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12/03/2012 The Five Stages of Digital Strategy

The business of strategy is a funny one. Lots of people talk about strategy and ask for it. I seriously doubt that there’s a lot of commonality in what people believe strategy to be. In its essence, a strategy is a plan for what to do. Bud Caddell has modern spin on a digital strategy that I think is a good one. 

Is that what businesses want when they ask for a digital strategy? I don’t think so. So here is what I’m calling the Five Stages of Strategy: What businesses ask for when they ask for “strategy.”

  1. Tactics – This is by far the most common intent. We see this in a lot of web strategy but social media has taken this to a completely new level. Social media strategy has in many cases come to simply mean: set up our accounts on Facebook and Twitter. Social agencies are complicit in this bastardization; they’re really selling implementation services. Strategy is just a way to open the door. Tactics without strategy are usually not sustainable, though, which is probably why many companies end up paying big bucks for Facebook Likes and even bigger bucks to communicate with those new likes through Promoted Posts.
  2. Cover My Butt – One of my favorite stages, this usually happens in companies with larger internal marketing staffs. The cover my butters come in a couple of flavors. One flavor is someone who needs a smokescreen with upper management to ask for more money. It’s also useful for those who feel pressure from above to move on digital initiatives and want a way to insure themselves from blame in case things don’t work out. In either case, the strategy process can be a long one that ends up having little impact on the actual work.
  3. Prove I’m Right – Many organizations listen to employees very poorly, if at all. Organizations contain a huge amount of intelligence, creativity and innovation. Unfortunately no one has time from his or her busy day to mine that intelligence. In the Prove I’m Right strategy, one quite often uncovers a plan or idea that some of the key players have pushed for, without any luck. The strategy from the third party validates that and provides impetus for implementation. Of course, if you prove someone wrong, then results may vary.
  4. I Know We’re Behind – It’s easy for people to look at the success of others and to feel that they don’t measure up. This is a good place to start, strategically. There’s an uncomfortable acceptance that people don’t like the place they’re in and want to move somewhere, they just don’t know where. Strategy has the potential to move organizations like this along a continuum by providing a plan to do so. The best part about this is that people who ask for this are already willing to try something new, one of the key conditions for implementing a successful strategy. The challenge for the strategy is to not overshoot reality, something that’s easy to do given both the market place and the desires of the organization.
  5. Help Us Change – The holy grail of strategy is working with organizations that embrace and recognize the need for change. Face it; if things were working perfectly, no one would need a strategy, a plan, for doing things differently. In this phase there’s not only support from upper management but also a desire from employees to do things differently. While not all strategy is change, change is a critical part of most great strategies. When organizations reach this stage of strategy they are usually poised for great success.

The red thread through all of this is tolerance for internal and external change.  Many organizations have no desire or tolerance for anything beyond cosmetic changes. That’s why the first stage, tactics is so popular.

While Elisabeth Kubler-Ross would probably turn in her grave if she read this, it’s worth thinking about before that next strategic engagement. Ask the question to determine what strategy stage your organization, or client, is at. It will make the results that much more palatable.


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