The problem with dropping the “D-word”

Kickframe's Tim Dolan on the things marketers need to be sure of before removing "digital" from their vocabulary.

By Tim Dolan

Marketing pundits have been calling for the industry to drop the word “digital” since consultancies announced that businesses were entering the “post-digital” era a decade ago. The argument has picked up steam lately with the help of wonderfully profane columns from Mark Riston and new WPP boss Mark Read banning the use of the word.

There are a number of reasons I agree with this, in theory. Using the word creates siloes that work against integration, and focusing on digital in isolation means focusing on tactics and channels before strategy. Plus, classifying what is digital is now virtually impossible, as “traditional” content is now delivered digitally.

But in practice, I see a number of challenges with organizations simply dropping the word. To be useful, a word needs to be distinct, meaningful, and commonly understood. In 2019, “digital” is none of these things. It covers a wide variety of topics that are relevant for businesses today. When we avoid using it, we risk not focusing on some of the important underlying topics that have become so intertwined with it.

“We need a head of digital”

Removing “digital” from job titles has been in vogue for some time. After years of growing internal teams capable of building and managing websites, apps, social media, and email marketing programs, the trend is to now move these people within broader and more integrated marketing departments.

The risk is that when we dissolve digital leadership within marketing departments, everyone and no one is responsible for understanding how new technologies can better serve business goals. Marketing technology is more sophisticated, technology investment is increasing and its strategic use is widely regarded as a competitive advantage. Who is on point to make these calls? If you drop the D-word from your org chart, make sure that you remain clear on who is responsible for leading marketing technology decisions.

“We need a digital strategy”

Digital strategy initiatives are typically business initiatives that involve some combination of data, technology, online commerce and user experience. The umbrella term “digital” is often used to package these elements together in some way to create a project brief, and indicate that a certain type of “digital thinking” is required to solve it. Solving these types of initiatives requires a mix of skills and approaches that are typically rooted in service-design, data science, and product development.

While removing the D-word from describing strategic initiatives can help marketers focus more clearly on core business issues, it can also lead them to staff these projects without the appropriate mix of upstream thinkers. Who is exploring the strategic use of different sources of data, payment models, or online communities before “digital” tactical decisions are made? If you drop the D-word from strategy initiatives, make sure that your teams are capable of fully exploring the business opportunities that technology and the networked economy enable.

“We need to do more digital”

Removing the word “digital” from planning can help teams focus on creating campaigns that achieve a goal versus a particular media mix. This can theoretically help marketers avoid the issue of over-investing in shiny new digital tools at the expense of more established media.

In practice, I have seen many marketers and creative agencies struggle in this area. While all businesses intend to move forward by dropping a distracting focus on digital, many regress. Marketers and creative teams biased towards traditional approaches of crafting messages are freer to use technology and digital media strictly as a communication medium. Explorations of how they can be used beyond a canvas are no longer top of mind. Some teams have moved past this, and naturally consider how technology can help inform a marketing concept, in addition to its execution. If you drop the D-word from marketing planning, make sure your team is one of them.

In the end, my issue with dropping the D-word is less about language than it is about the assumptions that we are making as an industry in dropping it. It assumes that our teams are all uniformly fluent in the capabilities of marketing technology. It also assumes that by explicitly not focusing on digital, the underlying elements connected with the word – user experience, data science, online services, networked communities – will blossom without this distinction. In 2019, these assumptions are critical. Are you ready to drop the D-word?

Tim Dolan is the founder and principal consultant at digital consulting and training firm Kickframe.