Four things a Digital Transformation is NOT



Digital Transformations are all the rage nowadays – at least talk about them is. Eighteen months ago whilst working for a big ad agency here in Singapore we pitched a global digital engagement to a big FMCG prospect. “Let’s call it a ‘transformation’”, I said. No objections there and so we went in all guns blazing with details of just how we’d accomplish that. It was a great pitch but we didn’t win.

Since then I’ve heard the term used time and time again with clients who want it and agencies promising it. It’s fast becoming the new coveted space agencies and consultancies want to get in to.

I want to touch on four things and hopefully draw attention to what I think might constitute real transformational change.

Digital Transformation is not about:

  1. More digital stuff: Transformation is NOT simply a case of doing more digital. Or even just about doing it better or more seriously. It’s not just about shifting more budget into the digital marketing pot and building better and brighter websites, starting a YouTube channel or doing some eCommerce. It’s not even getting with the new(ish) and adding Pinterest or Instagram to your already (probably) not so effective existing Social Media channels such as Facebook and Twitter. No. A digital transformation is about something far more organic – about something that needs to be embraced from the heart of the organization and by all of it. It’s about a shift in the way the company does all of its business.
  2. Just the communication and engagement strategy: Digital Transformation is way more than better ‘digital’ marketing communications and ‘digital’ consumer engagement. It’s about embracing an ethos which should realize itself through consumer empowerment and (amongst other things) the provision of utility and the further democratization of data and systems. It’s about moving from the brand making sure we know about it to the brand making sure they know about usabout each consumer as an individual. And then, whenever possible, speaking to us as such.
  3. Just about the (Digital) Marketing Department: No company digital transformation should be confined to the marketing department. Being a digitally transformed company means embracing the consumer-centric opportunities that digital affords and adopting a new mindset and way of doing things in all parts of the organization with consumers as well as with internal stakeholders. It’s not a marketing vehicle – it’s a way of thinking about things and doing stuff in HR and within the R&D department. It’s about everywhere.
  4. Being part of a job title or work responsibility: Working for a digitally transformed company will impact every employee. Everyone will be embracing digital in their work, not simply in the trivial sense of using a digital device or looking at a computer, but in the essential elements of the ways they do things armed as they will be with new knowledge and insights they have when relating to consumers and to their colleagues.

In fact, today’s digital marketers may end up being just a small (perhaps insignificant) part of a company – a company entirely composed of digitally transformed employees doing the sorts of things they do now but in ways that you might not recognize.

Unless you have already been successfully digitally transformed. In which case you’re probably well ahead of most of us.

User Personas – more important than ever

user-personaSeveral years ago whilst working at one of the world’s largest design companies the idea of ‘customer centricity’ was not merely an important notion or guideline – it was one of the core founding principles of almost everything we did. Indeed, Design Thinking has the ‘customer’ as one of its three underpinning pillars.

To help us understand and relate to our customers we created customer personas.

One example of one type of Persona from a Wikipedia page:

(User Experience) Personas are defined as fictional characters created to represent the different user types that might use a site, brand, or product in a similar way.

Understanding customers ensures that we’re able to create relevant and appropriate experiences. This is true with product and service design of course but increasingly the opportunities we have to apply this to communication design are huge.

Creating personas in product design cycles whilst incredibly useful is not straightforward. There are challenges that we always face in securing the data that will inform our personas. When identifying patterns of behaviour and the aspirations and desires of customers, we often have to rely on small sample sets and, most significantly perhaps, rely on people being objective with their answers when sat in focus groups for example. Whilst product designers will engage in a lot of observation (I’ve heard it called ‘watching humans in the wild’!) they also have to rely on people telling them what they like and want – a research area littered with problems.

Organisations now have opportunities to create highly informed (comms) personas.

By highly informed, I mean data-driven of course.

Data is nothing new – Amazon have been doing their recommendations for years and 10 years ago I was doing email A/B testing – looking to understand some basic consumer preferences.

But there have been some significant changes over the last few years that have brought data to the fore.


