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Fastest Way to Create a Digital Strategy

I am often asked the same question by executives who want to ramp up a digital strategy for their marketing. The question, and its variations, comes down to, "Do I need to hire an outside partner to help us get up to speed? Or is it better to train and learn how to do this all ourselves?"

My short answer is always: "Yes, both." Let me explain.

The fact is, if you are trying to pull off a digital turnaround--that is, to jump start a new customer strategy in an organization that has been reluctant to embrace digital marketing--you are going to need some help.

Here are four areas where an outside digital partner can be of help:

1. Strategy planning. If you have little experience in digital marketing, a shrewd adviser should be able to help coach you through the process of setting objectives, evaluating the available tools, and getting buy-in from senior leadership to move forward. But make sure that the adviser you bring in during strategic planning is not someone wedded to a particular solution. (e.g. A firm specializing in SEO may tend to see this as the focus of your digital needs.)

2. Tactical expertise. Once your strategy is formulated and you have identified some areas of action, now is the time when you do need those tactical experts â€" whether it's an agency with expertise in SEO, Facebook marketing, app development, or social media monitoring. Their expertise in a particular area will help ensure you make the most out of your investments and avoid the rookie mistakes of a newcomer. They will also be critical if you need to move quickly to launch.

3. Training your staff. Broad digital skills can be done in a training program. For tactical skills in a specific area, you can often use the expert you hire to both guide you through your launch, and give your team hands-on training at the same time. Just make sure that your project (RFP) is clear in stating that part of their job is to train your own team to competently take over from them.

4. Customized solutions. Many kinds of digital marketing--from managing a Twitter account, to building a YouTube channel--can be managed without great technical expertise. But an outside expert will be invaluable if your strategy requires a more customized technology, such as building a mobile app, a branded game, an invitation-only online community, or a highly-customized Facebook application.

Learn to Do It Yourself
In general, outside agencies and consultants should be a starting point from which to launch a new strategy, and build the skills within your own business to take over. As your digital strategy evolves, you should learn to bring more of it in-house over time.

Here are a few reasons to learn to do digital yourself:

1. Know enough to own your strategy. In the end, your marketing strategy has to be your own. No outside partner will understand your business, your customers, and your competition as well as you do. You can only decide what directions to take, and which vendors to hire, if you develop your own digital knowledge enough to evaluate and make the tough decisions.

2. Learn to run it yourself. Stories of mishandled digital marketing are commonplace, especially missteps in social media like Facebook and Twitter. Have you noticed that most of those scandals were caused by someone at an agency communicating inappropriately while logged in as their client? Businesses need to learn the ropes on social media, and then they need to take over the channels themselves. No outsider is going to be able to speak as authentically and effectively to your customers as you can.

3. Integrate it with core business processes. Some digital marketing initiatives can be run as stand-alone efforts, like a display ad campaign that drives new leads to your website. But other initiatives will be intimately linked to your core business, products, and services. Think of the mobile banking apps developed by a retail bank. Or a digital loyalty rewards for a national retailer. Or the content management system for a news publisher. Any digital initiative that ties directly into your customer data and revenue needs to be built with, and owned by, your own I.T., marketing, and sales departments.

4. Make it part of your culture. If your business is beginning a digital turnaround, you may be tasked with leading a charge into territory that your colleagues are unfamiliar with. But for that digital strategy to succeed, everyone in your organization needs to get on board and become involved. To paraphrase my friend Steve Rubel, a company's digital marketing strategy should not be all of one person's job; it should be part of everybody's job.

Striking a balance
If you are launching a major new focus on digital marketing in your own organization, the right outside partners will be invaluable. Their outside perspective can be critical to driving change within your company. And their expertise will be essential in many areas until you get up to speed â€" especially if you intend to launch new efforts in a matter of weeks or months, not years.

But if you want that digital strategy to be sustainable, and to be effectively integrated within your business, you will need to focus at the same time on building up skills within yourself and your staff. That way, over time, you can take ownership of your digital strategy, and make sure it achieves what is most important to the success of your business.


David Rogers writes about planning and implementing digital strategies in his new book, "The Network Is Your Customer: Five Strategies to Thrive in a Digital Age." He teaches Digital Marketing Strategy at Columbia Business School, where he is Executive Director of the Center on Global Brand Leadership. Rogers has advised and developed marketing and digital strategies for numerous companies such as SAP, Eli Lilly, and Visa. Find him on Twitter at