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10 Lessons From Digital Pioneers on How To Become a Digital Success

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If you could speak to the brains behind the TED Talks videos, Google's Webmaster community, my.barakobama.com, the Net's most successful advertising entrepreneur, and a celebrity Tweeter with some 5 million followers, what do you think they would advise?

Not what you'd expect.

For our book Pioneers of Digital, we met the innovators behind those and 15 other groundbreaking pioneers to ask them the secrets of their success. We discovered that their stories and approach to their work had much to do with their success as their ideas.

In their words, we traced their journeys and asked them what advice they would share with others who are aiming to emulate their success.

During the process, we also established 10 lessons that those pioneers identified as key ingredients of becoming a digital pioneer.


1. You don't have to be original, just relevant 

Gurbaksh Chahal, the entrepreneur who went from selling printers online at 16 to becoming a pioneer of online ad space, is forthright in his view that new online businesses need to adapt existing ideas, but must make them better, and they must be more agile to market responses.

Customers need to understand your business first, so see what people are already doing that works, and do it better. Then introduce your new ideas. You first need traction on what people are already doing—existing behaviors, existing products.

2. Don't let technology dictate what you do

Don't let a CTO dilute your intentions. It's easy to be persuaded to dumb down your vision when Web development specialists are bought in. Don't be swayed by their ideas of IT shortcuts or their notions of what can and can't be done.

You must make sure your team is designed for the job, so that your content (product, service) is designed for its purpose.

3. Operate as a business first: Being digital is less important than your funding model

The first era of digital commerce in the late 1990s was marked by boom and bust stories because Web-based companies had not resolved their funding models. The most entrepreneurial pioneers pointed out that that the press gets carried away with new technologies and dynamic companies, without exploring how they will actually make money.

Be a business first and define your business model.

4. Rethink the payment chain, and be prepared to challenge orthodoxies of how you should get paid

John Winsor of the radically different communications firm Victors & Spoils was able to renegotiate his value chain, based on supply, demand, and who held the most valuable assets. V&S has a stellar client roster, and rather than employing full-time creative services V&S set online competitions with premium rewards for the winning work. Its creative work could therefore be sourced from anyone in the world—as long as the ideas are the best.

In an era of change, anything is possible.

5. Most often the best ideas come from looking outside digital

The pioneers behind TED, iTunes Store, and Bing, among others, had worked in other fields before transferring to digital, and they applied their know-how to online business.

Having a wide repertoire of skills and reference points is useful for carving an original niche online.

6. Be prepared to make decisions in real time

The two most successful online advertising campaigns, the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty and KFC's Subservient Chicken, became such massive hits because the publicity of the campaigns was managed in real time.

Dove created opportunities for users to engage with the campaign and acted on their suggestions. KFC's campaign was nearly pulled when it attracted adverse publicity, but the handling of communications after its launch enabled the campaign to far surpass its expected reach.

Being adaptable to changing circumstances has become essential for successful online communications.

7. Look at something that genuinely fulfills a need

Don't force digital into spaces where it will offer little that's new. As simple as that idea is, many software engineers attempt to create new formats without a clear sense of how it will solve a need for net users. The technology should be secondary to the potential use of the service. Who is it for and how will it help them?

Kyle McDonald, the genius who traded up from a paperclip to a house, advocates making new ideas free to use so that it can be easily accessible and can make a difference.

8. Find signposts to success in the rich data that digital provides to measure your work

The amount of data that can be accessed as a business is launched makes it easy to micro-track the success of business decisions online. Monitoring sales, footfall, click-throughs are just some of the metrics readily available. Google's Avinash Kaushik says companies are missing out on the "magnificent opportunity" to be able to make quick decisions on the basis of fast and accurate data.

The information is all there. You just have to look and take action.

9. Create experiences that are fun and engaging

People behave differently online. In the new world of 140-character social soundbites, attention spans are smaller but opportunities for interactions are greater if the content is interesting or entertaining enough.

Researching online behaviors in your sector is well worth doing before deciding how to position your business online.

10. Enjoy what you do; consider early on whether you think it's worthwhile

All new ventures are a labor of love in the beginning, and once you become synonymous with your brand you're stuck with the association. So you have to really enjoy what you do.

As one of the world's most successful celebrity Tweeters, Stephen Fry, remarked, just be yourself. It's easier than pretending to be something you're not.

* * *

These 10 simple lessons were principles that enabled the pioneers to succeed. Follow them and join the elite collection that are the original Pioneers of Digital.

The book is available on Amazon and Kindle: Pioneers of Digital: Success Stories from Leaders in Advertising, Marketing, Search and Social Media.


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Professor Paul Springer is head of research at Buckinghamshire New University in the UK. He advises communications firms, regulatory bodies, and educators in the UK, US, China, and Saudi Arabia. He also authored Ads to Icons.

Twitter: @drpaulspringer

Mel Carson is founder of Seattle-based digital consultancy Delightful Communications. He is a renowned expert on search marketing, social media, and online advertising, and a frequent industry speaker and blogger.

Twitter: @melcarson

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  • by Heather Mackey Wed Feb 13, 2013 via web

    Great advice, though it's sobering to see how hard it can be for many companies to put these principles into practice. Any tips on operationalizing these approaches? That's where I think so many stumble.

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