What Brands Need to Do Right to Nail Their Digital Strategy

Emotive Brand Experts #5: Michael Beavers

Continuing our Emotive Brand Experts series, we’re interviewing past and present Emotive Brand clients to discover what they do better than anybody else – and how that expertise can be used to embolden your brand today.

Michael Beavers is a Silicon Valley-based digital strategist who works with leading technology enterprises, consumer brands, and startups. A veteran from both sides of the client and agency relationship, he’s worked with Google, Yahoo!, Intel, and many others.


How do you define digital strategy?

Digital strategy describes the intersection of business strategy, insights about the human beings who interact with your company, and the systems through which they do so – then translating those insights into design and engineering implications. Your brand is represented online through a wide variety of channels. But there’s a big difference between delivering a brand message and thoughtfully delivering services and information that make the claims of a brand true. The services you create through every interaction with your customer are how your brand is perceived against the claims or characteristics of your brand.

Where do you begin as a digital strategist?

Regardless of the size of a project, I begin with inquiries about everything I can about a company. What do they do? For whom? Why?

I like to sit down with various stakeholders and examine what they do, why they do it, what digital things they depend on: websites, digital campaigns, ads, enterprise software, emails, everything. I also try to understand the company’s mix of enterprise software and IT environments that enable all of these tactics.

Often the digital goals expressed by my client need to be shaped further or altered beyond their original form. Then I shape both into something everyone can agree to before we put our goals and assumptions to the real test with customers.

How have you seen digital strategy change over time?

Gosh, what hasn’t changed? Devices are constantly changing, and not just the way we code for them. Technology is a scaffold for human behavior. What’s interesting is that human behavior changes that scaffolding, but the opposite is also true. Companies have a responsibility to make claims about their brands, back them up with great human and technology-enabled interactions that should never manipulate customers, but respect and shape how they behave with your company.

The early days of the commercial Internet were about experimentation and the organizational stuff companies have to offer. There was a middle phase where a lot of companies take a more manipulative view of consumers, which everyone sees through. I’m encouraged, however, as I see more companies view themselves as complimenting who they are and what’s great about themselves through software and services delivered through UIs across all devices. Everyone is now a software company, and some are acting like it.

What are some common missteps you see in the field?

Most of the time when a company is funding a web project with a marketing team, they think too narrowly about the user experience and what web teams rely on to inform that experience. Take any website from any global brand. Is it enough to organize the company’s information logically and push a beautiful design to production as quickly as possible? Maybe…but probably not.

What’s logical to internal stakeholders is the result of years of living inside of a company’s culture, its operations, and its organization. If that’s the basis of your user experience, you may simply be exposing your org chart and dysfunction. That’s not good enough.

A great strategy reflects the company’s goals and challenges but leans heavily on insights about customers and their worlds and contexts under which they experience your company. From a digital perspective, that’s what “brand” is.

The best way to inform your brand is through studying customers and users with minimized bias. When web teams at companies understand the value of research, the differences in customer satisfaction and brand perception is significant.

My very favorite question during strategy formation is, “How do we know?”

How do you discover that? Through personas?

Oftentimes, yes. Personas can be very helpful, but there are bad anti-personas out there, chiefly from marketers understanding personas to be assumptive bio-sketches of who they imagine their customers to be.

Personas were originally an advent for software design. But they’re useful for marketing and messaging, so it is common to place a “target segmentation” lens on personas for messaging. This has deleterious effects on how qualitative research is funded and how protocols get designed. Those outputs are rarely suitable for designing great digital experiences.

When informed with real observed data, personas are powerful informers of a digital experience. You can convey messaging in any number of ways, but above everything, you must give people something to do that is in line with their tasks and contexts.

This is the difference between marketing with digital “stuff” and marketing software or UI-led service delivery, which make brand claims real.

It is important for brands to update the axiom of customers always being right: the customer is always right to do what they do, so we should understand what it is that would help them believe in us as a company.

What are the biggest changes you’ve seen over the years?

I think the biggest change is unfolding before our eyes today in our national politics; specifically, the interdependencies of social media, ad networks, monetizing news content, and foreign operatives exploiting things that we all depend on to stay informed and go through our days.

The distribution of content and opinion through news and personal social channels has never been this intertwined. Because makers of the commercial could not foresee foreign interference, the Gutenberg press of our age has gone awry.

It breaks my heart to see but I’m also encouraged by what I see in the design and engineering community. Discussions about signaling meaning and trust, design and engineering ethics, and consumer awareness of security have never been greater. So that’s the new current situation and context for all digital strategy.

A company trying to sell more stuff to the right people has to understand how to be authentic. It must align its values to those of its customers, and make it real through trustworthy commercial interface products.

Brands must also now deal with the proliferation of the marketing technology stack. It encompasses everything: hosting, content automation, marketing automation, CRM suites, analytics, social media, and case management.

The implication is that marketers have a lot more to manage now. The complexity and scale of marketing has increased exponentially, and customers interacting with your digital experiences bring heightened skepticism and service expectation. Staying on top of those skills is really challenging. That’s why it’s often helpful to have expert outsiders, people willing to gently bust the silos and mixed contexts that hinder great customer experience.

What advice would you give to fellow digital strategists?

The best advice I can give is to stay curious and have fun with this stuff. Try to dig into as many tactics for understanding as you can but don’t over-index on any one skill. It will be different tomorrow anyway. Be at least categorically familiar with various web technologies, marketing automation, analytics, and how to read and interpret how they report insights you can use to form your strategy.

Know yourself. Are you a T-shaped professional and embrace your natural curiosities? Are you comfortable exposing your areas of ignorance to understand them better?

Do you think in both short and long-term frames? You may already be a great digital strategist, even if you don’t have an engineering or design background.

Spend time figuring out those worlds. Designers and engineers are ultimately the people who you serve through your strategy. Your communication should be an organized vessel of clear insights and objectives. Their work is what makes the brand real for customers. They need your help.

Emotive Brand is a brand strategy and design agency in San Francisco.

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