It's 2017, and the digital marketing world is chaotic. Google powers 3.5 billion searches per day. Vine is dead, and Snapchat is SNAP. We live in a multidevice world where more and more Web searches are happening on mobile devices. Digital FOMO is rampant, and so tactics supersede strategy. And the most recent US presidential elections demonstrated that using data (AKA polling) as a blunt instrument is risky.

Literature about the importance of digital strategy is starting to reach fever pitch as marketers prepare to spend over $100 billion on digital by 2019, according to Forrester.

But, in the chaotic world of digital marketing, it's hard to know how exactly to create and use a digital strategy so that it meets business needs and is manageable.

Though every organization will need to customize its strategy to its own circumstances, the following are the foundations for building an enduring digital marketing strategy that works.

1. Digital Principles: Your Belief System

Brands need digital principles as much as they need brand attributes. Start by looking at the open source Digital Principles site to understand some of the basics, and then create statements that align your brand to how it should live and breathe in your digital experiences. Doing so will help you explain to your larger organization what role digital plays in building your brand and delivering on your business goals.

Those principles become a lens through which you will make all digital decisions. For one client, we put forward a digital principle that was simply this: "Make user-first digital decisions instead of organization-first decisions." That statement transformed how they thought about their marketing, and it aligned perfectly with their customer-first mission.

2. Digital Ecosystem Map: Your Atlas

Create a visual map that shows which digital channels you are active in, who the primary and secondary users are for each, what those users need from that channel, what your goals are, how you'll measure success, and what the pathways are between channels. Tools such as Lucidchart are great for making these documents come to life.

Create your map by conducting research with users, looking at competitors, reviewing any analytics data you have, and marrying all that with your overall business strategy. The best ecosystem maps are developed with a cross-functional team that includes information architects, digital strategists, content strategists, and analytics experts.

Look at that map daily as you make decisions about how to spend money and deploy your team.

3. Data and Insights: Your Pathway to Action

You can gather all the data in the world, but if you don't have a mechanism for turning that data into insights, you might as well collect no data at all.

At a minimum, you should use Google Analytics for websites, but remember that its raw data measures traffic and lacks the contextual information you need to understand what's really going on. Qualitative data inputs are a crucial additional input. Savvy marketers will measure social sentiment using a tool like Sprout or Sysomos—along with the analytics tools that come with business accounts on social platforms. And don't forget email: it remains a powerful weapon in your arsenal if you get it right and measure it well.

To turn data into insights, though, you need a single customer view that ties data to user behavior—best achieved by having a robust customer relationship management (CRM) tool, like Insightly or Salesforce, and a framework for understanding that data.

There isn't a perfect way to aggregate social sentiment, Google Analytics data, and customer data in an automated way right now, but dedicating some time to merging these data streams on a regular basis will be time well spent. To get to an insight after aligning your data, you should...

  • Discard data that isn't tied to business goals
  • Gather additional data needed
  • Prioritize data by business value
  • Look for meaningful patterns
  • Socialize the data with your team to generate insights (see No. 5, below)

Then you should implement, measure, and reassess—because digital is never done.

4. Content: Your Value

There is no doubt that users increasingly expect great content from brands. Now, more than ever, content is king, but content strategy is emperor.

If you want to deliver on your business goals you need a strong content strategy function focused on two fundamental questions: what action do I want users to take, and what is my content model? Being informed is not an action. An action requires effort: a purchase, an email, a call, a conversation, etc.

Remember, content creation is not the same thing as content strategy. You need both, and it's unlikely that the person writing your content is also guiding its strategy. Your content strategist is multilingual: He or she can talk to technologists, creatives, user experience professionals, and business users.

5. Governance and Socialization: Your Rules of Engagement

Governance (how you make decisions) and socialization (explaining what you do) are crucial to ensuring your digital strategy is right for your organization.

Governance has been written about widely already: Check out one of the many good resources out there to help kick-start your process and determine what model is right for your organization. Regardless, I highly recommend developing a RACI (Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, and Informed) matrix that establishes clear roles and responsibilities for all aspects of your digital marketing efforts; you'll be glad you have one in place when it comes time to make big decisions.

Once you have your governance model in place, the final step in your digital strategy is to socialize it with your organization and conduct trainings. Keep it high level for executives, and more in-depth for those who have to deliver on the ground.

* * *

Just as you wouldn't spend a million dollars on a cross-channel ad buy without knowing what you are saying, whom you are reaching, how you are measuring it, and what you expect to get as a return on investment for your campaign, why would you operate without a strategy and plan for your digital communications?

Lay your foundation right now, and you'll save time (and money) later.

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The Five Pillars of a Solid Digital Marketing Strategy That Endures

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image of Peter Petralia

Peter Petralia is a partner at Modern Craft, where the People & Process practice he heads helps clients form highly motivated, multidisciplinary internal teams that can deliver on key business needs.

LinkedIn: Peter Petralia