  • Mobile, internet usage in general and the e-enabling of services and communications means there is now data defining many more of us and there’s a lot lot more of it.
  • Social Media
  • Ultra sophisticated adtech and media platforms integration
  • The ability to store, crunch and access data can be done by entry-level hardware.
  • Almost as soon as the above became true, cloud services now mean the most sophisticated platforms and software are at our fingertips with minimal investment.
  • The ability to choose and publish bespoke and curated content instantly.
  • Marketers and advertisers have finally come to the realisation we’re moving from a brand centred advertising model to a customer-centred personalised and customized experience informed and delivered by digital.


The above makes for some powerful opportunities that marketers cannot ignore.

We can now get customer-centric – know and communicate with people in ways that simply were not possible only a few years ago. The personas that we can create now are dynamic and ever evolving and they differ in a number of ways from personas that product designers might have used say ten years ago.


  1. We don’t need to ask anymore: Areas of interest, desires, aspirations and specific behaviours can be inferred directly from actions (clicking, liking, searching and watching etc). We don’t now need to rely as much on older, more traditional research tools like real-world observation, interviewing or focus groups.
  2. Dynamic and Evolving: Ten years ago, product designers would typically have created personas that would have then remained static for the duration of the design cycle. Today, our digitally informed personas can and should be dynamic and evolving with every subsequent digital interaction. Every single open or not open of an EDM or like on Facebook must further inform and refine what we know about that customer.
  3. Potential Granularity: Product designers may have created 6/8 personas as part of their process. Today, although not necessarily articulated as such, a simple comms strategy over a year with a few dynamically created emails, some dynamic and personalised web content and a few up/cross sell initiatives could mean we’re running hundreds of different brand experience journeys – each effectively driven by a ‘sub-persona’.
  4. Automation: Rather than having to build the personas today we are able to create the framework and the rules to allow the personas to build themselves. This is a subtle but distinct difference. And it means being able to do the simple stuff very easily and puts complex and sophisticated highly customised and personalised communication channels at our disposal.
  5. The Product: I alluded to the old static personas of years ago and, of course, in the product design world of TV’s and the like, products were essentially static too. If we think of our product now as our brand communications, our product can be as dynamic as the personas that inform it. A few clicks and searches over the next week inform my persona-type changes. I should reasonably expect that to mean a different email and landing page next week. Dynamic persona – dynamic product.

As these opportunities to know customers better and better become increasingly available it will be incumbent on all organisations to understand who they are talking with and, to varying degrees, look to personalise communications based on who they are talking to and when.





Tour de France and mobile

I can get pretty worked up about digital and mobile. And about cycling too!  So when we get on to talking about ‘Tour de France’ mobile apps I’m there with bells on.


Below is a response I wrote in August 2011 basically bemoaning that year’s TdF app, highlighting that it simply repurposed desktop content into an app albeit it in a half decent way.  By all means read it but to sum up I wanted to suggest how I thought the app could and should be better by understanding what it really means to be ‘mobile’.  I came up with an idea of driving users into bike shops with some idea of a simple partnership business model allowing everyone to win – the stores, the consumer and the main brand sponsor.  My idea and the model are not really important – it was just an off the top of my head suggestion.  My main point was one that could be summed up (in the quite catchy phrase I hope you’ll agree) as the difference between ‘merely mobile and truly mobile’.

 We’re all pretty tired of seeing those stats slides rolled out as part of countless presentations around the world detailing the numbers of mobile users there are now and the percentage of web traffic that runs over small screens.  (At least I think we’ve now had ‘The Year of Mobile’ haven’t we?)

Getting serious about mobile means grasping the difference I coined above – understanding what transforms something from merely mobile to truly mobile.

To do this we must consider the following:

Context – how and when is the user using the mobile app / site?  What unique or persistent needs might they have at that point?  What can / should the app deliver for the best possible contextualized experience?

Location – perhaps the most obvious but not necessarily most important aspect of the above.  We must ask ourselves what does ‘where they are’ offer us in terms of being ultra relevant.

Cutting the crap – ask yourselves, ‘what information and stuff could the user do without at this point?’ – your brand’s board members might be half interesting to a few people but save it for the desktop site (probably).

Utility – how can we move from information and content to something that really provides usefulness.  What would be ‘great’ for the user right there at that moment?

