How do you Effectively Build a Digital Foundation?

I was recently asked to speak at the Digital Analytics Association Symposium in Washington, D.C. on the future of analytics and building digital foundations. As I worked on the presentation, I wanted to take the same approach with the audience that I do when I meet with clients on this same topic. What follows is a more detailed discussion of my talking points at DAAS.

Preparing to Build a Successful Foundation

Let me start with a story. When I was engaged to my wife-to-be, part of the marriage process required by her church was to take a test. Yes, an actual test. We were put into separate rooms with #2 pencils and presented with a long and exhaustive set of questions covering every possible topic that could come up in a marriage: Who should be responsible for the finances? How many children do we want? Etc.

After we completed the test, church officials compared our answers. Over the next few months, we met with a married couple and discussed all the questions – areas where we agreed and those we did not. The point of this exercise was not to force us to come to an agreement right then on each item, but to make sure we had discussed each topic before we said “I do.”

We were asked hard questions. We had to be honest about the answers.

This is what my goal is with all my client meetings. We might not get all the answers mapped out, but I want to make sure (as each company is heading into a digital project) company leaders have taken the time to ask themselves the hard questions and, most importantly, that they provide honest answers.

This is what I like to call “the work before the work.”

Assessing Digital Maturity

The work before the work starts with an honest assessment of how mature your organization is when it comes to digital marketing. Last year, we conducted a survey (DIGITAL ROADBLOCK: Marketers Struggle to Reinvent Themselves) of over 1,000 US marketers, asking questions around data, channels, platforms and more.

Around data, we found 76% of marketers agree they need to be more data focused to succeed. Among other results, we found 81% expect their role to change in the next three (now two) years, which means if you haven’t started yet, the time is right to establish a digital foundation that includes a solid data governance plan for your enterprise.

Pillars of a Digital Foundation

If you do a search for “digital governance,” you’ll find a common thread. Pundits say that success hinges on people, process, and technology (or products or tools). But I’ll let you in on a little secret here: digital governance is not a technology problem.

We are in 2015. Technology exists to handle nearly everything to build, manage, and execute on all of your digital initiatives. We’re no longer living in the era of log files and hit counters. We have sophisticated and advanced tools that can move your organization light-years through the digital maturity curve.

In our Roadblock report, we heard that 73 percent of marketers see the expanded number of channels and platforms as a driving force behind the changing role of marketers, which drives the need to establish a digital foundation. For me, the critical areas that need focus in order to master those channels and platforms are your people and processes.

Challenges to Establishing a Digital Foundation

While the challenges are many for a company transitioning to a digital foundation, the primary hurdle to building a foundation and implementing an overall governance plan is not technology, it is corporate politics.

Let’s be honest here. At times there are political forces within a company that – for whatever reason – prevent the best choices from being selected, and sometimes the choices made will send an organization down a path that is either too hard, too expensive or takes too much political capital to unwind.

Even though your digital team may be faced with what seems like a Sisyphean task, you owe it to the company, project, and most importantly yourself to make sure adequate time is taken to ask the really hard questions at the heart of a solid governance plan.

Elements of a Successful Governance Model

Almost three quarters of the marketers we heard from during the Roadblock survey agreed that, “capturing and applying data to inform and drive marketing activities is the new reality.” The need for data governance is acknowledged. An effective governance model will include key business areas impacted by data collection, mining and analysis.

There are many governance models out there, and this one is mine. I see governance of a digital foundation relying on the following components: resources, infrastructure, workflow and data management. These areas I believe require the greatest amount of introspection, so let’s look at some of the questions you should be asking of your team and organization.

1. Resources

Do you have the right team in place to execute on your data governance model? This can be a sticky and politically charged question, but you have to ask it. If the answer is “no,” then what are the steps to rectify the situation? Do you need to invest in better training? Do you need to augment your staff with contractors or agencies? Do you need to replace individuals or change roles? Do you have realistic expectations of the types of resources you need? I believe the digital foundation starts here.

