6 Ways To Get Through Today’s Digital Forest ; an insider’s perspective

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Digital technology and digital media continues to expand and spread in our society at an ever increasing rate. Everyday, there’s someone creating a new app for anything you can imagine. Everyone and everything is going digital, and with the rate of progress its easy enough to be swept up in the confusion and chaos and be left wondering what is happening.

Being inside the industry day-in, day-out gives both an exciting insiders perspective into how everything is changing and an ominous realisation that no matter how much you learn, you still cannot predict what comes next. As the co-founder of a now 6 year old digital agency (Leafcutter), our team works hands-on with clients everyday to help understand their problems and ideas, and breathe to life into these using digital technology. We build many websites, web apps, mobile apps, Facebook apps, etc… and it always amazes me how there seems to be an infinite spectrum of challenges and ideas that are modified and regrown into different solutions for each of these clients.

Rather than spending time trying to predict what the holy grail ‘future of digital’ is and how the future of technology could be this or that, I’d like focus on what I think the digital landscape looks like now and how you can make the best use of it for your work, whether its your business, your day job, hobby, startup or even becoming (internet) famous!

1. If you can’t beat them, join them

There’s a good chance that you won’t be the next Google or Facebook because:
  1. Google and Facebook were both exceptionally lucky in being the right product, in the right place at the right time in the right environment with the right access to knowledge, resources and people. Have a read of Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell for a great example (Microsoft, who now owns a relatively significant portion of Facebook).
  2. Now that both are so large, it is very very difficult to actually compete with either one, they almost can’t fail (otherwise there would be some significant shifts in our society). Arguably Bing has similar or as good as technology to Google, but Google has more experience, a stronger brand and more data troves than Microsoft, and with that they can continue to ‘own’ the search engine market (while search engines are still on top, see the concept of discovery from the startup Blippar).
You can however use the above knowledge to your advantage; remember the adage ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’. Google for instance is reported in 2017 to own 90% or higher of the search engine market in 2017, so naturally running Google advertising (all their different variations) gives you a wide base of people to access. Apps like Bang with Friends have made very quick success by piggybacking of Facebook’s popularity and access to social data (and of course an original take on the dating concept). These two networks alone have their own specialised worlds of digital marketing – finding your unique way to use them and other networks like LinkedIn and Instagram for your business through their ad networks and app platforms is really key to been seen and heard online.

2. Be different or die

There’s an old quote ‘advertising is tax for being unremarkable’, meaning that the less unique your offer is, the more you have to compete with others that have a nearly identical offering to you. Digital has pushed this up another level – now with the advent of eCommerce, a near constant barrage of news and other social data and access to global suppliers and information, it is even harder to come up with a product or service that is both unique and competitive.
However, as much as digital increases competition, it also provides you new ways to be unique. Your brand is now not just what you aspire and tell others you are, it is now how you interact with your customers and followers on a daily basis. As an example, Thankyou, a social enterprise that started with bottled water and has now branched out into other consumer products, provides a unique tracking code on every product that allow the customer to go online and track the impact of their specific purchase. By doing this, Thankyou has provided a way to prove to each and every customer the impact and value of what they are doing, even though their physical product is highly similar to the competition. This is something that is unique to Thankyou – when you buy their product, you know for certain that you are making a difference.

3. Real life beats fantasy

If you read the biographies of most startup founders and successful business people, including the majority to tech entrepreneur, you will see that they actually had a string of learning experiences (also called failures) before they hit on the jackpot with the one that worked. The sooner you can test your idea, the sooner you’ll know what works in practice, what doesn’t and what you need to do next.
Digital gives you more control and more tools to be able to implement something and test quickly. For example, with Facebook advertising you can test 3 or 4 creative concepts, see which one works best, and then roll that out to a larger campaign, all within the space of a few weeks and a few hundred dollars. With your website and analytics software, you can track what pages/information people are actually interacting with, and then refocus your product information/line up based on the information you have learned.

4. The fast eat the slow

In digital this is especially true because you can (generally) create, edit and refine digital media faster than you can traditional marketing and products, it means you can gather data and improve your product faster. However, if you can do it, it also means your competition can do it too – hence speed to market is exceptionally important in the digital world.
Like anything though, its a fine line between rushing and also achieving a quality product/experience that your customers will enjoy. Too fast, and you will miss the things that make your brand great – so you need to make sure you can balance speed with quality control. Agile software development, continuous integration and the Lean Startup method are all good places to start when looking at how you can do digital that’s fast but also quality.

5. Big rocks

An example from Cyril Peupion’s book Work Smarter, Live Better – if you are filling are jar with anything (rocks was his example), make sure you put in the important stuff first (i.e. the big rocks) before you put in the less important things (the small rocks and sand, otherwise you will have no space left.
In Cyril’s book, space is an analogy for time, which has a great impact on your digital strategy. In many cases, organisations are limited in their resources, and having a Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, Vine, Peach, etc. account chews up massive amounts of manpower in monitoring and staying on top of things. Instead, pick the 2-3 (or more if you’re bigger, but the principle applies) channels you want to try based on what’s important for your organisation, and then focus everything you can into making those channels work really well for you.

6. It’s a very big forest

There’s always going to be something new to learn, some new trend or some naysayer for you to look out for. Instead of being overwhelmed at the size of the whole forest, find where you are and define where you want to go, and then seek help from others to guide you, to share experiences with, and to help move you through the digital forest. Digital agencies and freelancers can be very helpful come in all shapes and sizes, with different technologies, verticals, specialities and work styles, and I would argue that today there’s definitely someone that can help you get to where you want – its just a matter of finding them. Likewise, look for technology forums, interest groups and meetups to meet people like you and learn directly from each other’s experiences.

Starting to see the forest

I hope that with these 6 points in mind, you can see that while digital can be unpredictable, at its core it is something that is not (entirely) complex. Like a forest, digital is an complex ‘organism’ that is evolving everyday, but by learning to work with it and getting the right information and guidance, you can grow with it and achieve results that can be absolutely transformative for your entire organisation.

Image by Ocean/Corbis.