The 7 secret ingredients for digital project success

Luminary Digital Strategist Emma Andrews reveals what it takes to really get value out of your investment in digital.

Emma Andrews

By Emma Andrews, 17 minute read


We’ll just go ahead and say it - most digital investments fail to achieve their potential.  

That is, they fail to reach the full expectations of an organisation.

Digital marketing is a constantly changing field. It’s why we (and you reading this) choose to work in it. Because it’s exciting and an opportunity to constantly learn. Every month, new tools, platforms and theories impact the way we “do” digital. And that means not only trying to stay on top of new developments but running to catch up with the last. And it’s not easy. 

So, how do you ensure your next digital project reaches its full potential?

A better way

Successful projects share a number of common traits. Over our 20 years of operation in the digital space, Luminary has developed a framework that maximises the chances of success of a digital project. Called the ‘7 pillars’, it analyses seven core areas of an organisation’s digital landscape to provide a holistic view and assessment, before any project begins. 

In a nutshell, the 7 pillars framework looks like this:

Pillar 1. Strategy and vision – Ascertains whether the organisation has the foundations for a robust digital plan that is directly related to its overall strategy.

Pillar 2. Customer centricity – Asks whether the organisation has a truly customer first approach.

Pillar 3. Data – Seeks to understand the breadth of data collected and evidence of it being applied to drive change.

Pillar 4. Digital integration – Asks whether the organisation is executing a coherent set of tactics, that respond to the multiple touch points at which a consumer engages with it.

Pillar 5. Content – Investigates whether there is a scalable process for content production and effective integration of content across the organisation.

Pillar 6. Resourcing – Seeks to find out if the organisation’s resources are well aligned to deliver the strategy.

Pillar 7. Martech stack – Reviews the marketing technology stack against the requirements and objectives. 

Each one of these pillars ties into a critical aspect of digital project success – or failure. Below is a closer look at each of these pillars and how they can be applied to avoid digital projects failing to realise their potential.

Diagram of Luminary's 7 pillars

1. Strategy & Vision 

This pillar assesses whether the organisation has the foundations for a successful digital project. We ask the following questions:

  • How well is your organisational strategy documented? 
  • Is there a specific digital strategy/roadmap to create growth?
  • How clearly defined are the digital priorities of the organisation?

The problem – Jumping in without a strategy 

In 2018, CIO.com reported that 50 percent of companies aren’t successfully executing their digital strategies, and 20 percent believe that those very projects are a waste of time.

So many digital projects fail to meet their intended potential because teams rush into solution mode at the risk of falling behind, without consideration for all the relevant factors at play. Expecting your digital agency to ‘just start building something’ without the context of the bigger picture is a fast-track to failure. 

Here are some situations you might be familiar with, which are often symptoms of not having a digital strategy that is clearly linked to delivering the business strategy:

  • A poor initial business case
  • Unclear statements of expected outcomes
  • Lack of senior management buy-in

The solution – Translate business strategy into digital strategy

Put simply, we look for a clear and documented organisational strategy which is being used to inform the direction of all digital activity. 

This could be a one-year or a five-year plan - but whatever the horizon, it must ladder up to the overall business strategy and goals. We often refer to this clear direction as ‘Your North Star’. And here’s are two examples of where this becomes important: 

  1. The best digital agency-client relationships are where the two parties are equal partners and where the definition of digital is expansive and inclusive. This means that the agency can think through and tackle business challenges beyond just ‘getting the job done’; and constantly look back to the strategy and question whether the solution serves that.
  2. Technology decisions are no longer made solely by specialists but also leaders across different business divisions. This pillar is therefore also about making sure that all the stakeholders who will at some point ‘touch’ the project are on board and aligned with the strategy. This also helps identify unspoken misalignment among them about the project goals. This is where a well-designed and facilitated kick-off workshop, undertaken early, can lead to better decision-making and outcomes later on.

2. Customer centricity

Colour wheel focusing on consumers

This is where we ask questions to ascertain how deep the customer-first approach goes:

  • Does the organisation have a clear picture of who it is speaking to? 
  • Does the organisation have documented personas and a clear understanding of their experiences?
  • How does the organisation analyse, understand and react to customer needs? How is the customer experience optimised?

