This blog post originally appeared in npENGAGE.
Digital Strategy is my passion, but less from the perspective of technology implementation and more from the perspective of embedding digital knowledge and literacy throughout an organization. As programmers of events and performances, collectors of things, and producers of content, our main business seems to be a battle for the attention of our audiences. As cultural institutions, we are a “field” competing against “industries”—gaming, movie, TV, and amusement—that have the money to spend on weapons of mass audience engagement
It sometimes feels like we’re in a true David and Goliath battle, but I subscribe to Malcolm Gladwell’s interpretation, which says yes, it was one-sided, but Goliath never had a chance. Sure he was a giant, but he suffered from Giantism— slow, unwieldly, short-sighted, and used to fighting opponents armed as he was. However, David as a shepherd boy, was used to protecting his sheep against all manner of predators both big and small, and a slingshot in the hands of an expert was a devastatingly accurate and deadly weapon. Goliath was an old-school warrior and unprepared for his nimble and agile opponent. As he picked up the perfect stones on his way into battle, David had a strategy.
In our battle for the attention of our audiences, our biggest competition is the smartphone, but it is also our biggest ally. The problem is not the device itself but what it represents: the user in constant control—dictating where and when to interact, consume content, or have a personalized experience. So as we look to engage with our audiences, digital strategies are essential, even if our end goal is an in-person interaction—visiting our museum or attending a performance—and not necessarily an online donation.
What is a digital strategy?
To some, digital strategy is simply social media and a website. To others, it is all-encompassing—software, hardware, networking, content, social media, SEO, SEM, and a website.
One’s definition of “digital” is going to be influenced by one’s frame of reference and experience with it. My philosophy is that “digital” is not technology—it is content and experience. Technology is how we deliver it. Digital is the what and the why.
In the hallowed circles of the digirati, digital is a mindset, the pursuit of continued relevance by being innovative, nimble, and entrepreneurial. Innovative does not have to be a shiny new gadget—it’s just doing something in new way. Nimble and entrepreneurial mindsets are about defining, understanding, and responding to audience demand. The world our audiences live in is constantly changing, begging the question:
How do you create digital strategies that compete in this constantly changing landscape?
The answer: You embrace change as a constant.
As a digital strategy consultant, I work with cultural institutions on defining their digital strategies. There’s a lot of confusion about what it means to have a digital strategy, and just like any institutional strategy, one size does not fit all. A digital strategy needs to be an evolving plan that embraces the concept of change and helps an organization understand where it is today and where it wants to be. Since every organization approaches their strategy from a different level, I use a high-level framework called a Vision Matrix to help simplify the discussion by focusing on themes, initiatives, and an organizations vision for specific pillars of their strategy—philosophical, strategic, or tactical.
The five levels of the digital strategy vision matrix:
- Conservative – Traditional, restricted, or protected approach
- Confident – Controlled approach
- Bold – Generally accepted/emerging practice
- Visionary – Cutting edge, a few examples in the field, a topic of leadership discussion
- Revolutionary – Bleeding edge, no examples but maybe pilots, a topic of discussion in niche or special interest groups
These five levels provide context for the organization’s direction and high-level strategy. Any topic, thread, or track can be analyzed or discussed in this rubric, and there may be varying opinions of what constitutes practice at each level. There is no requirement for an institution to strive to be visionary or revolutionary in all things. However, it is important to note that there was a time when it was revolutionary for a nonprofit or cultural organization to have a website. But over time, revolutionary becomes conservative, so to be a bold organization 5 years from now you may have to strive for what is visionary or revolutionary practice now.
Creating a culture of digital literacy
I know what you’re thinking—this is beginning to look complicated. How is an institution meant to stay relevant in the constatntly changing landscape? The answer is simple. The most effective and capable tool at any organization is its staff. But as with all complex tools, they need constant investment, care, and maintenance. Digital touches every aspect of an organization, so embedding digital literacy and knowledge in all staff is the critical element to a successful digital strategy. If staff know what to do and are encouraged to do it, much is taken care of.
So, what does staff professional development look like on our vision matrix from Conservative to Revolutionary?
- Conservative: Staff should already know this stuff. We eliminated our training and professional development budget during the last round of cuts.
- Confident: Staff are given formal training during onboarding on the tools they need to do their job. Training and user manuals are made available to all.
- Bold: Budget and support is provided for training, professional development and conference presentations in immediate domains of expertise or direct departmental need.
- Visionary: Staff are cross-trained within their departments and encouraged and supported to learn what and how others work through formal and informal methods. The organisation promotes days when staff are required to perform an unrelated job.
- Revolutionary: Staff are given broad latitude to develop in areas outside their department and domain, but in line with mission. They are encouraged to question assumptions about how and why things are done and tasked with evolving the operational capacity and efficiency of the organization. Metrics of success are shared, owned and understood by all staff.
Is it too “Revolutionary” to have an informed and literate staff that is encouraged and supported to continually align the institution with ever-changing digital landscape?
I’ll end with this “Conservative” conversation between CFO and CEO:
CFO: “What happens if we train staff and they leave?”
CEO: “What happens if we don’t and they stay?”
And postscript with this definition of evolution: a series of successful mistakes.