The marketing industry has been confused about the role of the digital strategist since the dawn of digital marketing itself. Here’s my take on the answer to the question, “What is a digital strategist, and what does a digital strategist do?”
I published the article, “What is a Digital Strategist?” almost six years ago. The piece has been viewed more than 100,000 times by digital strategists, digital marketers, digital marketing recruiters, and others inside and outside of the digital marketing industry. Most of them came upon the article seeking clarity about the job description of the digital strategist, one of the most essential but misunderstood roles in digital marketing.
Some fifteen years after the term “digital strategist” first made its way into a Google search result, the concept of the digital strategist’s role within an agency or brand remains a challenge for many to wrap their heads around. This is especially true of the people hiring them. Speak with ten marketers today, and you’ll still get ten different answers to the question, “What is a digital strategist?”
Explore any of the popular online job search engines or talk with a recruiter who specializes in the digital marketing space about a digital strategist role. You’ll quickly learn that a digital strategist by any other name is often seen as an account executive, social media manager, web analytics manager, media planner, brand ambassador, financial and/or business analyst, business development associate, digital marketing specialist, marketing coordinator, or any combination of these roles. It’s wild and ambiguous out there.
Digital Marketing Purple Squirrels and Unicorns
In fact, I’ve seen digital strategist job requirements that included phlebotomy certification, piano tuning experience, and the ability to debone a freakishly large-breasted chicken in one piece. OK, maybe not. But seriously, the people these job posters are after don’t exist. They’re like purple squirrels. Some might believe the “casting a wide net” approach to staffing the digital strategist role is pure ignorance. Perhaps the reality is simply a desire to get as much bang for the buck as possible from the hiring budget.
Truth be told, I’m guilty of hunting for purple squirrels, myself. And I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t trying to wring every penny’s worth of value from my hiring budget, like everyone else. At the time of this writing, I’m seeking talented unicorns with skills and experience bridging the domains of business, digital marketing, and marketing technology. Finding people in one of those areas with the right attitude, skills, and ability to deliver value for my customers is a chore. Finding people who check the boxes in all three areas is a task worthy of Hercules.
On the flip side, those applying for digital strategist jobs are often (seriously) unqualified. However, since the job descriptions and requirements of the digital strategist are so convoluted and ambiguous, you can’t blame the applicants. The bottom line? The unresolved disconnect between both parties regarding the role and responsibilities of the digital strategist is a big one, and there’s no sign of that changing any time soon. That said, here’s my point of view in answer to the question, “What does a digital strategist do?”
What Does a Digital Strategist Do?
I’ve always held that digital strategy was the discipline of working with teams inside an agency or brand to solve complex business, brand, marketing, and technology problems. Sounds pretty simple, right? Digital strategists are the people that lead the problem-solving charge, helping to connect the dots between the needs, wants, and desires of the customer and the often elusive business, brand, and marketing goals of the company. The most competent digital strategists work with business unit stakeholders to get a clear and detailed understanding of what the challenges are from a business point of view like a business analyst would.
What Skills Do Successful Digital Strategists Need?
The digital strategists who’ll be most successful going forward have a robust generalist’s understanding of traditional and digital marketing and some knowledge of how businesses work. They also have a solid understanding of what a digital product or service is, how the company generates revenue and everything in between.
What kinds of skills are we talking about? Here are some example skills you’ll need to get – and keep – a digital strategist job, taken from some of the better digital strategist job postings I’ve seen.
Digital Strategist Skills
- Leads business, marketing, and technology stakeholder elicitation and translates/communicates to necessary parties.
- Works directly with clients to define and distill business, marketing, and technology goals, creates success metrics, and communicates to necessary parties.
- Maps business requirements to technology capabilities and, if necessary, adjusts existing business processes (along with developing a business case).
- Understands and defines management, measurement, accountability, and ROI objectives.
- Creative problem solver with a proven ability to formulate recommendations based on a broad set of inputs and facts, including areas of ambiguity.
- Identifies priorities related to tracking and measuring marketing performance and related technology capabilities needed for execution.
- Strong analytical skills to evaluate ideas, prioritize initiatives, quantify benefits, and evaluate performance.
- Configures, operates, and integrates a wide range of commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) marketing technology platforms and tools. (NOTE: you must have at least a baseline understanding of the most popular (useful?) marketing technology tools on the market, how they work, and how they work together).
Other than the last one, there aren’t any tactical requirements in the list of examples I provided. Still, the ability to execute is just as important as the ability to think strategically. Yes, you read it right – you also need tactical skills. Being strategy-driven is essential, but we can’t be myopic in our approach. It’s one thing to develop robust digital strategies and quite another to be able to activate them, and you’ll have to do both to be a successful digital strategist.
Are these skills in your wheelhouse? If not, drop me a note. I’d love to talk with you about how you can get the skills you need to get and keep a job as a digital strategist.
No Digital Strategist Is an Island
Digital strategists need a smart team supporting them, to be tactical (i.e., do work like SEO, paid search, analytics, development, etc.) while the digital strategist stays at the canopy level of the rain forest, instead of being down in the mud. This is critical. For a digital strategist to be more strategic, the primary focus must be on strategy, not tactics. Another thing the most successful digital strategists do to set themselves apart is to network.
The landscape of digital strategy is broad and deep. There’s no way you can know it all, so why not build a network of like-minded people you can turn to when you have questions and vice versa? These relationships are an excellent way to foster personal and professional growth, create value in the wild, stay informed about the digital marketing industry, and create a competitive advantage.
To Be More Strategic, You Have to Be Less Tactical
Sadly, most of the digital strategy gigs you’ll find today are loaded with tactical requirements and duties and are light on strategy. That’s where being proactive can help. Be sure and ask questions when interviewing for a digital strategist job. If the role feels like it’s too tactically driven, take a minute and ask your interviewer to define what digital strategy means to the organization, from a strategic and tactical point of view.
If you can’t get the answers you need, it’s an opportunity for you to decide if the gig is right for you. There is a multitude of opportunities out there with exceptional companies with plenty of people who get it. There’s no need to settle. Knowing the answer to the questions, “What is a digital strategist?” and “What does a digital strategist do?” will help you help others (especially recruiters and hiring managers) clarify what they’re looking for in a new hire.
If you’re looking for a job as a digital strategist, if you’re already working in the digital marketing space or would like to, I’d love to hear from you. Connect with me on Linkedin and Twitter. You can also use the contact form here to get in touch.
What does digital strategy mean to you? What do you think of my point of view about the role of the digital strategist? Join the discussion in the comments.
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