Success doesn’t stop with the right talent, however. A third of marketers believe confusion over roles and responsibilities within their teams prevents them from succeeding as digital marketing organizations. In order to establish a digital foundation, your resources must be certain of what will be required as part of the data governance model.

During the DAAS, Corry Prohens of IQ Workforce provided two very interesting stats regarding the staffing of a digital team:

The demand for digital marketing professionals continues to rise at a pace that far exceeds the number of skilled candidates. This is great news if you are looking for work, but a frightening situation if you’re managing a team at risk of losing talent or struggling to fill spots. Retaining good data scientists is particularly important. If you don’t adequately invest in training and/or struggle to fill openings (which places burdens on current employees), you won’t need to worry about having to let anyone go. They will leave.

2. Infrastructure

The need for a solid infrastructure is increasing at an exponential rate as companies rush to keep up with the rate of data being generated. Take a look at the following two images. The first is of the crowd gathered at St. Peter’s Basilica in 2005 to participate in the funeral of Pope John Paul. If you look closely, you can see a single camera phone.

The next picture is of a crowd gathered at the same location eight years later for the election of Pope Francis.

The proliferation of mobile devices is stark. Everyone in the crowd is holding up one of their devices to capture the moment. During that process, each attendee contributes to the exploding data generation. Do you have the infrastructure to handle the abundance of data, and are you able to organize the data so it can be mined effectively? With so many channels (both new and old) increasing the complexity of data acquisition and storage, the marketing challenges that companies face to use their data effectively are enormous.

When you consider your data governance infrastructure, ask clear questions such as “Do we have the necessary support systems in place to govern data properly?” and “Do we have the storage capacity for the volume of data that we will collect?” and “Can we create a platform that will generate useful reports and insights?” Create clear objectives for the data infrastructure, and it should serve you well within your data governance plan.

3. Workflow

As digital teams have evolved to gain more control over web content, the anticipated evolution of well thought-out workflows and documentation policies has not fared well. Unfortunately, though the availability of content management systems such as the Adobe Marketing Cloud (with its tag management system) has enabled greater control over digital measurement technologies, team leaders continue to neglect the importance of workflows to leverage the power of such solutions. To take the next step, you need to question current practices and develop synchronized, documented workflows that support the data governance plan you have developed.

I think Uncle Ben from Spiderman said it best when he told a young Peter Parker, “With great power comes great responsibility.” I have yet to meet a digital team that did not want more control over its ability to generate content and manage marketing technologies. However, more companies than you would expect are missing key elements of a solid workflow. Documentation, testing/QA, and a solid mapping process are essential to creating and maintaining positive momentum for all your projects, and they allow them to persist going forward. Persist when you encounter resource attrition on your team.

4. Data Management

From the dawn of time to 2003, mankind created five exabytes of data. For those keeping score at home: one exabyte is equal to one billion gigabytes. In 2012, we created 2.7 zettabytes of data (one zettabyte is equal to one trillion gigabytes). That is 500 times more data created in a single year than was created from the Big Bang to 2003!

These numbers by themselves are staggering. But consider the additional data generated year after year going forward. Think about the statistics in the following image. In it you can see the sheer volume of data that was processed and managed in the Adobe Marketing Cloud for 2014.

So you must ask yourself (and your team) questions such as:

Yes, these are the same questions we discussed elsewhere, but they apply equally well here. I understand not every company may be dealing with data of the magnitude we’re talking about here; however, if you are not thinking about scale and how your data governance will scale up if you suddenly need to store data at an increasing rate, you’ll be in for some very long nights.

Easy Solutions Do Not Exist

There is no “easy button” when it comes to planning and building a solid digital foundation with a governance plan for your organization. However, by setting up your marketing organization for success before you launch, the initiative has a much better chance at success.

At least once during the course of any digital foundation project (and hopefully on a recurring basis), your organization needs to do the following:

Ask the hard questions, and be honest with the answers.

At Adobe, we spend time, money and resources seeking to know every possible detail about our users. We ask ourselves questions like those here. We do this to be able to provide them the best possible experience with our solutions and to maximize the value of the digital teams to their companies. If you don’t apply the same vigor to your internal data governance, you will never extract the full potential of your team.