Career Boosters: What is a digital strategist?

Four industry execs on what the role entails and how it will evolve over the years

Career Boosters is usually an e-panel discussion that scouts out leaders in the marketing, digital, communications and advertising space to provide their perspectives on industry topics related to career development, talent acquisition and hiring practices.

Today’s panel: Alexei Abramov is a digital product marketer and eMarketer at World Vision Canada, Karly Gaffney is a senior digital strategist at Attention Agency, a division of kbs+ Toronto, Brett McDonald is a digital strategist at Zulu Alpha Kilo, and Terri MacDonnell is a digital strategy consultant at SimpleTherapy.

What is a digital strategist?

Gaffney: A digital strategist is responsible for developing digital solutions for business problems. We leverage research, analytics and insights to create integrated plans that connect digital, social, mobile, email and traditional efforts. Our work is deeply rooted in research and insights to understand our audience’s interests and online behaviours, the brand/client category, competitive landscape and relevant trends or technologies. We use this knowledge to develop multi-channel strategies and tactics that we constantly measure, analyze and optimize to ensure the best results for our clients.

McDonald: I laughed a little when I saw this question because I hear it all of the time. I think the answer could change depending on whom you ask, but I believe a digital strategist is more of a connections strategist. Through a deep understanding of the strategy, we develop a plan that connects the brand to the online consumer. More specifically, we develop the role of content and how the brand ideals translate to the online space, identify channels that make sense for the brand and the consumers they look to attract, set clear objectives and report hard numbers paired with strategic insights to provide clear guidance for the future.

What is the difference between traditional and digital strategy?

Abramov: I think the core difference lies in the ever-changing nature of digital. The pace, at which new technology and channels become available and accessible, makes it vital for digital strategists to stay up to date.

Gaffney: Traditional strategy is often a one-way communication from a brand to consumer, where digital advertising very much focuses on feedback, engagement, and interaction with that same consumer. This primary difference is easily illustrated when you look at how traditional and digital campaigns are measured. Both strategies measure eyeballs (or impressions) whether that is TV audiences, billboard sightings or social reach. However, digital strategy puts much more weight on engagement numbers such as how many times someone shares a link, interacts with a post, visits your website or signs up for an email list. To build on that a bit more, estimated results for traditional campaigns are often set in advance based on estimated television viewership or billboard GRPs and then evaluated at campaign end. With digital, we constantly monitor, course-correct, adjust and optimize to deliver the best possible results for our clients.

MacDonnell: In my mind, the defining difference between traditional and digital strategy is what happens after a campaign launches. Most times, in an off-line promotion, once the ad or promo is live, your job is mainly done. Sure there may be some impressions to count, but the actual influence of consumers’ behavior is set in motion, and loose metrics can be drawn from impressions and response rates. With digital strategy, even after project launches, the online consumer journey has just begun. Each branded experience can be tracked, optimized and dynamically updated in real time.

How do you think the digital strategist role is going to evolve over the next year? Five years?

Abramov: I think we’re heading in a direction where if you can’t understand how digital media is involved in your programs and campaigns, you’re in trouble; regardless of how traditional your particular role may be.

Gaffney: We’ll continue to have digital strategists as we know them today, but more niche specialists will emerge, evolving the role. We already focus on understanding user paths and behaviour as part of the job, but moving forward we’ll see people with strong backgrounds in content, search, paid promotion, mobile, etc., step into the role and evolve it.

McDonald: Digital strategy will not be an agency role five years from now, or at least it shouldn’t be. Five years may be a bit bold, but here at Zulu, we have already started the process of becoming hybrid strategists. Digital strategy was born out of a lack of understanding in an industry that couldn’t catch up with how fast the medium was evolving. Even though it continues to evolve everyday, it has slowed down significantly. This should allow for cross discipline learning within teams and for students to learn the importance of translating traditional strategy into the digital space.

Do you have any tips for individuals looking to move into this role?

Abramov: Find those industry voices that you feel reaching out to you, and don’t be afraid to think differently.

Gaffney: I’ve come across many candidates who believe a digital strategist is someone who sits behind the velvet curtain and dreams up fun interactive ideas for others to execute. Unless you’re in a hybrid “creative strategist” type capacity, digital strategists are very much the agency geek squad who spends much of their time neck-deep in insights and analytics. I should note that not all agencies or strategy teams are the same. A digital strategist at a PR firm may work in a very different capacity from someone at a creative agency or digital shop. When interviewing, I suggest potential candidates inquire about how the agency approaches digital strategy, and what role the strategist plays in the overall process. It’s also helpful to know how integrated the digital strategy team is with the brand planning teams and creative teams as it will be indicative of the cross-functional team dynamic.

McDonald: There are a lot of platforms, channels and devices that you have to understand in order to succeed, so reading up on everything from UX to social media and SEO to pathing analysis is helpful. That should get you in the door, but be sure to be read up on traditional strategy and how great creative work is born at the same time. Also, don’t be afraid to test and try new approaches or challenge the process. This is digital, it is a medium designed perfectly for testing and optimization, and while we’d like to think there is a method to the madness, there is still plenty of room for innovation.

MacDonnell: If you are looking to switch to a more strategic role, start by familiarizing yourself with the tools you’re probably already using (Pinterest, FB, Twitter, etc.) but from a client’s perspective, not just from a social one. Figure out why different campaigns are successful, what their communication goals could be, and search for innovative sites, apps and campaigns. Know what a truly integrated plan looks like, and learn the consumer’s path to purchase. Google has a great resource called ZMOT – it’s a few years old now, but offers basic knowledge on how customers think about buying and when they make the ultimate decision to purchase.

Dajana Radic is the marketing and content coordinator and Trina Boos is president of Boost Agents, a specialist recruitment provider to the marketing, advertising, design and communications industry.

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