Marketing execs falling behind the digital learning curve

One of the best parts of my job is having the privilege of observing the inner-workings of companies and their struggle to become a digital literate (and hopefully, digital leading) company.

This is NOT an easy process.  In fact, it can be gut-wrenching.

Many of today’s marketing executives grew up in a less-complicated and relatively mature world of TV and print advertising. Not only are they not digital experts, they may not even know enough to ask the right questions that will lead to a successful strategy.

The urgent push to digital

Some companies aren’t making it.  Kodak, the dominant market leader for decades could not make the transition to digital and is bankrupt.

Others are re-training aggressively. Johnson & Johnson, one of my customers, is re-training all of their marketing personnel to rapidly improve their digital competencies.

Procter & Gamble recently jettisoned nearly 2,000 marketers, partly as an effort to re-tool and re-align skillsets with strategy and market needs.

I think all of this activity confirms one of the themes of this blog — social media success is not going to be a function of marketing vision or budget. It’s going to rely on radical organizational transformation.

A new study by Jeffrey F. Rayport and Tuck Rickards and reported by The Harvard Business Review seems to confirm that companies are simply not moving fast enough.

We are losing the race

The report states that only nine companies — less than two percent of the Fortune 500 — would be regarded as having a “highly digital” orientation.  To be highly digital, a company must pass four tests: it generates a high percentage of revenues digitally; its leadership (both the CEO and the Board) has deep digital experience; it does business significantly enabled by digital channels; and it’s recognized as transformational in its industry.

It’s no news that technology companies — Amazon, Apple, Cisco, Dell, HP, Google, Intel, Microsoft, and Oracle — have boards and executive leadership that are strong in digital expertise.

But boards are also on their way to becoming highly digital in sectors where you would least expect it: Pepsi, Wal-Mart, Ingram Micro, Sysco, Berkshire Hathaway and FedEx.

The authors state: “Given the increasing influence, even dominance, of social and mobile technologies, we expect to see a similar evolution take place in more ‘unlikely’ sectors: health care, industrial goods, natural resources.”

“It’s clear the tide is turning — and it’s turning fast,” the authors state. “We believe it’s no coincidence that the largest and most successful companies in our economy are leading this change. Just consider what some established companies have done recently to address their digital capabilities gap at the highest levels of leadership and governance.”

What are you seeing out there?  How is your company making the digital transformation? Is it slow and steady? Is there a sense of urgency? Or, are you like many companies who are falling behind?

Racing photo courtesy of BigStock Photo

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  • I think there is a huge challenge for companies to understand that they can´t approach this digital transformation as a check in the box. This is something you breath and live on daily basis. Great post Mark! Thanks!
    /Mattias

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  • What companies are starting to understand is that their marketing efforts need to be integrated. SoMe is not going to replace other forms of marketing, it is merely another avenue that needs to be cultivated. I am seeing smaller companies behaving with more urgency, they don’t fully understand SoMe, but they know they need it to survive in today’s business environment. Hence the reason more and more jobs are appearing for SoMe managers, content creators, and community builders…terms unheard of in the distant past.

    What they need to understand is that SoMe is not just a marketing tool, it is a fundamental shift in the way our current world communicates, shops, and lives. Being able to fit in, supply relevant content, get noticed, and ultimately drive sales are just a few components of a competent social engagement strategy, and I think that all CEO’s, owners etc should have at least a fair understanding of the process. Just my humble opinion.
    NIcely done Mark, and thanks for allowing me to be a part of the discussion.

  • Yes, i agree. I think this could be a real competitive differentiatior over the next five years!

  • Well said Gerry. A good blog post in its own right. Thanks for the superb comment!

  • Mark,

    While helping marketing types gain digital expertise can be a challenge, I think there’s even tougher issue at play.

    Many companies still have a mentality based on centralized control.

    They might say the right things, but the actions and behaviors don’t align with the talk.

    During assignments on this topic, I like to share how the Department of Defense has managed to move to a distributed model on the digital front. This always triggers some good dialog, but it’s tough to change entrenched muscle memory.