Responsive design is now almost a hygiene factor although you wouldn’t necessarily know that from looking at some sites.  And it’s important – don’t get me wrong but I think focusing on it can be a hindrance.  It, almost by definition, gets people in the mindset of taking all of what’s there and making it accessible via a small screen.  A might better approach might be starting from scratch and staring from the bullet points above:  Where are they?  What are they doing?  What would they want to know right now and how can we make something useful?

 As I mentioned above the reply (below) was written three and a half years ago and despite all those stats slides and mobile’s importance being drummed into us I don’t see that much truly mobile stuff as opposed to simply being merely mobile.


Original reply:

I had the Tour de France app running on my iPhone in July. And I have used the live timing screen on the Formula One website for some years now. My question is: are these apps that we have now really mobile? That’s not meant to sound as stupid as it might do! Of course they are mobile. In one sense at least. And great apps they are too whilst, at the same time, being little more (in most cases) than existing content repurposed for mobile devices. The TDF app was, as I mentioned, great but did nothing over and above the ‘web’ content other than make it available on a small screen and handy when a laptop or desktop was not to hand. And it was sponsored by Skoda wasn’t it? – an ad campaign totally lost on me.

 Isn’t the really power of mobile – the time when apps become truly mobile – when they know where you are and what you are doing? Isn’t this when mobile advertising tips into something truly game changing and disruptive?

Imagine that Tour de France app. Instead of just having a Skoda screen on startup (the same screen for everyone everywhere in the world regardless of age, location, interests etc) what if it alerted me to a cool bike shop as I walked by telling me about some great offer on a bike and that they were showing Le Tour on TV? In other words the app contextualised my interest and my location and gave me something useful and potentially really relevant and engaging. So, instead of a one off fee with Skoda (let’s ignore the broader advertising deal for now) the app developers had invited hundreds of thousands of bike shops all over the world to partner with them in handing over 5 bucks for every punter they drove into a store brandishing a code that got them 10% off stuff. Isn’t this the sort of thing that will be the future?

This feel likes the future of mobile advertising. When apps become truly mobile in their ability to understand and contextualise people’s situations and behaviour. The difference, if you like, between a truly mobile app and an app that is merely mobile.

Why having everything on Spotify sucks

collectionsThe other day I was hiking with a very good friend of mine. An industrial designer by training and someone who’s fascinated by new technology and its implications, I was keen to understand what he now used to listen to music – another passion of his.

His answer was brusque and bordering on defensive – CDs. And he still buys them. I told him that I hadn’t bought a CD for years and was right into Spotify. “I can understand that”, he said, “but I’m still doing the CD thing.”

Why would anyone still be buying CDs? The same could be said for DVDs in some segments of society and perhaps even books?

There are a number of subtle reasons why some are not embracing the likes of Spotify and Netflix:

Curation: Let’s get that one out of the way to start with. It’s a word I know a lot of people don’t like but it still makes sense. I had a girlfriend years ago whose brother had a huge record collection in a separate room of the house. He was the coolest guy on the planet as far as I was concerned. He’d built that up over the years, perhaps even stolen a few of the records and certainly gone without other things in his life. And there it was – a physical manifestation – a collection defined, earned and realized by him.

I probably have access to all of that music via my Spotify account, right? Millions of others do too. I earned that right with a small monthly subscription. There’s nothing of me in it – no stories, no effort, no sacrifice and nothing defining me in my vast collection.


Ceremony: When I lived with a friend back in the UK we used to listen to music in the evening – listen to vinyl records. And, like many others, we used to cue music up. This was done by someone sitting on the floor next to the line of albums that were stacked on their ends on the floor and going through them one by one until we collectively identified another track on we wanted to listen to. This album was then lifted up and left poking above the rest as we continued looking for the next track.

What was going on with activity? Well it was a shared experience – a specific ceremony around choosing and listening to music. Although not quite the same with CDs, something similar exists and you can point your dinner guest over to the CD rack, for example, and ask them to choose some music to put on.

