It’s taken a long time to arrive – you’d be within your rights to dismiss it as an over-used, superannuated concept more at home in the Marketing departments of the mid-2000s than in the heart of COVID-19 country.

‘What if?’

As with all truly BIG ideas, the ‘digital-first’ concept emerged from the late ’90’s ‘what if…’ and new, standalone concepts. Goliaths like Google, Amazon, and Facebook – to name but a few – built colossal value from the virgin territory of the browser.

Next came the slump as advertisers and marketing teams, reluctant to change their tried and tested models performed a masterly cut and shunt, and lo and behold ‘digital first’ became shorthand for making a film (cutting for TV of course – a traditional ‘ad’ in all but budget) and driving traffic to a website (read surrogate TV set).

Old world versus new world

Finally, and it took a global crisis to force us to open our eyes – but ‘digital first’ is now really here. The best way to illustrate the shift is to compare the old world vs the new.

In the old world, a high street store had, well, stores and a website as a source of incremental sales.

In the new world, digital-first brands exist with a number of collaborative touch points – some real-world, others virtual. So brands live in social spaces, they offer services and entertain across the digital channels they own. They venture out into the real world, as a part of our daily lives in mobile apps and reach us across shared platforms.

The power of data

Data is the common element, the glue that binds and articulates the conversations brands have in the moment with the people they engage (some of who will go on to buy or use their product and service).

Four tips for transitioning to digital-first

So, as we continue living in significantly more digital times, when we emerge into the new normal what are the key points for a digital-first future?

  1. Digital-first does not mean digital only

A common misconception about digital-first is that it means pure-play digital. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. Consumers, even digital natives, like interacting with brands in the physical world. This is why companies like eBay create physical pop up stores at Christmas time and continue to wrap traditional channels like direct mail into their marketing mix.

  1. Start with the problem, not the channel

Another misconception about digital-first is the belief that the latest technology must immediately be integrated. When Tik Tok first became popular brands immediately jumped on the bandwagon with the sole aim of first-mover advantage and having a presence on the channel, rather than analyzing how it could be effectively used to leverage individual customer journeys

  1. Customer journey must take priority

Research from CensusWide shows that currently, 40 percent of digital-first spending comes from customer targeting and engagement use cases, such as more personalisation, targeted promotions, and omnichannel experiences. This is both encouraging and disappointing at the same time. The fact that close to half of spending is directed at enhancing the customer journey is positive, but it begs the question as to what the other 60 percent is being spent on? Most likely on channel first initiatives (see point 2 above!). Successful digital-first organisations leverage individual customer journeys at scale through personalised data-informed interventions.

  1. Personalised data-informed interventions

In layman speak, this basically means responding to individual customers in an individual way based on their individual behaviour. True digital-first marketing is reactive to individual customers and how they interact with the brand. For instance, for a recent award-winning campaign for Jo Malone London we employed Next Best Action and real-time decisioning technology to determine what communication the customer received. To make the content of every touchpoint relevant to the individual a deceptively simple formula was created which included data on the recency of purchase, the customer’s behaviour over time and what they had just done. The creative content was served on the opening of the email, rather than when it was sent. This meant that the messages would be relevant to the recipient no matter when the email was opened as it would be based on real-time behaviour. Therefore if an email was sent on a Tuesday evening, but the person was away for a few days and didn’t open the email until the following Wednesday the content could potentially be different than if it had been opened as soon as it was received. This is because in the intervening eight days the customer may have browsed the website for fragrances and therefore the content would reflect this, rather than the candles they had looked at a few weeks earlier.

The best digital-first businesses are those that never stop learning. However, the most important thing is that the learnings are acted upon and used to inform upcoming and future activities. Digital-first is an ongoing process. It is not just one or two campaigns. It is a shift in culture, values, thinking, and operations. It can be a daunting shift, but if ever there was a time to make the transition, now it is!