  • Hi Mark,

    The challenge I have with the small companies I work with in my world is simply getting them on board. It’s not only selling them on social, but the amazing long-term benefits of effective content marketing.

    They’re similar to the big boys because many owners or managers are stuck on traditional print media and static websites. Even younger managers. They are told to hire a web designer, but there is so much more to the picture. I usually stop and say we have to focus on message first, because a pretty site will get you nowhere.

    I don’t think every small company I work with needs to blog. Sometimes it doesn’t make sense for a variety of reasons. What they really need though is a well-planned content strategy, and this is where a business like mine is transitioning rather quickly. This all mixes together as a cohesive brand strategy, but again getting them on board is no mean feat.

    There is definitely no sense of urgency with them, so I’m now working on a platform and a more targeted service I’ll use to help me help them. Oh, and I’m saving posts like this to lead the charge 😉

  • Pavel Konoplenko

    Great point. I’ve been making a similar point as well. The Internet and social media are very much interrelated. The Internet revolutionized society and social media is changing the very way that people exchange ideas and information. If a business sees social as only a boost to marketing, then they’re missing out on the whole revolutionizing part. Marketing isn’t the revolution. The revolution is everything, including marketing, and every other area of business and life.

  • Pavel Konoplenko

    From what I’ve been seeing with our clients and the world in general is kind of an unwillingness to adapt. I’ve always said that adaptability for a business or a person is a skill – a skill that requires hard work, practice, and dedication. Adaptability is something that many businesses SAY they are, but what are they doing to actually BE adaptable? I think the research proves in many ways that businesses aren’t as adaptable as they claim.

    I believe this gap of adaptability and transformation exists because there are two main groups involved with social media. The casual users – who spend a lot of time with it but don’t really consider the professional or business opportunities – and the business users – who realize the potential of social media. However, the problem lies in the fact that the latter group isn’t immersed in the “digital” world – they still view the Internet as a place to advertise, lack the inherent etiquette of certain social networks, and do very little to connect with the casual users. Obviously there are plenty of people of belong to both groups – such as yourself.

    I think the best way for business-related people to understand the power of social media is to start connecting with other people – not customer, not businesses, just people. Once every senior manager in a company realize that social media has potential to improve both business and personal lives, then the transformation to digital will come.

  • Sounds like a possible guest post? Interesting analogy Lou.

  • Here is a valuable lesson i have learned as a consultant — If they need to be “sold” it is probably not a good customer to have. Customers aren’t ready if they don;t know they have a problem. The good news is, in 2012 i see that point tipping. An interesting conversation to have though Craig. Thanks!

  • This is such a very wise point Pavel. Think of this amazing idea — in most of recorded history there was NO change. People never expected anything new. Basically, life was having babies and trying not to die. Now, adapting to change is a key survival skill from a career standpoint. How our world has changed. This is an absolutely superb blog comment and I am really indebted to you for taking the time to express this today!

  • Pavel Konoplenko

    Thank you so much Mark! Glad to be part of the community 😀

  • Great post Mark. Having recently been with a 25-year-old company who is in the midst of a digital transformation, my experience is that it critical for the executive team to lead the shift of the cultural mindset, as well as the decentralization of intel and new responsibilities within the organization.

    I believe that success requires each member of the organization to have a clear path through the transformation and beyond. This starts with the executive team. In my opinion, the biggest downfall for companies making this shift is the lack of planning (or rush to adopt – translate “keep up with the joneses”), which is leading to choppy and confused execution. Gerry made a good point that many of the roles that are being filled in companies today didn’t even exist 5 years ago. Given that truth, and the pace at which digital moves, it shouldn’t be surprising that many in the organization are still trying to figure out what “the shift to digital” means to them and to their daily responsibilities. Therefore, without leadership, a clear guideline, and a phased plan for adoption and transformation, what you are often left with is internal frustration and, even more damaging, a potential disconnect with your customers and prospects.

