Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Three critical traits of a successful interactive strategist

This is my first post. I'm excited to begin blogging about all things online marketing.

This post is inspired by all the people I've been meeting lately who are really smart and creative, doing very big things at agencies and on the client-side at some pretty impressive companies here in St. Louis.

I had a conversation at a REBUS event last night regarding what makes up a strong interactive strategy leader (online marketing, digital, interactive...interchangeable terms in my opinion, depending on who you're talking to). So to be a strong leader on either the client or agency side, in a role in which you are asked to be able to add value and contribute to a company's growth in a creative, measurable and tangible way, you must have these certain, expected abilities -- if you have them, you're likely to go much farther than others within an organization and in your online marketing career. So what are these characteristics?

Here are three simple traits I am able to list as critical, from my own perspective. Obviously there are more, so if you have additional ideas/suggestions, please post a reply below.
  1. Strategic thinking
    Every single day, if you are lucky enough to be presented with new clients, new projects, new campaigns, new needs or opportunities, you should be able think on your feet. Ask the right questions. Get curious. Make mental or physical notes as you go. Scribble and sketch. Brainstorm. Research. All of this will lead you to, either personally or as a strong contributor with a team, formulate a strategy that looks honestly and deeply at the problems or opportunities at hand and then generate solutions or a series of tactics that will capitalize on those opportunities and lead to growth. These ideas must be sound because the client or your boss can see a return on the investment of implementing these tactics. You can illustrate (either through a business plan that is documented or a presentation or just your ability to talk through it) the results expected. You have thought through each potential pit-fall, you have solved each problem, and you have developed a strategy that is more creative or effective than other agencies or individuals would be able to do in the given situation.

    "A strategic thinker has a mental model of the complete end-to-end system of value creation, his or her role within it, and an understanding of the competencies it contains."
    - Liedtka, J.M. (1998), “Linking Strategic Thinking with Strategic Planning”

  2. A respect and understanding of IT as well as marketing and how they come together.
    You do not have to have been a developer (although development experience may help), but having the ability to work well with IT specialists who code either Web sites or applications or manage databases - you name it - will make you much more valuable. More and more these days, interactive projects require a technical implementation, and then you're faced with more challenges within organizations, such as release cycles, quality departments, compliance and legal processes -- all the things that combine to create red tape. If you are the type of person who can cut that red tape with a big pair of scissors that we'll call "calm and assertive" (a la Cesar Millan's 'Dog Whisperer'), and deliver a respectful curiosity and patient understanding to each individual you need to work with to get things done, you're going to go far. You need to understand the basics of platforms, coding languages, databases and servers. If marketing wants a project done next week, but IT says it can't be done for 3 months, you can play the role of the negotiator if you can talk the talk. Find opportunities to make things more efficient or to shorten the speed to release by working well with IT professionals. Even if the tech-jargon is too much for you, make friends with developers - play nice. Make sure they know you respect and admire the work they do, and they will respect you too. At the same time, you should be managing the expectations of the business owner (marketing, for example) up front. By doing this, you will find you can under-promise and over-deliver more often.

  3. Natural, personal interest and curiosity in emerging technologies and industry trends.
    If you don't find yourself online when you don't have to be, subscribing to TechCrunch, tweeting at least 3 - 10 times per week or more, subscribing to RSS feeds, or you're the type of person who says "I don't get Facebook", you're not going to be very good at this part. In fact, if you're definitely sure you are the "I just don't get this Facebook thing" kind of person, you should get out of online marketing today - right now. The fact of the matter is that if you are a marketing professional, the new marketing is online. It's similar to the evolution of music (being distributed online), e-commerce (all products available online, not just brick-and-mortar anymore for a long time now), news (distributed online as subscriptions to paper-and-ink plummet) and just about everything else. It doesn't mean that offline is dead, of course. It just means that you have to evolve along with emerging technologies and try to stay ahead of the curve as much as you possibly can in an era in which everything is happening faster than ever before.

