How to fail in digital

Before setting a new digital course for your company, identify your underlying assumptions

Over the past few years, companies have gotten increasingly better at wasting their time and money in digital. The formula goes something like this:

1. Pluck a C-level exec from a successful company.

2. Surround them with entrenched management teams that stand more to lose from change than they have to gain.

3. Mimic the ethos of successful 'disrupter' brands, even if those brands are unrelated to your company.

4. Create some confusing brand campaigns that normal people are puzzled by, but management loves.

5. Zip around the conference circuit and talk about your philosophy on building a “new kind of business.”

6. Make broad comments about tech like “mobile is the future” and “the rate of change is accelerating.”

7. Kickstart an innovation initiative to build out “capabilities” that fit into a trend that everyone agrees is important, like AI.

8. When it comes to what you actually do in digital, spend a lot of money on ads.

9. Put them on all of the “it” apps. Verify this by asking your kids and administrative assistants what apps they use.

10. Finally, create lot of content, spray it out around the internet, and hope that all of this can somehow add up to meaningful change, or at least incremental improvement.

By this point we’re usually a few years into this strategy, nothing has changed, and folks in the C-suite are getting antsy for results. Agencies provide a pretty good scapegoat for failure, but it only buys another 12-18 months before the cycle starts all over again.

This is how to fail.

How we got here

When examining why this happens so often, it’s tempting to conclude that it’s because the people in charge are incompetent. Yet most of these decisions aren’t actually wrong on their surface. Rather, they only reveal themselves as wrong when the underlying assumptions behind them are identified and questioned. And this is the central problem companies face today: too many decisions are made without considering the flawed-yet-hidden assumptions that lurk beneath.

To explain what I mean, let’s look at a few examples.

Take the decision to create content. On the surface, this is entirely reasonable, as the data shows people are spending more and more time consuming content; if a brand wants to succeed in digital, it follows that they should invest in content. But the hidden, underlying assumption is that because people watch a lot of content, it also means they’re open to watching content from brands, and are willing to augment their Netflix/Hulu/YouTube habit with new branded content.

This isn’t to say that brands shouldn’t create content. Rather, it’s that companies who don’t identify this underlying assumption and solve for it often make the mistake of thinking that content consumption growth means there’s a big opportunity for branded content—and as long as it’s decent, it will capture a sizable audience. Predictably, many of these companies experience a rude awakening when their derivative BuzzFeed-esque videos don’t catch on.

To illustrate another example, consider the case of innovation initiatives. Most of these programs are typically made on seemingly-sound logic: the evidence of successful innovation efforts by other companies shows that a blueprint for launching new products and services is possible, as long as one follows best practices for how to structure these programs.

But probe a bit deeper, and there’s another hidden assumption that reveals itself: that what has worked for one company must also work for another company, because the structure of the initiative, not the idea or market or team, is the factor that made it successful.

This doesn’t mean companies shouldn’t study successful innovation programs. But firms that do it too often don’t consider the flipside: what is unique and un-replicable about these success stories? Who has done something similar and failed? Why are we different? What if we’re not? Without this kind of humility and awareness, a false sense of confidence can become pervasive. And that’s a mistake that can be fatal.

What it means

When brands think about digital, it’s alluring to leave the assumptions of any decision unexamined and focus instead on the potential upside. But these assumptions, I posit to you, are what actually matter when it comes to success vs. failure.

In other words, for any brand trying to build a digital strategy, the first question that should be asked is not “how should we?” but “why should we?”

By engaging in this order of operations, companies are much less likely to find themselves trapped in the doomed cycle that occurs when one takes what has worked before and imports it into a new world, without questioning if the underlying assumptions are still relevant.

Then again, maybe I’m wrong, and your new innovation lab will solve everything.

Scott Fogel is director of strategy at Firstborn. He tweets @scottf_

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