Readers-007Status: Closely related to the above but perhaps more specifically about books is the idea of our displaying our tastes – something that was (and still is) manifested in our reading books in public typically on public transport. I know several people who happily admit that they miss this aspect of the behavior when holding up a faceless and ‘coverless’ kindle or phone.


In ‘digitizing’ services and media distribution we’d do well to not lose track of some of the emotional drivers and peripheral activities that give and have given so much meaning and to people.

Doing digital must not simply be about efficiency of distribution and availability and giving everything to everyone.

It must also be about struggle, about self and about it somehow being a manifestation of ourselves for others to see. There’s something too easy about having access to everything on Spotify – the effort to build something – the struggle – is missing.

Social Media – too much media, not enough Social

First published July 2013 Singapore

On my Facebook feed the other day I saw a comment from someone which read, ‘Social Media – too much media, not enough Social’.

thumbs-downIt triggered some thoughts I’ve been having recently about the evolution of this whole ‘Social Media/ Social Marketing’ space.  Now, I’ve been around a while – to give you a clue I remember quite distinctly the first time someone used the word ‘internet’ with me.

So it doesn’t feel that long ago that I heard the first mutterings around Social Media.   I remember too the advertising industry’s desperate attempts to dismiss it and try and protect their own back yard. Unfortunately I also lived through the times when we had Social Media ‘experts’ and ‘gurus’ – a few of whom I think are still around in various guises.  You may know one or two.

I think the notion of expert and guru grew out of the perceived fluffiness of the space – a sentiment very prevalent in the early days.  Some people were keen to elevate themselves above all the talk of consumer engagement and consumer dialogue and inject some veneer of science or method into that fluffy new world.  Calling themselves ‘expert’ was their way of trying to get some visibility – some credibility.

The newly self-appointed experts and gurus for a while got away with things hiding behind perceived knowledge that, in some cases, didn’t extend much beyond being able to talk confidently about what a Twitter ‘re-tweet’ was.  Numbers were part of the game then but only in the sense that more was better.  This party was brought to a premature end when pesky people started to ask them if they could generate ROI and, even more scarily, if they could measure it.

Since then I’ve seen things evolve considerably with agencies proposing very detailed ROI models and even linking these models to things like those awfuly boring business things like revenue and profit.  My oh my!, how far we’ve come and in such a short time.

But we should be mindful that we are all still basking in the infancy of something the shape of which in ten years’ time few of us can possibly imagine let alone be even remotely confident of guessing.

And I do wonder if, in our current phase of talking numbers and returns, we’re perhaps forgetting some of those important fluffy roots.  I recently heard a very successful CEO, whose current business is heavily integrated with Facebook, dismissing tweets from people who talk about what they had for breakfast.  “I don’t have time for those people who take pictures of their lunch and tweet things like, “I just got out of bed’” he said disparagingly.  Those were not his exact words but I think I’ve pretty much nailed the sentiment.

Hang on though – isn’t it exactly the fact that people want to share things like that that means social media platforms exist?  Whilst most of us might be a lot less banal we’re all coming essentially from the same place.  It’s about being recognized for who we are.  In dismissing the ‘what I had for lunch’ tweets, I distinctly remember that same CEO saying that he used Twitter as a way to curate his news intake.

To me the fact that someone is sharing his or her lunch with their friends is far more interesting – far more social and truly indicative of what drives Social Media than the person who simply subscribes to feeds to get their news.  (I’m talking about the behavior of course and not the actual details of the lunch being the interesting thing!)

We have now moved from our obsession with the fluffy world of dialogue and engagement and “It’s a 2-way medium, you know” to a position that I think is an overreaction and over compensation to that fluffiness. There is a worrying tendency now towards too much focus on all the numbers and a danger to look at Social Media, indeed the whole social space, as just another aspect of marketing that can be subject to the kind of rigor and reporting that other business activities.

With the new obsession around click streams and the various Digital Engagement measuring algorithms we must not forget the roots and foundations to which all social media platforms owe their popularity.

It is precisely because people want to tell other people what they had for lunch that Social Media is what it is.  Whilst measuring the success of our initiatives and those that we do on behalf of our clients is very important we must be mindful that those numbers that mean we’re able to report success and show nice graphs on presentation decks only happen because of those fluffy sentiments that have existed long before anyone said ‘internet’ let alone ‘re-tweet’.

