How To Do Digital Planning

I’ve been trying to post something like this for a few months now. But it kept morphing into a badly researched history of planning mixed with a poor how-to guide. And of course I kept veering off into bloody flag-waving about how digital planners rule and everyone else sucks. And my point was getting lost, very lost.

So what is the point?

I wanted to give a perspective on the big question ‘What is a digital planner?’. I know I don’t have the answer. I don’t think anyone does right now. The only thing I know for certain is that there’s a lot of uncertainty around what a digital planner is. I’ve seen lots of CVs and met lots of people. All of them nice people, some of them great planners, some of them not. All of them very very different.

Anyway I’ve given up on trying to understand what a digital planner is. So here’s a list of skills that I think would be handy if you want to be a digital planner (or a planner who has some digital powers).

How to do Digital Planning

(I’ve left out all of the ‘normal’ planning skills there’s lots of people smarter than me who’ve written about those things extensively. About how you have to be an inspirer, a cultural vacuum (as in vacuum cleaner not void), the voice of the consumer, PowerPoint virtuoso, and so on – I’m only talking about the ‘special’ skills that I think are important if you want to ‘do digital’).

Be good at cutting and pasting

Be good at cutting and pasting

If you’ve ever set up a blog or or a MySpace page you’ll probably have seen funny code knocking around the place. You shouldn’t be scared of this stuff. As the web keeps evolving to become more open and customisable the ability to copy and paste odd looking bits of code from one place to another increases in value.

At it’s most basic level knowing how to customise a feed or add a widget to a blog will at least give you some appreciation of the building blocks of the web. Kind of like Lego is to engineering.

In lots of ways this act of copying and pasting funny geek code from one place to another is a useful proxy for what digital planners need to do all the time. I’m not talking about lifting people’s ideas or ripping them off, I’m talking about applying principles and techniques in a variety of seemingly disconnected places.

I’m guessing at this point some people will be bursting to say things like – “this is all too geeky, you don’t need to know how a car works to be able to drive”. And that’s true. But if your job was designing and selling cars to people, you might find it useful to know how the different bit of a car fit together. And everyone ought to know how to change sparkplugs and tyres right?

Deconstruct the Craft

Be able to deconstruct the craft

You don’t need to be able to do all of it. But it’s really important that you understand it and can talk about it semi-convincingly.

What is this it of which I speak?

It is the craft of making really good and interesting interactive stuff.

It is made from all kinds of things. Graphic design, programming, information architecture, experience design, typography, HCI, good writing, databases, video production, game design, e-commerce, networks, devices…

Be good at knowing why something is good or bad. There’s a lot of very bad stuff that looks very good out there. And a lot of amazing things that look like shit. You need to be able to see through the veneer and be able to judge things on a different level.

If there was one bit of the craft that I think is super-important for planners to understand it’s user experience. It encapsulates a lot of what we should be concerned about in terms of making things that work for an audience.

Expand to fill the space

Be able to expand (and contract) to fill the space available

There isn’t digital planner shaped hole.

On some jobs it’ll be much bigger than others.

Sometimes you might be the lead strategist on a big paradigm shifting pure play turnkey web commerce integration project, where part of your job is helping a client figure out how and why their business exists.

This requires a different way of thinking and being from an ‘online advertising’ project where your role might be to convince the Cheezy-Puffs client that the idea that they’ve been presented about building a Cheezy Radio Station on Puff Island in Second Life and Podcasting the shows into Facebook might not be exactly the right thing to do. This time.

Then of course you’ll have to deal with the fallout of sabotaging the idea (from whoever it was that came up with it in the first place)…

Other times you’ll be part of a multi-agency team working alongside a number of other really good planners. In these cases it can be best to wind your neck in a bit and focus on the skills you’ve got that complement the rest of the team. And just skip over the ritual of intellectual posturing and corner-pissing nonsense that you’re meant to go through. It’s just a bit boring and pointless.

Be able to be big, and be able to be smaller too.

