Do you remember long ago in the “Before Times” when everything was about digital transformation? It was either right before or right after we embraced ABM, and some time before we became enamored with AI. It dominated article headlines, vendor websites (including mine), conference topics and even showed up on the occasional t-shirt. No marketing PowerPoint was complete without a reference to digital transformation.

We marketers love our big picture themes. And as often is the case, we spoke about digital transformation as a big umbrella theme without a clear definition. There was magical thinking around how digital transformation might happen and the value it would bring in the context of the customer experience. But then we moved on, and as a marketing theme, digital transformation faded into the background.

The good news is though digital transformation stopped being front and center as a marketing theme, the development of enabling technology didn’t slow and we are now positioned to reap the benefits.

I like the clarity of the Salesforce definition of digital transformation: “Digital transformation is the process of using digital technologies to create new — or modify existing — business processes, culture and customer experiences to meet changing business and market requirements. This reimagining of business in the digital age is digital transformation.

It transcends traditional roles like sales, marketing and customer service. Instead, digital transformation begins and ends with how you think about, and engage with, customers. As we move from paper to spreadsheets to smart applications for managing our business, we have the chance to reimagine how we do business — how we engage our customers — with digital technology on our side.”

Why Start Talking About Digital Transformation Again?

Forrester noted in its recent earnings call that, "the pandemic is accelerating digital transformation across all industries." Nothing like a pandemic to disrupt how we work, how our business operates, and how we engage with our customers. For most companies, digital transformation is going to be the key to survival and long-term growth and success.

Deloitte describes four stages of digital transformation, which provide a good framework for defining a strategy:

  • Exploring: Leverage traditional technologies to automate existing capabilities. Dabbling with digital. No real change to the organization.
  • Doing: Leverage digital technologies to extend capabilities, but still largely the same business, operating and customer models.
  • Becoming: Leverage digital technologies — becoming more synchronized and less siloed — with advanced changes to business, operating and customer models.
  • Being: Business, operating and customer models are optimized for digital and profoundly different from prior business, operating and customer models.

Most companies have passed through the Exploring stage and are now in the Doing stage. We’ve all implemented automation to improve efficiency and reduce costs and are now deploying technology to drive revenue, engage with customers in a more personalized fashion, and to improve the overall customer experience.

Related Article: Digital Transformation: Why Now?

Bringing Your Digital Transformation to the Next Level

If I’d written this article 12 months ago, I would have predicted the tipping point to propel companies from the Doing stage to Becoming stage would be the availability of AI-driven tools that would enable broader thinking around transforming business operations and customer engagement. Never in a million years would I have thought a pandemic would bring us to this point, but here we are.

From a marketing perspective I see a two-step process to reaching the 'Becoming' stage.

Step 1: Back to Basics

The pandemic has thrust us into unfamiliar territory. B2B and Consumer purchasing priorities have been upended, and more likely than not our buyer personas need to be scrapped and completely rewritten. Before moving to embrace innovation it’s important to make sure the basics are addressed:

Learning Opportunities

  1. Team Dynamics: How has the pandemic impacted your team? Have you had to reduce team size? Is your team working well? Do you have the tools in place to support communications and productivity? Do you have a mechanism and process for checking in to make sure everyone is feeling connected and that their contributions are noticed? Have you considered how to foster a positive culture and address the issues that parents at home with children are facing? My daughter runs a tech support team for a Learning Management Company and her team lives on Zoom and Slack. They’ve chosen to spend three hours one night a week playing Dungeons and Dragons online together. More Zoom would be my worst nightmare but it’s working for them and making up for the lost casual office conversation.
  2. Inter-Departmental Relationships: Organizational silos are a problem at the best of times but when everyone is remote, each silo might as well be on a different planet. Have you created bridges to other teams and ways to foster relationships without in person interaction?
  3. Customer Personas: Have you revisited your customer personas and made adjustments based on the pandemic? Have your customer’s needs and priorities changed? Are they under financial pressure? How have their lives changed because of the pandemic? Our typical customer ranges in age from 30 to 45 years old and a large percentage are married with children. This statement has become particularly significant because many of them are trying to manage work and childcare and as a result, only the most important work responsibilities are being addressed. We have had to factor that into our sales, marketing and customer engagement strategy.
  4. Product Market Fit: In our current environment is your product a “must have,” a “nice to have” or “no longer relevant.” If you fall in the “nice to have” or “no longer relevant” is there something you can do to modify your offering to make it a “must have” or more relevant? For some, there will be no easy answer and decisions will have to be made about whether it makes sense to step back and define a new product.
  5. Business Model: Your customers are likely under financial pressure and in a B2B environment may have been asked to eliminate expenses. Your current business model and pricing may not be palatable at the moment. For example: Some of our clients are in the sports industry and have been badly impacted by the pandemic. We are working hard to be flexible with our business model in order to support them as they navigate a completely changed world.
  6. Messaging and Marketing Program Plan: Once any necessary adjustments have been made to your team, personas, product and business model the next step is to revisit your internal and external messaging and your marketing program plan. Does everything still make sense? What changes are needed to your messaging, marketing plans, budgets and execution? Do you still have the team in place to execute? If not, what can you eliminate?
  7. Customer Experience: What changes do you need to make to your customer experience and engagement plan? Different channels? Different frequency of connection? Different content provided? What can you do to make your customer’s life easier or deliver concrete value?

