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What does a digital strategist do?

Updated: Oct 30, 2019

Sometimes referred to as a Planner, the digital strategy role usually involves understanding and unpacking the business challenge in order to plan brand messaging online and how this should be brought to life through campaigns or platforms, or both.

A typical digital agency has a number of very different teams working together to deliver large and often complex projects. The key teams are outlined below:

- Strategy

- Account Management

- Project Management

- User Experience (UX) or User Interface (UI)

- Design

- Front End Development

- Back End Development

- Quality Assurance

This post is the first part of a series which uncovers the differing roles within these teams, starting with a Digital Strategist.

The role "digital strategist" didn't even exist in the mainstream before 2005. If we look at Google Trends data, we can see that every year the term gains traction globally, given the increasing importance of it.

Digital Strategist Google Trends Data
Google Trends Data for the term "Digital Strategist" since 2005

In a fantastic article entitled "Advice for the Next Generation Planner" from The Planning Lab, the need for strategists or planners is described as to provide clarity and direction in the field of advertising. "Opinions, actions and interactions of people are in a constant flux as new societies and technologies emerge. In this world, account planning has become more interesting and more useful than ever. "

How does a digital strategist go about advising how best to approach the task at hand? Well, they use a variety of techniques which could include:

- A category deep dive. An industry analysis which takes into consideration the broader industry, and not necessarily just the competitors of the brand

- A competitor analysis. Looking at how competitors excel or possibly fail, specifically with regards to their digital marketing efforts

- A digital audit. A digital audit is often the best point of departure as it sets the benchmark or baseline from which a brand can improve. In order to do this, the strategist will employ tools like Google Analytics, SEO tools, hotmapping tools.

- Conducting research and analysing data. This could be as simple as reviewing previous campaign data, to conducting first hand research in the form of surveys, focus groups or one on one interviews.

- Objectives & KPI Framework. An understanding of what success looks like to the client is imperative, as this will provide a "North Star" to guide the strategist and their team. Once they have put the objectives down on paper (e.g. awareness, downloads, sales or other conversions), they will put together corresponding KPI's which will measure success.

There are arguments stating that someone is born a strategist. Whether you believe this is true or not, there are five distinctive skills which need to be inherent or honed, to produce award winning digital strategy.

What kind of skills do you need to be a good strategist?

1. Problem Solving. Unpacking problems and brainstorming ways in which to solve them for the business is probably the most crucial task the strategist performs. There also doesn't have to be a challenge at hand. It could also be a case of looking for opportunities for the business to leverage, for example a trend in the industry which may give a brand a leg up, or further enhancing the brand's inherent strengths.

2. Curiosity and a love of Research. Inspiration can come from anywhere, and in order to stay inspired, it is imperative that you read, write, take photos, ask questions, voraciously consume popular culture, read industry news, have an opinion, be okay with being wrong, listen, talk and challenge yourself daily. Merry Baskin from the Planning Lab article previously mentioned, says:

"I just spent a week with the Advertising/Planning students at University of

Oregon and was appalled at how little actual reading some of them do - apart from

devouring all those nice chatty blogs and twitters etc. (Nothing wrong with these

incidentally, but not if that is your only diet. It’s like living on beer and crisps. Great fun

to start with but ultimately a bit gassy, bloating and gives you spots.)"

Value both qualitative and quantitive research to get you to a place where you can be confident that your strategy is based off both softer "human insights" and data which inspires and illuminates. Wrangle all the information until you can create dynamic and compelling work.

3. Be Persuasive yet Authentic

Sales people are persuasive, often through persistence and force. Great strategists need to be persuasive, using more refined skills. If you are well researched, well spoken, considered and up for debate, you can usually find the answers your client is looking for. It's great if you can find these answers alone but much better if you find them in collaboration with your team and client, and bring a team along for the journey. This is likely to inspire greater action which ultimately is your reason for being.

4. Pay Attention to the Smallest Details

Coming up with a "big idea" is only half the job! Plotting every detail in roll out plans and schedules is just as important as the initial idea. Without a simple way to execute your concepts, its likely that these will end up on the cutting room floor and ever see the light of day.

5. Be Creative and Energetic in Equal Parts

Make no mistake about it, as a strategist you will be challenged at every turn. Why are you suggesting X? Why are we doing it like Y? Embrace these questions, and think of them as a a soundboard in the journey to delivering something great. Don't be precious about your ideas, and don't take criticism to heart. Boundless energy will serve you well as you take onboard feedback and deliver something even better. Creativity will help you too, as will resourcefulness. This means brainstorming things like "Even within confines XYZ, we could do this better." Or "due to parameters ABC, we can't do it this way but we can do it that way." This takes disproportionate zeal and often requires making a boring brief unboring.

Does this sound like you? Why not take the first step to becoming a digital strategist, and check out our Introduction to Social Media Marketing course. Who knows, this could be the beginning of a career in one of the most fast paced and rewarding roles in digital.

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