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What does a Digital Strategist do?

by: Megan Zander

Published on
Tuesday, January 3, 2017

What does a Digital Strategist do?

Hello, My Name is Megan Zander, and I’m a Marketing Nerd Digital Strategist

Ah, the glamorous world of advertising. The awards! The parties! The magazine articles! In school, marketing is almost always associated with advertising. One might develop the idea that marketers are just like advertisers.

But…we’re not.

Marketing is what happens behind the scenes: aligning tactics to business strategies and goals, measurement, analysis, documentation, and – the most popular marketing task these days – building and maintaining digital properties. This nerdery is not for the weak. You must be agile (and I mean in all senses of the word), and you must be eager to embrace technology. You must be a team player and a strategic thinker. And, most importantly, you must be analytical.

I’d like to share a little about what I do to create a better understanding of what to expect when going into digital marketing.

I am Digital Strategist.

A Small, Technology-Focused Marketing Team

I work at a small digital partner agency in the Kansas City River Market. Our team analyzes and delivers upon the digital marketing needs of our partners’ clients. You heard that right – we are an agency that works with other agencies. Sometimes we work with them directly and sometimes we white label our services and provide them with the name of our partner agency.

We are a small team (fluctuating around 10) of app developers, UX Designers, Business Analysts, and Strategists. We are a special kind of digital marketing unit because we typically do not create marketing strategies, we create digital strategies and solutions.

One Team, One Dream

On smaller teams like ours, each person is going to be taking on a broader range of responsibilities than they would on larger teams. I would always recommend that students fresh out of college look for a smaller company to work for. It might mean that it takes longer to find your specialization, but learning the full range of responsibilities that go into the different roles in your field is invaluable to choosing your long-term career path. I’ve known account managers that have become social media directors, and designers that became developers.

You don’t know what you will have the aptitude for until you experience it firsthand. On my team, I get to see and do a wide range of digital marketing tasks.

What Is Digital Strategy?

Digital Strategy is exactly what it sounds like. A Strategist will gather requirements for an Engagement – whether that Engagement is for building a website, executing upon digital ad campaigns, etc. – and create a plan-of-action. All resources available are analyzed, as well as applicable markets and competitors, then requirements are gathered and analyzed, tactics and goals are created, the Strategy is documented, and then the execution of the Strategy is passed over and monitored/optimized by the Strategist as needed.

Digital Strategy is, in very simple terms, creating tactics and goals for technology-rich projects.

Notice how I didn’t say ‘technology-based’ but instead said ‘technology-rich’? Some digital projects are more about utilizing tech to improve processes or to create new processes for companies. The idea being that Digital Strategy doesn’t have to be as narrow as ‘technology only.' The people using the Strategy, a company’s processes, and their business strategy are always a key part of the analyses process.

My process, when over-simplified, could be broken down into three phases: discovery, documentation, and execution. Each company will have their approach, but the goal will still be the same, and the process will be similar.

What Do I Do? - Discovery

You hear the term floating around but might not completely understand what the ‘steps to discover’ are. It’s different for every company and every project.

Discovery will usually be parsed out as its own project and be bid to the client as such. The client will pay separately for discovery, and once discovery is complete, a bid for a larger project can be created. My discovery usually includes stakeholder interviews (long, intensive question-and-answer sessions with the client and those that will be paying for and using the digital solution), requirements gathering and analyses, and then the creation of a business requirement matrix. These are a mixed list of tasks that might typically be conducted by an account manager and/or a business analyst at larger agencies, but as a Strategist on my team, I am usually doing this myself.

Doing this myself provides two advantages: 1) I am the holder of all the information that I need, 2) I am better able to serve the client and build their trust because I have been there from the beginning.

Once discovery is complete, I can get a clear view of what the client needs, a general strategy for them, and what kind of resources their Digital Strategy might need (money, time, and manpower) to execute. After some collaboration between the client and our team, we are ready to sign off on the next phase of the Strategy: documentation.

What Do I Do? - Documentation

Here comes the real work of a Digital Strategist: documenting the Strategy.

Strategies are clear. They are easy to follow.

They are documented in a presentation for both you and the client to keep and follow.

They start with the overarching purpose for creating the Strategy and follow with what the short term and long term (quantitative and qualitative) goals for the Strategy are.

They then move on to analyses: market, competitor, and SWAT. The presentation will list individual tactics and the goals for those tactics.

A timeline will be created for the Strategy, and next steps will be created within that timeline. This is all project-dependent. If it’s a Digital Marketing Strategy I’m documenting, execution will follow. If it’s a Digital Solution we’re after, the Strategy documentation process continues!

I will create personas for both target markets and users. If this is a customer-facing website project, personas can be created for the audiences your client’s content will be seeking. If this is an intranet, personas can be created for different types of users of the intranet. The process of persona-creation is introspective for both the Strategist and the client.

The client might understand who their current customers are but might not understand how they use the internet, or what kind of information they might be seeking from the website. The persona’s technical acumen might be low, or their use of the internet might be limited to mobile. All of this will affect the design of the site.

If the Strategy includes a website, I’ll create a sitemap. We use Axure, but there are other tools like Axure that can allow you to create prototypes (I could, and probably will write a whole blog about the awesomeness of Axure). The sitemap gives the client and the Strategist the power to organize their UX flow and content before design ever begins.

Once a sitemap is agreed upon, I create wireframes in Axure. Wireframing is its own tricky business. I won’t get into details here, but all of that analyzing and strategy documentation comes in very handy for this portion of the process.

What Do I Do? - Execution

From here, I pass off all of this information to a designer and a Business Analyst (BA) to start the creative process and to write a functional design specification document (FDS), the latter of which I sometimes write myself. The FDS lays out the tasks for the project and if required by the client, the BAs and Strategists work together to create an agile project plan. Since we are an agency partner, we typically do not run the projects ourselves. We build, we follow our Strategy, we are a part of the conversation, we are at standups, we demo completed items at the end of the sprint, but we allow the end client to manage the project themselves.

Collaboration is key. Using tools like Jira, Confluence, Slack, Google Docs and Sheets, or GitHub (every method of communication is tailored to the client’s needs), I keep an open line of communication and collaboration. The more a client understands the process and the current state, the better the relationship between all parties.

As a Strategist, I’m also testing anything we build as it is built. I understand more than the client, usually, about how our solutions are supposed to function. Testing allows us to make sure our Digital Solutions are as flawless as they can be. The quality of the Solutions used in our Strategies is the most important differentiator – to me personally and to the agencies we work for.

How to Become a Strategist

When I first started pursuing marketing, I learned that there are two ‘tracks’ (if you will) that one can follow professionally: ‘Account Services’ and ‘Strategy’ which translates roughly to “those who work directly with clients” and “those who work directly with data.”

These two tracks are way, way too broad, in my opinion. Some agencies utilize ‘Client Strategists’ that both manage accounts and create and implement marketing strategies and tactics, while some agencies might have ‘Project Managers’ that do so much more than just that.

Don’t limit your prospects.

My advice? Start small, get your feet wet, find a mentor (somebody who isn’t afraid to tell you when you’re wrong), and never stop learning. Never.

Not an Easy Job, But a Satisfying One

I learn new things every day.

I work with technology that I would never have exposure to elsewhere. I get to play with new ‘toys’ and work with brilliant minds, and when I do a good job, it is always impressive because not many people can do what I do.

Is this glamorous?

Maybe not to some, but I think it is. I love being a total marketing nerd!

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