Digital DNA

A number of media companies hire us to help them with their digital strategy. More often than not, we discover that there is a business, physical, and cultural division between the digital groups that get content out through Web and mobile channels, vs. the traditional, print-based groups.

The divide can be financial when the group that manages the Web business has its own P&L that is distinct from that of the Print publishing groups. It can be physical when the two groups are located in different offices, use different computer systems or technology, and have different job roles and workflows.

However, the divide that I find to be the most limiting to corporations that want to break through to an 'omnimedia' strategy is the cultural one, and that can be summed up in two words: Digital DNA.

I'll define Digital DNA as the innate sensibilities that an individual has about all things technological. The noted author, Marc Prensky, refers to the phenomenon as "Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants" where a younger generation has ingrained the Internet life in their world view. In Prensky's view, those people are called 'digital natives', and those that didn't grow up with the Internet but are adapting are called 'digital immigrants'. I would add another category, which would be the 'digital foreigner' -- people that by choice or circumstance are cut off from the digital experience.

In any event, the phenomenon is so core to the 'wiring' of the individual that I refer to it as Digital DNA.

Returning to these media companies, they have wildly successful publishers, sales people, editors, production staff, all collaborating for decades and putting out these remarkably brilliant, precise, colorful, creative, and profitable publications -- be they magazines, journals, books, or what have you. Along comes the Internet and they are being asked to shuttle the content as if in a supply chain system to the Web as rapidly as possible.

Every muscle fiber of those traditional publishing teams twitches in alarm that they may be giving away the farm. 90% of our revenues -- driven by print -- could be damaged if we push it all up on the Web, and for what? Page views? Uniques? Amplifying keyphrases? and so forth. What about the brick-and-mortar?

Most modern Media companies bring in the digital guru -- in the form of the "CTO" or Vice President of Digital Media or "interactive" and so forth -- to define the company's next-generation strategy. What is increasingly happening is that the business views that person as the savior and hands the keys to the ignition to that person.

The results are mixed at best. The digital guru -- often but not always a digital native and quite frequently a digital immigrant (there are few brilliant CTO's out there sadly, but I have had the pleasure to meet a few that are creating great value for their organizations) is often left with the task of defining the company's strategy on the Internet. All too predictably, the company invests in content management technology, hires developer staff or consulting houses or offshore resources, and starts building 'stuff' to get the brand sites stickier, more relevant, and better optimized for search on Google.

What we see is that the digital guru builds a digital fortress of technology that is separated from the main business model yet is often a clone of it. The print side has to find ways to extract content out of Quark or InDesign files over to XML to be posted online, and they also look for ways to get image outtakes up online for bigger galleries and so forth. However, the business model online remains advertising-based.

There's a lot to cover here and I'm going to try to do this over the next few months, but my hypothesis is that companies need to change their digital DNA -- they can't just hire a single CTO, who surrounds himself with a dozen or so tech gurus -- and pray that this will be the saving of the core business. Digital DNA has to permeate the entire organization, everyone from the CEO to every admin, and that everyone needs to be enlisted in the task of 'going digital', and I don't mean that in the technical sense. I mean that in terms of how to discover and seize opportunities in a rapidly changing marketplace of user consumption of media.

As far as how a company would change their digital DNA, this can be accomplished with training, organizational tasks forces, MBO's/rewards, R&D efforts, think tanks, proper hiring, and also, sadly, letting people go that don't want to 'immigrate'.

I would imagine some people might read this and scoff at the enormous complexity of changing the culture of their organization to a digital one utterly and totally. Yet, in recent years, we have seen multi-national corporations embrace principles of project management, establish PMO's and standards and transform the way they wage projects. Corporations have gone LEAN and implemented six-sigma protocols, which have all been costly initiatives but are paying for themselves.

What I contend here is that companies will need to make the same remarkable efforts into getting ALL staff to become digital immigrants or to only hire digital native staff, and that any company that does not will not be able to compete. This should be done in advance or, or at least concurrently to, other kinds of physical or business changes that organizations are making fitfully in order to stay competitive.