Take a Big Strategy for a Ride

Eric Portelance, a digital strategist at Teehan+Lax, which explores creative uses of technology to help their clients bring digital products and services to market, thinks it’s time to stop applying traditional strategic approaches when creating digital products. He also believes we need to stop creating huge ppt-presentations on marketing researches, and that it is necessary to come up with a new approach to strategy development.

I joined Teehan+Lax a year ago. Dave Gillis, one of the partners here, reminds me quite often what I said right before I was hired:

“Any good Planner or Strategist worth their salt can look at a complex problem, go away for a month, dig up some insights, and craft a compelling argument around why we should build a certain set of tactics to solve it. But that’s a fantasy.”

But that is exactly how many companies work to develop a digital strategy for many years actually. That was exactly the way I was learnt to work, and I assiduously walked the line. This approach continues to bring huge profits to our industry, because this work is paid by the hour.

However, I came to the conclusion that these processes are a relic of traditional planning and decided to develop a new approach in developing digital marketing strategy here at Teehan+Lax.

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The traditional approach to a marketing strategy development

You devote a group of smart and talented people to a client’s business. They attentively listen to this client to understand business goals, and then they disappear for a while to perform demographic characteristics research and to survey psychographic and technographic insights.

These people comb through the consumer researches and reports, in the hope of finding a magical insight – the key to success. Let us say, they might find out most of the people aged from 16 to24 inMissourienjoy kitten GIFs. Following these research data, strategists recommend their tortilla client to run a kitten GIFs contest on Facebook. They will probably further recommend creating a microsite to run this contest. It will take them months to plan and develop this campaign, and so they will cross their fingers and pray this campaign figures out to be profitable.

This approach assumes it’s enough to find the needle in the haystack to achieve excellent results.

This may probably work out, but you will hardly be able to find the right needle just basing on audience analysis or during a brainstorm. Even if you make a great discovery based on the customer research, those ideas your team come up with in response to your insight might be not the right solution. Or it may end even worse, when you understand you were wrong only when you burned through the budget, but the results you achieved do not impress anybody.

There exist a lot of such projects in digital marketing: countless microsites that are not visited; mobile apps that are not used; contests that have not more than 20 entries; and tweets that are not read by anyone. All of those microsites emerged due to attempts to predict positive results in a world where predictions do not work.

But people are paid for this kind of work, and to tell that I want to kill a big strategy means to commit professional self-destruction. Why would I need to stop doing what I am well paid for?

I need to stop doing this because I want to create digital products that people would love to use; I want to come up with solutions to help real people. And this requires a more carefully thought-out strategy.

The new progressive approach to developing a strategy

My approach is based on three key assumptions:

  1. The world is increasingly complex and it moves so fast! That is why it is impossible to develop perfect strategy in a vacuum and describe it on 200 PowerPoint slides.
  2. We should focus on creating the products that people want to use instead of just distracting them from the things they are used to.
  3. People behave the way they do not because of some demographic or psychographic characteristics. An unmarried mother of fifty inIowamay face exactly the same problems like a twenty-years-old married man inNew York.

On the basis of above said, a new digital marketing strategy consists of the two key parts.

First, you need to switch to most searched and demanded competitive strategy, which will help your team move in the right direction.

I always ask myself: “What is the minimum work scope we need to do to get to understanding regarding the scope of works we are off to do on the whole?”

Our team uses the number of tools. The tool we like the most is JTBD (jobs-to-be-done). The meaning of this approach is as follows: your customers have functional, emotional and social jobs they might hire your product to do. Identifying and realizing what are these jobs is the best way to make design decisions that will lead to a product that solves problems of real people.

JTBD Algorithm

When designing a new product, or designing an existing one, one need to make a rule of checking if the problem you are trying to solve is of great current interest, which is actually the most important insight criteria for any strategist.

This rule often assigns two contradictory objectives:

  1. To find the right tools to estimate the listed criteria;
  2. To stop being afraid of making mistakes and stop trying to use only marketing researches during the strategy development process.

So where to look for insights then? How to make sure people might want to hire your product? There is a strong desire to fall back on marketing research and all the rest of it. The problem is all those numbers are not up-to-date. By analyzing the data we explore something that has already happened to the auditory, but nobody is going to tell us why it happened. And the why is the key insight in digital product design.

How the whys are identified at Teehan+Lax

  1. Find people who have recently hired of fired similar products;
  2. Ask those people what made them hire of fire a product, but never waste your time trying to find out what they liked/disliked about that product, or what would they like to be done to improve the product, what was missing – all of those are wrong questions.
  3. Analyze the reasons and factors that lead to decision to hire/fire the product.

The approach like this looks more like a detective, but not a marketing research. It is supposed to help you refusing from applying too abstract and esoteric insights, which may only help answer the easiest questions about audience behavior.

Trying to analyze the reasons we use the insights which help us understand why and how we design a particular product. If the idea offered by a team doesn’t help us convince a customer to hire a product, then we need to get rid of such idea, or de-prioritize it.

Secondly, you need to start doing something. If you started with 360° you could probably start walking in, you can guide your team in the direction you explore at this stage. Analyze, experiment, and test your assumptions to probably find new solutions, instead of just stewing in your own juice.

Developing and testing different approaches that could help solve problems real people have should take you most of the time, but not conceiving in a vacuum. Just because there is no a big strategy phase doesn’t mean strategists are not required in digital agencies any longer. Planning actually is to ensure creative team is focused on the right problems, so strategists need to constantly cooperate with designers and developers to be able to create solutions that will solve real problems.

This approach requires you thinking in a different way then you probably used to, because it is necessary to step away from selling expensive ideas that are somehow grounded, and learn to create the products that people would like to hire and that will solve particular problems.

So may you disburden your mind of a big strategy that is full of wishful thinking!


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