Why Less Digital Is Better Digital

What happens when the sheer pace and complexity of change outstrips the capacity for good planning and sound management?

Why Less Digital Is Better Digital

In these turbulent times, the pressure to keep up is high. But what if it is also dangerous?

It’s an exciting time to be a marketing leader, but also an overwhelming one. Digital dominates the conversation—and a growing portion of the budget. But it’s also surrounded by lots of hype, increasing complexity, and constant change.

In response to the pressure to keep pace, many marketers are doing the logical thing: more. Among brands I have talked to in recent months, the by-product of this includes near-dormant social channels left over from earlier experiments, paid media dollars heading in many new directions and delivering unclear results, bloated websites with multiple owners, and well-intentioned innovation projects that die on the vine due to lack of resources or adequate buy-in.

This begs the question: How does all of this feel from the customer’s point of view?

It’s probably like navigating through a vast, poorly planned metropolis. You can find your way from point A to point B eventually. If you really try. But not efficiently. And not without getting lost a few times along the way.

We call this phenomenon “ecosystem sprawl”—the digital version of urban sprawl—and like its analog equivalent, it happens when the sheer pace and complexity of change outstrips the capacity for good planning and sound management. This is a growing problem in our industry, one that is pervasive and vastly under-diagnosed.

So what causes this to happen?

Call it the mindset of more—an emphasis on doing more, quickly, rather than stopping for a moment to ask why. It’s a very easy trap to fall into. After all, digital is disrupting industries and re-shaping the way we all live. Stressed-out marketers everywhere are all being asked the same question: What are you doing about it?

Plus, marketing has always been a discipline that tends to look to novelty and newness in order to feed the organization’s appetite for growth and competitive advantage. Add a constant flood of tweets and blog posts about the next big digital thing to the mix, and the result is an environment where the fear of missing out is extremely hard to avoid.

I haven’t met a single marketer who doesn’t feel overwhelmed by everything they feel like they should be paying attention to. And this anxiety takes a real toll. As a brand executive sums it up succinctly: “They’re just chasing the latest trend or platform, or worse — taking what worked at another brand, usually a hot one, and trying to apply it to theirs without having an understanding of the fundamentals or their brand’s purpose. Time and money are being wasted.”

So what’s a stressed-out modern marketing leader to do? The answer is simple: Do the opposite of more. Do less. Choose your bets carefully and put your focus where it really counts. If that sounds easier said than done, here are a few concrete steps to help you get started:

1. Turn down the noise and tune out the FOMO: Spend less time worrying about the latest hot trends and what the competition is doing and more time focused on the specific challenges facing your business. And the specific strengths and assets you can build on to address them.

2. Practice asking why: And teach your team to do the same. The essence of strategy, to paraphrase Michael Porter, is choosing what not to do. That’s harder than ever these days. And also more vital. These choices become clearer the more you ask: why?

3. Practice saying no: To vendors, agencies, and anyone pushing you to do more than you can handle. And empower your team to do the same. The question of why loses its power if it’s not backed up by the will and courage to say no.

4. Challenge your team to become strategists as well as tacticians: The complexity of digital marketing has created a generation of specialists who work and think within the bounds of their personal area of focus. Encourage them to challenge the orthodoxy of their discipline and make smart strategic choices instead of just following the trends.

5. Appoint a connector of dots: Identify and empower a strong generalist—someone who isn’t too encumbered by a specialist mindset in any one area—who can look at the whole picture, ensure tighter alignment, and sharpen the team’s overall focus.