    If you respect that a lot of extremely creative, dynamic, compelling and effective marketing happens online - and a hell of a lot of it - and you force yourself to sign up for a Twitter account and start posting on Facebook walls so that you will "get it", then good job. At least you're trying. And here's why this post is about "traits" and I didn't call them "skills" because traits are often those things which happen natually or are innate in you, while skills can be honed and developed: If you're like me and you got excited at the news that Facebook acquired FriendFeed this week and you already knew what FriendFeed is because you've been using it for a while now, then you're going to be the type of person a client is going to be thrilled to be able to turn to when they realize they need to be "tweeting". Obviously it goes far beyond just knowing that you "need to be on Twitter" or "should have some sort of company presence on Facebook" - you have to know how to use social media to drive business growth, get leads, get sales, enhance customer loyalty - you name it. And yes, it really is possible - but that's another blog post for another day.

    Regardless, whether it's social media (such a big, all encompassing term as it is) or the latest and greatest in web site user experience, design (Flash, CSS, etc.) techniques, webinars, podcasts, e-books, online video, or even SMS (texting), you should care. You should be subscribing to magazines and feeds online so that you can be alerted to news in the industry as it happens and read long, well-thought-out analyses of changes in the market. Get yourself invested in the future of the industry that you're making a career in, and if you love doing it naturally, follow me on Twitter and let's get to know one another!


  1. I completely agree with everything you said and can draw on some personal observations of what you've described even in my relatively short experience with internet marketing thus far. In addition to "Strategic Thinking," "Respect/Understanding," and "Curiosity/Interest," I feel a 4th trait (though this might fall under your definition of a "skill") or maybe a "sub-third" trait would be to have an almost entrepreneurial disposition to take action on the information you learn from being curious and interested in the industry.

    I feel this is an important addition to being just curious because I have known plenty of people who are content with simply soaking up knowledge and not acting on it. Mastery of a topic (even if through tried and true hands-on experience) does not amount to a real tangible accomplishment if that knowledge is not executed in a value-seeking venture. Think to yourself how many hugely ground-breaking business leaders reached their level of success only because they were industry savants. In many cases, these were leaders who went as far sidelining some education in exchange for the opportunity to take immediate action on their goals in addition to learning along the way. When you narrow this population down to only Internet business leaders, I think the need to go beyond just topic mastery becomes more apparent.

    In addition, probably more-so than any other industry in history, the web is an environment of prolific experimentation in which today's huge idea can easily be the obsolete afterthought of tomorrow. Because of this, if you try to learn EVERYTHING before moving forward, you will probably be left behind as the winds shift within the industry. If you get too attached to any single concept, you might miss out on a better opportunity. Of course, you shouldn't be too fickle either with a truly valuable idea. It's a game of moderation, like many other things in life, in which you have to temper infinite avenues of exploration with actual value-added effectiveness in pursuing a strategic path and adapting as you go.

    In short, don't just be an idea person, a people person, and an industry sage. A strategist needs to be able to put it all together, so master your craft, plan your route, gather your crew, and actually let the sails unfurl and go somewhere! What do you think, Erin?

  2. Great first post! I think that you hit a lot of important points, especially with #2. I have seen a lot of companies where the IT and Marketing departments work like oil and water and nothing gets accomplished. I think that in the long run...both IT and Marketing both need to be aware that it is vital for both their survival in today's market to work together. A strong interactive strategist does play a careful balance between the two so that everyone meets their goals.

    And a response to #3. I completely agree with you that in order to adapt to today's constantly evolving online space, one has to be aware of the different types of medium out there. For example, I find that I like Facebook or Twitter more for my personal use but don't enjoy using them from a business standpoint. However I also know the value of such platforms for companies and that other people are probably better at executing/socializing using them from a business standpoint. So on that note, I'd like to add that a strong interactive strategist should also be aware of his/her strengths and weaknesses. And going back to one of your points "that you don't have to be a developer, IT person...etc." but if you know your strengths and limits, you could allocate work/tasks appropriately to others that specialize and enjoy their craft so that goals and tasks are met, whether it's Web Design, Facebooking, Tweeting, Writing Copy...etc.

    I think that Rob hit some excellent points too.

    Looking forward to reading more posts and ideas from you and others on your blog.

  3. Outstanding post! As someone who is relatively new to the social networking or social marketing as I usually call it, I found your analysis to be truly insightful. Being a business owner, I agree with silverbackstrategies, I am definitely not an IT professional I'm a chef however I am a tech savvy chef and really enjoy learning about the different mediums available. I have found what my strengths and weaknesses are and luckily enough I have used my social networking to reach out to those that are in the know. I look forward to your next post and hope to incorporate what I learn from your posts to my own social marketing.


Thank you for commenting on my blog post! I really appreciate the conversation. -Erin

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