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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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