    A simple example of this is a recent experience I had with a major juice bar chain. A few months ago, I went into one of their locations and observed a QR code on a poster. Once scanned, a user would become a member of their “Juice Club” and receive member benefits, the first of which was a coupon for $2 off. So, the day after my initial visit, I returned with the digital coupon (on my phone) and presented it to the cashier. Unfortunately, the cashier knew nothing of the promo and, even worse, told me that the chain required its customers to print coupons for redemption. Well, I didn’t get my discount – no big deal…but I haven’t been back either. Even more frustrating, I continue to get emails with discounts that clearly state, in their fine print, “must be printed for redemption”. It won’t be long now, until I am no longer a member of their club either.

    Now this example may not be 100% indicative of a failure at the executive level. But if i had my guess, I would say that the leadership within the marketing department could have done a better job aligning their well-intentioned use of a trendy marketing tactic with the requirements of the financial side of the operation. It seems pretty obvious to me that marketing is on their way to going digital, while finance (or operations) is still playing catch up. What would be interesting to know is how the company viewed the results of the campaign and use of the QR code. Did they take into account the customers like me, who never redeemed my initial coupon and eventually unsubscribed from their “club”?

  • You’re right, and I’m not being that pushy with them, but you’re also right about that tipping point. So, I’m in my prepping stage 😉

  • Mark, I applaud, and support your digital learning leadership in helping execs locate, and accept solutions to their marketing issues.

    Unfortunately behavioral habits are the most difficult to change…

    With awareness, and acceptance that change is necessary, and needed for solutions to marketing issues they are facing some execs — as you mention in your blog today — are finding digital learning important, and relevant for adaptation in order to survive!

  • I’d love to take a shot at this topic for guest post. Thanks.

  • Go for it!!

  • Wow what a story. I had a similar experience with a restaurant in NYC recently. I also like your point that the change must stop at the top! Great insights John. Thank you!

  • You know I think that is right Dr. Rae. The biggest obstacle to progress today is homeostasis! Thanks!

  • The article is dead on. The challenge is that the pace of change in online marketing seems to be increasing. I spend a significant amount of time (mostly at night) learning about all the new techniques every day – it is an investment that I make. If folks aren’t willing to make that investment, they won’t be able to keep up.

  • I really admire your discipline Ken. Sounds like you have a good strategy to stay ahead of the curve. Thanks for the comment.

  • Mark, excellent post – and so are the earlier comments. One of the laws of nature that may be at play is that the strongest force in business is inertia.

    It seems like it could be 100 years ago and you’re an automobile manufacturer talking to people who have profited handsomely from horses and buggies and don’t want things to change.

    This relates to something else I’ve encountered: marketing people who are threatened by all the change going on, including inbound marketing. One example: I was recently invited to speak to a CEO and his management team about inbound marketing. This company has a DC PR firm and a NYC branding firm and he said neither has EVER talked about inbound marketing (one wants to do news releases, one wants to do logos and graphic design). The CEO wants to move forward, but his marketing person has been actively trying to quash the whole thing.

  • My pleasure Mark… Thank you for your support! ~Rae

  • Sunny

    This is so true! This is one of the reasons I left a recent role as I felt I was falling behind the digital marketing age! Companies need to ensure they are embracing digital marketing rather then hiring one digital marketer and expecting them to manage all digital aspects.

    Great article!

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  • Ouch. Well, he recognizes that he has a problem. That’s the first step toward change! Thanks for the insight Douglas!

  • Might be an implication for specialization here too. Can you really master everything? Thanks Sunny.

  • Mark, what kind of skills does the average office worker or executive need to cultivate to stay relevant? Thanks.

  • I think those are two different questions John and I think it depends on the career and the career objectives. For somebody just starting out, here is a post with three key competencies I think are important in this field:
    http://www.businessesgrow.com/2012/04/05/three-careers-that-will-dominate-social-media-and-its-not-what-you-think/

    On the executive level, I’m involved in delivering a week-long training program that dives into digital strategy, mobile, legal, social media, SEO, and a host of other topics. At the end of this training the executives might not be able to run an SEO effort, but they can ask enough smart questions to know what is needed to succeed.

    In all cases, a need to evaluate and react quickly is going to be a core competency.

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