Be a good and patient educator

Be a good, and patient, educator

When you’re dealing with lots of new stuff that isn’t particularly well understood you need to be able to explain complex things to people. And do it in a way that’s simple (but not patronising), accessible (but not dumbed-down) and effective (but not overly salesy).

That’s a hard thing to do.

But then you have to do it, over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over again. And be as enthusiastic and interested as you were the first time around.

“Right, this Internet thing, it’s basically a bunch of computers…”

Be an optimist and a cynic

Be a cyber-optimist and a hyper-cynic

You’re the person that everyone expects to be really excited by, and interested in, the latest gizmos, widgets and whatnot. And you should be. But at the same time you have to be the one that is able to see beyond the hype and have a critical view on whether it’s just another passing fad or something that we should all care about.

Sometimes you’ll back the wrong horse. We all do. But just as long as you’re backing the horse for the right reasons that’s the best you can be expected to do.

Nurture the geek within

Use the forces of geekdom

Geeks are cool. Well, at least a bit cooler than they used to be.

What is it that planners need to learn from geeks? Maybe it’s passion. Or an obsessive attention to detail. Or is it a drive to understand the how and the why of stuff. I’m not really sure. But there’s an interesting strand of geekism that feels very real, very tangible and very very useful.

There’s something about a need to take stuff to pieces and put it back together again that links the minds of geeks and planners I reckon.

Enjoy Commerce

Don’t hate business, it’s your friend

If you’re in ‘the game’ because you want to make film or art then making digital stuff can often drift even further away from your goal than doing traditional advertising.

There’s still a need to create desire and make beautiful things . And there’s lots of amazing digital ‘art’ that gets made in our world. Some of it in the name of art, some in the name of marketing.

But a lot of the projects where we’re really able to add value are things where we get to optimise businesses. Creating revenue opportunities. Selling more stuff. Driving efficiencies. Reducing waste. Things you might find tedious and hateful if you’re in denial about how and why you get paid.

Of course you can have ethics. And lots of the really interesting things that digital enables is rooted in empowering small businesses and creating a level commercial playing field.

But let’s be really clear, digital is not just about creating fascinating communications, it’s about how you can help business end-to-end.

Do things

Do things, make stuff

There’s a bunch of plannery mantras in circulation around doing stuff. Whether it’s ‘act don’t say’, ‘always in beta’, ’embrace failure’ or any variant of this kind of thing. It’s all pointing in the same direction. You should get out there and do things rather than just banging on about them.

And yes, a blog counts as doing something. But no. You don’t have to have a blog to be a planner. Not yet anyway.

Be Wipe-Kleen

Be Non-Stick and Wipe-Kleen

If you’re out there experimenting and doing new stuff, chances are you’ll fail from time to time. No one likes to fail. But some people are much better at failing than others. It’s natural to be gutted if something doesn’t work as well in the real/virutual world as it did in your head.

But if you’re the kind of person that bangs their head against stuff when you don’t win, your temperament might not be exactly right for a game where the things that don’t work are as important as the ones that do.

Say sorry. Explain to yourself and others why it failed. Learn from the failure. Try not to repeat the same failure again. Dust yourself down. Move on.

(This point was inspired by someone at an above the line agency we work with who reportedly referred to our agency as ‘Teflon Poke‘)

Love it!

Love what you do

Do what you’re doing for the right reasons. In interviews the thing I try to figure out above anything else is whether or not the person I’m seeing actually loves what they’re doing. If they’re in the game because they’re really excited and passionate about it then they’ll learn new things (because they can’t help themselves). If they’re in it because they think it’s a career opportunity or they fancy a change of scene you’re all in for a much rougher ride.

If you’re in ‘digital planning’ for fame, money, groupies and adoration, you’re in the wrong business. Well until next summer anyway.

And isn’t it much nicer when you work with people who love what they do. It’s the kind of thing it’s hard not to fall for.