The problem – Saying, but not being, ‘customer-first’

Research by Deloitte found that customer-centric companies were 60 percent more profitable than companies that were not focused on the customer. When companies develop their digital initiatives from the point of what they want to say and sell vs what the end user really values, they are not putting the customer first.

There are several reasons this might happen:

  • The organisation is doing well ‘the way things are’ so isn’t committed to change
  • There is no champion in the business for the customer
  • Concern over the impact on costs.

In cases where the intention exists – where it’s a stated objective but with no action plan for how to change from an internal to an external focus – the problem sometimes has another cause:

  • Not properly identifying their needs it’s impossible to provide the best possible customer experience
  • Failing to re-evaluate and update old audience profiles 
  • Getting muddled between audience demographics, personas and journey maps.

Whatever the cause, the result is the same – a digital solution that fails to meet business objectives because it doesn’t meet the needs of the people for whom it was built. Project sponsors are then left having to explain why it’s not delivering the return promised.

The solution – Get clear on your end users

Spending time carefully crafting behavioural and attitudinal research with your real customers is where you’ll uncover priceless insights about what they truly need, rather than simply jumping onto the next technology revolution in isolation from your other initiatives.

From this research, we’re seeing more sophisticated segmentation strategies being adopted and a move away from target audience groupings based on out-of-date categorisations and antiquated demographic data. Instead, businesses are moving towards defining customers based on a much more diverse and exciting set of characteristics that reflect their behaviour - regardless of channel.

Holding onto the existing digital platform for a little longer is something we sometimes encourage as it gives organisations the chance to conduct detailed heuristics reviews and A/B testing rather than replacing old with new and replicating the same issues. Adopt a new differentiation model within your audience-first approach and be one of the 52 percent of marketers that Forbes reports are adapting their strategies and tactics based on customer interactions and feedback.

3. Data

Graph on computer screen

When it comes to looking at an organisation’s data, we’re looking at what data management systems are in place; and how they help serve (or otherwise) the organisation.

The three key data questions are:

  • What data management systems are in place?
  • How effective are the processes for data collection? 
  • How are insights from data used to adjust strategies and tactics? Is data used to create profitable customer experiences?

The problem – Having too much data

Most of us working in digital are highly analytical. It's one of the reasons we love this discipline. We can never have enough data. More is better… right? So what's the problem? Big data. That’s the problem. We’ve got so much of it, in so many places that:

  1. We don’t have a complete picture because it exists in silos
  2. We’ve got more than we can meaningfully use to gain insights that we can really use
  3. We’re looking at what we can see rather than searching for answers to the big questions.

Data is the linchpin when you need to demonstrate return on digital investment early in a project; but looking at the wrong data and making decisions based on that, is what can cause digital projects to fail.

The solution – Focus on the few metrics that really matter

With 61% of CMOs admitting they have a long way to go in using big data properly, solutions like CDPs (Customer Data Platforms) are enabling organisations to autonomously create unified customer profiles from data gathered across a variety of online and offline channels.

Avoid data silos from the outset and unify reporting across channel marketing activities. Instead, looking at the data in relation to the approach to audience segmentation and the business goals we talked about above, will enhance your understanding of how your customers and prospects are engaging with your brand and what that delivers for the bottom line.

In any company, there’s a wealth of data that already exists. Instead of starting from zero, do some detective work and discover the resources already available. Meet with the various teams and find out what information they collect and which tools they use as your starting point.

Then when it comes to using the data, focus on those few key metrics that move the needle and are really important to the organisation rather than spending hours extracting data about click-through rates and page views.

4. Digital integration

Cogs in a machine

So many organisations now talk about mobile-first. We talk about ‘person-first’. What we’re looking for here is whether there’s an omni-channel customer experience plan and a platform neutral approach.

  • Is there an integrated channel strategy to meet the customers’ needs for an omni-channel brand experience?
  • Is digital seen in isolation or complementary to the broader marketing activity of the organisation?
  • Are digital campaigns/tactics being planned together or individually?

