Rob Blackie, Blue Rubicon: New thinking- Putting digital at the centre

Bringing order to digital strategies can save millions of pounds, according to Blue Rubicon head of digital Rob Blackie.

The digital transformation of communications is unlike any we have seen before. Whether brand, direct marketing, traditional public relations, internal communications, customer services or dealing with stakeholders, digital is transforming everything companies do.

Too often though, the corporate response to digital is either a mass of tactics without any strategy, or simply reflects concerns about how to get started.

Unsurprisingly, without an obvious owner of digital, many companies are wasting millions of pounds every year on technology, websites, media buys and agencies that often duplicate each other.

A corporate relations chief who burnt his address book, forgot his relationships with stakeholders and fired his team after every campaign would, rightly, be seen as irresponsible. Yet companies routinely commission agencies to build one-off campaign websites that are redundant after a few months, fail to collect basic contact details for their stakeholders, don't measure their returns online and have no relation to their longer-term strategy.

Amid the resulting chaos, communicators often try to restrict their colleagues from doing anything at all.

However, there is a strategic approach. It may be impossible to put the genie back in the bottle, but it is surprisingly easy to bring order to your digital strategy.

1. First, every organisation needs social media guidelines that make it clear who is allowed to comment, how personal activity online is regarded, and which issues can be commented on and when.

The process of agreeing guidelines is often the starting point for different internal stakeholders to agree the overall corporate approach. Learning should be at the centre of social media guidelines, because most organisations will want to become more ambitious with their digital communications as they gain experience. As with offline communications, it is rarely optimal to do nothing online.

2. Second, basic governance has to be put in place if organisations' digital initiatives are to be joined up. Before digital, a newsletter from the internal communications department had no bearing on what the corporate communications team did. Today a message on the intra-net can be on the internet in minutes, as Nokia recently discovered. Governance shouldn't be designed simply to avoid problems, but to increase efficiency. Multiple campaign-specific websites frequently cost organisations several hundred thousand pounds and are redundant after a few months. By contrast, a campaign built on Facebook, or designed to capture contact details of fans, can create an asset that lets a company communicate directly with its audiences.

3. Third, it is essential to make sure strategies exist for key channels. According to Ofcom, over 90 per cent of the population are on mobile (and most will be on smartphones in the next few months), 72 per cent have email and over 50 per cent are on Facebook. Ignore these and you'll find it difficult to communicate with many audiences who spend most of their time engaging with these channels.

4. Fourth, the internet is an unprecedented source of useful information and entertainment for your audiences. The result is that they have high expectations about the usefulness and quality of content, expectations that companies often fail to meet. If you are going to communicate anything online, the most likely result of failure is that people will ignore it. Any digital strategy has to be based on the hard truth that people, including your own staff and customers, are usually not that interested in you.

5. Finally, incorporating digital into communications strategies requires organisations to join up internal silos as never before. This is a behavioural change challenge as much as a technology challenge. At Blue Rubicon we have worked both internally and with many clients to understand the barriers to greater ambition online and have created case studies of instances when we've successfully helped the whole organisation use digital to achieve business ends.


Here are four of the most common approaches we use to meet our clients' varied challenges

Smart monitoring

High quality online monitoring is difficult because it has to marry technical knowledge - such as how to filter out irrelevant mentions of your brand - with an understanding of the business priorities behind monitoring. Value-added monitoring matches the needs of a business to the technology and its capacity to generate actions, rather than being analysis for analysis' sake. Several Blue Rubicon clients use online monitoring to resolve issues before they come to the attention of the media, and marketers are increasingly using smart monitoring as a fast and cost-effective source of consumer insights.

Online message testing

Corporate language often fails to engage audiences in a way they find compelling. Online message testing creates a shortlist of words that are likely to work for a target audience. It then takes alternative narrative options and tests them on the public to understand which words work online, and which are ineffective or counterproductive. Barack Obama's campaign for the US presidency used these techniques, and it was found that a button labelled 'learn more' brought 18 per cent more sign-ups (and donations) than an identical 'sign up' button.

Digital strategy planning

Planning a digital strategy requires new structures and habits for most organisations. Digital strategies can be as simple as a high quality Twitter feed to influence key journalists, or as ambitious as a data strategy that joins up the whole business, from operations to customer services, internal communications, marketing and corporate affairs. Planning a digital strategy requires understanding of business goals and a perception of what constitutes hard value, as well as a view of the technologies that offer robust value for money solutions.

Using Facebook

Almost a third of online time is spent on Facebook, according to UKOM, yet many companies have no strategy to leverage this for their business objectives. If a consumer 'Likes' an article in The Telegraph, their friends see that endorsement both on Facebook and if they visit the Telegraph website. Marketers have talked for years about recruiting and energising advocates to spread love of their brands, and Facebook is a golden opportunity. Successful Facebook pages have to tackle knotty issues, such as the level of tolerance of hostile views, how to prioritise brand-building versus promotional campaigns, and how to turn fans on Facebook into customers who buy the product. The best Facebook campaigns aren't about what a brand says to its fans, but ones that inspire fans to endorse the brand to their friends.

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