Thank you for reading. I’m done. Love to hear what people reckon. Like I said at the start this is just some things that I think would help make you a decent digital planner type (in my eyes).

If anyone would like me to come and present this blog post at conferences, birthday parties, or whatever. I’d be happy to try to do it in an entertaining and insightful manner (as long as the venue is somewhere warm and sunny).

And Scamp, sorry for using ‘borrowed interest’ in my title selection ;-)

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64 thoughts on “How To Do Digital Planning”

  1. Brilliant.

    And a lot of those apply for other jobs in the creative industries, I reckon. I’d love to meet more designers who could do 7,8 and 9.

  2. Once again, Iain, you’re saving the digi-world a lot of work …

    As a testament to your newly published 10 commandments of digital planning, I will now obey the first rule and cut & paste (and send) your post to a boatload of planners.

    Is sending allowed?

  3. Excellent post Iain.

    Just phew’ed in that’s a cracking post type of way.

  4. Thought provoking and useful stuff, Iain.

    As an aside, I wonder: do digital planners get frustrated that the solution to every problem is a digital one?

  5. I think you’d only get frustrated if you saw digital as one big thing rather than lots of little ones that have very different functions.

    If I was a cyber-hippy I’d say. something like:

    Being bored of digital solutions is like being bored of real world solutions. But I’m not a cyber-hippy so I won’t say that.

  6. But why then only restrict yourself to digital solutions? Maybe the right solution is a book, or an ad, or an installation etc.

    I love digital, but I’ve always thought being a digital planner must be like being a vegetarian – you only get to eat some of the menu.

  7. Ah, see what you mean now. I’ve been a vegetarian since I was born, so I guess that’s perhaps the way I roll.

    But we are starting to see more digital agencies doing stuff that isn’t just digital. And depending on your point of view that matters or it doesn’t.

    Plus if we didn’t have a bias towards digital stuff we’d just be another media neutral ideas company, and surely we’ve got enough of them around ;-)

  8. How about…

    Be great at taking screen grabs. I find that I spend most of my day taking screen grabs. Usually for competitor scans, grabbing interesting bits of interaction or capturing a sexy font. The web changes all the time so you have to grab it while you can.

    Be available, don’t have a schedule and NEVER let traffic organise your time. You need to be available when the account manager you’re working with asks “So what IS SEO?”, “What the hell are meta tags?”, “Is 5mb too big for a web site intro?” or “Are we localising this toolkit?”. And you need to remain autonomous.

  9. top stuff!

    “Be good at knowing why something is good or bad. There’s a lot of very bad stuff that looks very good out there. And a lot of amazing things that look like shit. You need to be able to see through the veneer and be able to judge things on a different level”.

    That’s the trickiest bit I find in our work and I hope it’s something one can learn and be better at over time.

    The lack of qualitative metrics (beyond page impressions, visits, CPUs and KFCs) makes it harder to get a decent UX feedback on a piece of interactive.

  10. Number 1 (and to a lesser extent, 6) is definitely the most important thing about digital. I still can’t believe the number of people who claim to work in this field, yet lack any basic understanding of how the web and other technologies are put together – indeed, profess this lack of understanding as a way of showing themselves to be less threatening to clients.

    The joy of digital is being able to get under the hood, build stuff yourself, quickly and cheaply, from a variety of open and freely shared components – if you don’t get this, if you’re not willing to pay attention, sniff around, and learn a few things, then you don’t get digital.

    I would love to be a planner, admittedly, but I still find myself struggling with 7 & 10 – I just can’t make them line up…

  11. this is about as good a post as anyone is going to write about this topic in the next year or so at least.

    I would be interested to know, which points do you think out of those 10 are most salient to planners, as opposed to creatives or designers, or general ideas people in the digital space, like people at somewhere like Imagination?


  12. (Iain says: I think some people got confused by this bit. In case it’s not clear this is Ant answering his own question above, thanks Ant)

    Hi dead insect , thanks for your question. I would say 2 and 3 are in my opinion.