With all the basics addressed you can move on to the digital transformation element of this step: technology. Review your existing marketing and sales technology stack and:

  1. Eliminate any products that do not serve your new plan.
  2. Eliminate any products that you do not have the skills to operate due to having a smaller team or that are too complex to operate in a de-centralized work-from-home environment.
  3. Use your new plan to define all of the use cases that require technology support, starting with internal communications and productivity. If your team isn’t working well, nothing else will work well. Create a series of “we need technology to do X” statements.
  4. Go back to your stack and assess each product through the lens of your use case requirements and determine which meet requirement, don’t meet requirements and maybe meet requirements. Eliminate the “don’t meet requirements” products, keep the “do meet requirements” products and then dig into the “maybe” products to better understand whether they might meet requirements with some additional team training or better utilization of functionality, and if not let them go.
  5. Some of you will be tasked with reducing your technology expenses. Going through the exercise above will probably get you where you need to cut, but if not, go back to step four and determine which use cases you can eliminate and the impact of doing that. This will guide to you the right technology elimination decisions.
  6. Finally, assess the skills of your team to make sure you have the skills in place to fully utilize the technology that remains in place. Identify and implement training and cross-training programs to ensure that you are fully utilizing every piece of technology that you have.

Your newly stripped-down stack will give you a solid foundation for moving forward. The final piece of the Back-to-Basics step is to address any use cases your current technology stack can't support and acquire new technology to support those requirements.

Related Article: 4 MarTech Projects for the Lazy, Hazy Days of Summer

Step 2: Innovate

With Step 1 complete, take a breath, clear your head and prepare for the fun part, innovation.

It’s hard to look holistically at everything the marketing and sales departments do and say “we need to innovate.” A better approach is to create meaningful target areas to address one at a time. There’s no right or wrong way to do this, but as an example you could create three target areas:

  1. Internal operations: Collaboration and productivity
  2. Growth: Drive revenue and engagement
  3. Service: Customer experience

For each area identify problems and potential new opportunities to explore. Assuming you come up with a good list of objectives, you can then proceed to assess potential business impact and create technology use cases for those that will deliver the most impact. In time, this becomes your roadmap to get to the Becoming stage of digital transformation.

The loaded phrase in the last paragraph is “coming up with a good list of objectives.” I am well aware this isn't an easy task and can be frustrating. If one more person tells me to “think outside the box” I’m going to have a meltdown. It’s a really hard thing to do when you are fully immersed (or drowning) in your day-to-day responsibilities and current environment. Some tips:

  • Futurist, Edie Weiner gave a great talk, during which she discussed how to get your brain thinking more broadly. Two of her suggestions have stuck with me:
    • Choose a magazine to read regularly that is outside of what you would normally read. If you read news magazines try a scientific journal or Popular Mechanics. You don’t have to enjoy or understand what you are reading, you just need to feed your brain something new.
    • Embrace science fiction in its many forms. Science fiction gives us a sense of what could be possible.
  • Use a structured brainstorming process. We all talk about brainstorming but very few of us do it with a formal process. The secret to good brainstorming is to follow an uninterrupted and non-judgmental process. In looking for a good process I found an article about brainstorming remotely which is particularly relevant at the moment.
  • Engage non-work-related friends in the process. Sometimes talking to friends who don’t know anything about your business and industry can spark ideas because they are listening to you without any preconceived ideas or bias.
  • Reach out to industry peers and see how they are approaching similar challenges.
  • And finally, don’t forget to talk to your customers to get their ideas. You may want to consider using a professional research firm for this exercise to ensure that you don’t lead or bias the conversation.

Digital transformation is no longer a marketing theme, it is a business mandate. Every step you take now will increase your company’s survival chances and better position your company for future growth.

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