The problem – Failing to integrate digital marketing channels 

Rolling out a new digital solution (whether that be a website, app or something more) is never going to be a silver bullet. Acquisition, retention, loyalty - a website does not solve all of your business problems in one go. It should support and integrate with your other activities.

Digital marketing success depends on more than using each channel in isolation. Engaging with the right audiences for your brand is achieved through integrating channels, from search to chat, display, video, email, website and (dare we say it) offline. 

There are several reasons we see this happening: operating in silos, lack of strategy and a focus on implementing a myriad of disjointed tactics or a lack of understanding of the customer journey. When there is a lack of coordination between digital marketing efforts, businesses limit the exposure of their branded content and fail to reach their audiences.

The solution - Recognise that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts

We’ll set the scene here by sharing a helpful definition of integrated marketing:
“Integrated Marketing is an approach to creating a unified and seamless experience for consumers to interact with the brand/enterprise so that all [activities] work together as a unified force. It is a process designed to ensure that all messaging and communications strategies are consistent across all channels and are centered on the customer.”

The good news is, you don’t need to be in every communication channel; you need to be in the ones that matter to your customers. Your audiences don’t think in channels - they think in information, stories and experiences. When you know what they are, it’s a ‘matching luggage’ approach - across all those channels and devices. Developing relationships takes time. Integrating platforms encourages connectivity with your audiences and helps you engage with them by being available on multiple platforms.

Plan out how all your channels will work together before you get started rather than creating individual channel plans. Architecting how a website integrates into the existing ecosystem is a task worth spending some time on upfront – especially if you’re exploring a headless content management system and the provision of best-in-class microservices for your digital suite vs an all-in-one web CMS.

5. Content

Hands on a keyboard

The Content Marketing Institute defines content marketing as: a strategic marketing approach focused on creating and distributing valuable, relevant, and consistent content to attract and retain a clearly defined audience — and, ultimately, to drive profitable customer action

So when we look at this pillar with clients we are asking these types of questions:

  • Does the organisation have a documented content strategy which is being delivered on?
  • How is content marketing measured? Is it achieving the goals set?
  • What are you learning from the content consumption of your target audiences? How are you refining the activities based on your learnings?

The problem – Thinking content means just writing some blog articles

It usually starts with a failure to get senior buy-in for proper investment in content production which relegates content marketing to a series of mediocre blog posts. Organisations have just 15 seconds to capture a visitor’s attention on their website. So a series of articles on your website/app/portal/ that you hope someone will stumble upon isn’t going to get any cut through with your audiences.

Generic content without the brand’s point of view and neglecting to create content that can be used across the various channels, are two of the reasons we see content marketing initiatives start - and stop - pretty quickly.

This usually happens when the following haven’t been considered:

  • Optimising all your content for SEO - write for people and the search engines
  • It takes time to see results - and when you measure too early and it seems like there's no ROI from it, the whole plan gets canned
  • The things your audience actually wants/needs to see - because you haven’t taken the time to create clear personas
  • Promoting the content - build it and they will come, right? Nope. You need to promote and distribute the content to your target audiences
  • Measuring the impact of the content - creating content without consideration for what  KPIs it should achieve in the first place.

The solution – Create once, publish everywhere 

By now you will have noticed the theme of this blog post - integration and customer focus (ok that’s two themes). ‘Create once, publish everywhere’ means content is presented in different ways across different formats and channels. What starts out as a video, might become an article in an email, a social post and showreel at an event. This ensures that you stop under-utilising your precious content assets.

Provide content specifically for every stage of the customer journey. Content marketing is about the long game. And to be in it, you have to understand your audience, their pain points, and create content that’s valuable to them. To achieve that, you need to plan it and then write it down, then schedule it, deploy it, measure it and optimise it.

Thirdly, appoint someone to own the content marketing strategy.

And lastly, make sure there is a budget allocated to this activity.

6. Resourcing

Man and women in interview situation

This pillar takes in an assessment of whether the appropriate resources are in place to deliver effective digital programmes including budget, time, people, external support and expertise. We ask the following questions:

  • How well are the organisation’s people structured to meet their digital objectives?
  • What third-party resources are used to support the organisation?
  • What is the process for making investment decisions in digital?

