organisation looks at these different touchpoints. This helps them adapt their organisational structure to service this new flow. These changes are often driven by a digital strategy.

What is a digital strategy?

As with digital transformation, a digital strategy is not about technology. It is a strategy for servicing the new digital consumer.

This strategy needs to be more than a set of vague goals that the organisation wants to meet. It needs to consist of practical ways of addressing the problems faced by digital consumers.

The strategy should focus on concrete actions. These actions should address the immediate issues. But they should also establish processes for adapting to future changes in consumer behaviour. Changes that emerge as new technology continues to be created.

A key component of this strategy should be the role of the digital team.

What is a digital team?

My view of what a digital team should be is a million miles away from the web teams found in most organisations. These are often seen as a service department which implements the ideas of others. They are almost always technology focused.

In my mind, the digital team should be a customer service department. Their role is to service the needs of digital consumers. This is not something they can do alone. They would need to work with business units across the organisation. They would also be the champions for the new digital consumer and drive the new direction.

It is the digital teams job to research and understand the user. They should be carrying out continual user research. They should be recommending changes based on their findings.

They should also be responsible for educating the organisation. Educating them about the digital consumer and emerging digital trends. Their ultimate goal should be to make digital ubiquitous across the entire organisation. The digital teams job is to ensure everybody understands the new consumer and can do their part to meet their needs.

Perhaps digital is the wrong word

In many ways the word digital is misleading. It makes one think of technology, when we should be thinking of people. In reality this focus on digital is a new focus on the customer. Something we should have always been doing.

But it is more than just that. This isn’t business as usual. Social media, the web at large and mobile have not caused a slight change in consumer behaviour. It has caused a revolution and many organisations are failing to adapt.

If throwing around the word digital makes them take this change seriously then I am happy to use it.