    2 because as things get more complex, it falls to planners to wrok out what the problem is we’re trying to solve. To do this you need to draw diagrms with stuff on it and a big arrow saying problem.

    also as projects get more complex, anyone can say whether something’s good or bad – not everyone can say why and therefore get the right people working on the right bits.

    3 because planning is the most poorly defined agency role, so you need to be good at knowing how to define your job with each project.

  13. Shhhplendid stuff Iain. I also discovered my link to your excellent blog was doubled up on the http bit so I hope there will be a trickle of people who can read one of the best in the business now its been fixed. And thanks also for your generous link. Best from Shanghai :)

  14. Thanks Pablo. As long as it was a very short book with lots of pictures I’d give it a go ;-)

  15. Great stuff Ian! I’m building a digital planning group at my agency, and am asking many of the same questions. One of the biggest questions has been – how is a digital planner different than a traditional planner? I think you touched on some interesting nods towards an answer to the question – being a cyber-optimist, knowing what’s good and bad. In my experience, cyber-optimism is severely lacking in the planning community at large. I would also add “cyber-involved” to that list… you can’t do good digital planning without immersing yourself in it, becoming a power-user and an early adopter at every turn. Consumer adoption of new technologies online is clearly outpacing the agency world, and we’re getting left in the dust. A good post to reference is this list of questions for the agency executive to determine whether you’re a “digital native” or a “digital immigrant”:

  16. This is a nice summation Iain. I think a lot of it applies to good general account planners too. The first two points to me make the real difference. Deconstructing something deeply, being versed with Cut/Paste and the roots of how things work, “the code” and being familiar with it.

    I think a lot of general planners skip over this and assume they don’t need to have any deep understanding of how things work, a big mistake I think in digital.


  17. As a planner for a pure-play digital agency, it’s really interesting to hear your perspective. Great post.

    I think the most important thing that a digital planner brings to the table isn’t web geekiness (although it’s critical) – it’s a sense of customer empathy ported directly from the world of user experience and design. Digital campaigns have to put the customer in the center. This is an old saw by now for all forms of advertising, but it’s a relatively new reality for traditional advertising. The web has always put the user in control, so web marketers have to learn to think like designers.

  18. Fantastic post.

    I particularly liked the line about ‘building a Cheezy Radio Station on Puff Island in Second Life’, something I’m sure we can all relate too!

    Iain I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts about the future of digital planning.

  19. as a head of planning is a lead dure-play UK agency I thought i’d comment….

    I wonder if there is a danger in falling into the Nathan Barley trap of pretending digital is all about experiental content? how is this different from TV?

    i think strong strategy executed in digital channels s about finding user tasks that balance strategic priorities with user needs = 99% of these are not putting passive or interative content online. saying digital is the change from sit back to sit forward and patting our selves on the back because Nike and Apple found a running application misses the point. Great digital strategy is about 3 simple things:

    1) something we want the user to do that they can’t do easier or more enjoyably offline
    2) delivering a simple service that drives value
    3) driving participation in something that only digital channel can enable

    the rest is waffle and deserves no attention.

  20. Good post.

    You’ve done a nice job capturing the varied nature of digital planning. Part creative, part tech,part gizmo geek, part branding, part data, part commerce, part information architect…amongst other things.

    However, with all of those good traits outlined, it also important that digital planners remain aware that their role doesn’t actually need to exist. It’s only a value add. It is there to make the work of other people better, and since there are some pretty clever creatives, techs, copywriters and account handlers out there, planners have to run very fast to accomplish this. This means that digital planners need to be selective about which parts of the process they choose to own, develop and defend on their own – and which they simply provide stimulus for other people to get on with and do their jobs.

    I get really annoyed by planners (digital or not) that believe that every idea must be an intellectual exercise owned and lead by planning team. Their teams are not nearly as effective those where the planners know how to foster ideas in others and when to get out of the way of someone elses good idea when it is clear that one is there.

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