The problem – Legacy structures constraining the organisation of digital teams

According to PWC, 29 percent of organisations cite a lack of properly skilled teams as the reason for failing to execute their digital strategy. 

That’s why it’s important to ensure the organisation has enough of the right resources and capabilities to complement the digital products, projects and solutions.

If the company isn’t a digital native, such as the likes of Tesla, then you’ll no doubt also be grappling with historical, hierarchical structures and processes too; rather than having digital teams in place from the start. This is another reason why digital projects can fail. When digital initiatives are not seen as integral, they are executed by fragmented teams without necessarily having a joined up organisation-wide approach. They lack the focus, budget and correct resources to really be effective.

The solution – Cross functional teams and open communication

Along with your investment in tech solutions, you also need the right blend of resources to execute the digital strategy and keep the lights on - a team to adequately implement the strategy.

Cross functional teams which deliberately combine the necessary types of expertise required to deliver projects and avoid functional silos are where we see the best results.

A question we often get asked is around what to hire for internally vs outsource. There is no one-size-fits-all here. The benefit of external support is that it can be turned up and down as the needs of the business dictate.

In terms of in-house resources, a digital strategy shouldn't rely on only the ‘digital people’ to be involved in it. Every digital project should involve a range of staff with the skills to help scope and plan the alignment between the customer needs and back-end operational processes. Furthermore, if there’s a shift required then it will generally involve a broader set of stakeholders from across the business.

7. Martech stack

Software developers

It’s at this point that we get the techies involved to undertake an assessment of the relative fit of the technology stack to meet the organisation's objectives:

  • What specific systems are in place to support digital, and where are there gaps? 
  • Are systems maintained/supported, current version or end-of-life? What legacy marketing systems are in place and how are they hindering progress?
  • Are new technologies efficiently and purposefully integrated into the organisation, and do they help achieve business results? 

The problem – Failing to plan properly

There are many ways that failing to plan properly might occur in an organisation:

  1. Neglecting to involve the right set of stakeholders from the outset and therefore not achieving the proper buy-in from the organisation. When new initiatives are delivered ‘under the radar’ whilst not engaging with decision-makers because they might voice objections or concerns, they inevitably fail to have the impact they were meant to and then are written off as a failure.
  2. Failing to understand (or ignoring) the business processes which the technology is supposed to enhance or support. Having a customer-centric approach doesn’t mean ignoring back-end processes. A solution that solves a problem for the customer at the expense of having to heavily alter the martech stack is unlikely to lead to success.
  3. Chasing the latest new technology rather than delivering something less sexy but that will meet your customer needs better. This sometimes happens when teams put technology ahead of strategy, or develop initiatives in silos before engaging other business areas to assess the implications of the new technology. 

The solution – Create a process for investment decisions

Spending on marketing automation tools alone is expected to reach $25.1 billion annually by 2023. With these kinds of budgets, the decision-making around which platforms to invest in should be carefully thought through.

Good investment decisions can be achieved with some really simple rules:

  1. Test drive - at the very least you should get a demo of the technology. A sandbox that you can play with is usually an option as are case studies/testimonials from actual users of the software.
  2. Validate - Get independent verification. Gartner is usually a good first port of call for answering this point.
  3. Process - formalise how you choose vendors and technology. Ask lots of questions throughout the process, make sure everyone’s voice is heard.

Aligning digital and business goals and an adequate understanding of the existing business processes will enable you to buy tech which can be integrated to complement or enhance business operations.

Practical application of the 7 pillars framework

Try Googling ‘digital planning framework’ (no, actually go on… do it). You’ll find about 147,000,000 results.

Overwhelming? Just a bit.

The pace of change creates the risk of turning digital teams into automatons who simply roll out one digital project after another. Clients often need an agency to guide them through the process of strategy implementation to gain the most value from investments in digital. Whatever industry, our 7 pillars approach applies. It allows us to ask the right questions quickly, and ensures the longevity of your plan because it looks at all the relevant areas of impact.

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