When you’re gleefully reporting on a fan uptake of X or a TAT (Talking about This) figure of Y don’t forget that however much you might be excited about your ROI the reason you have your ROI is because people wanted to share, to be recognized or to further define their virtual selves.

These fluffy things have been true for millennia and don’t look like they’re disappearing anytime soon.  So, in planning your next digital engagement do think about what the client’s business objectives are and thy they’re probably interested in something to do with money rather than ‘view’s or ‘like’s.

But most importantly think about those people you’re hoping to engage.  They’re not interested in your client’s business objectives.  They don’t even see themselves as video ‘viewers’ or page ‘likers’.  They do, however, sometimes like to share the most banal of things.  They like to laugh and smile too.  You need to understand all this and suck it up.

I’d like to conclude by letting you all know that I had rice, some vegetables and sweet and sour pork.



Thank you for pressing “send’!

Today I applied for a job online. After hitting the submit button I got the following email from the company:

Thank you for pressing “send’! We just wanted to confirm that we have received your application.

We know there are a lot of awesome companies out there, but we think we are pretty special and we are glad you do too. You put time and effort into applying, so our recruiting team will make sure we give your application the attention it deserves.

If you have questions, please check out our FAQ:

Someone will be in touch if your qualifications match our needs for the xxxx, Singapore role. If you are not selected for this position, keep an eye on our jobs page – we are growing rapidly, and adding openings all the time.

Meanwhile, here are some links so you can check us out and learn more about the company, if you haven’t already:

I thought it was an extremely simple but very powerful thing. Just an auto-responder right? Yeah, but with a few well-chosen words a simple process was turned into a nice experience.

It reminded me of another simple experience I had in the gym a couple of years ago. The gym I used to go to was not even close to my last permanent workplace but the staff were delightful and being greeted by smiles is always a great start to my session.

After my workout the manager spoke with me.  “Hi, Carl”, he said, “how are you doing? And great to see you back after your trip – New York wasn’t it?”

“Actually, it was California and Nevada, but thanks for asking, and how do you know my name?” I replied.

“I always make a point of looking at the names of those who visit the gym” he said, “and I like to find out a bit about them.”

His name is Ernest and he is man who, for me, stands out because of the simple steps he took to interact with me – one of his customers.  He took a few seconds to find out my name and a quick bit of information about me so that he could address me directly and engage briefly in some relevant and timely conversation.

And as all the brands I interact with struggle with emerging technologies and their implications and what to do with me as a Facebook fan or a Twitter follower, here’s a little reminder from one of your customers: some simple and basic things like knowing a little about your customer and making them feel just that little bit important by engaging in some relevant and timely dialogue goes a long way towards building affinity and getting me to love you a little bit more.

The online space provides more and more of these possibilities every day for brands to interact with their customers. And whilst potentially being swallowed up with technology driven innovation we shouldn’t forget that it is theses little emotional triggers that can often be the simplest and cheapest reason why I might choose one brand or another or one gym over another.

Or why, after this morning, I might now feel even more like I’d like to work for you.

And before you think, ‘what’s he talking about? – What’s one insignificant albeit nice email got to do with things? Think about this: I showed my COO the email I’d received after my application and he guessed the company straight away with his first guess – how’s that for branding? – Someone recognising the awesomeness in the way you speak with people. You’d have some of that, right?

Anyone else care for a guess?

For more reading on how important it can be to make people smile in an email see what Derek Sivers has to say on it: How I lost my iPhone on 30th December 2011

Dropped my iPhone recently in a cab and found out how difficult it is to search for information on the go. It was the 2nd last day of 2011, and we were in a premier taxi when we decided to alight at cineleisure in a hurry because the traffic was so jammed. Paid, and got out of cab, only to realize I dropped the phone on the taxi's floor (because my sister checked the seat when she got out). I patted my shorts, checked my bag for the phone, and meanwhile the taxi got further and further away. Called premier taxi, and my phone which rang (but it was at vol 1) and tried chasing the cab down (too late). Premier taxi service said they would page their drivers after getting all the necessary details – but I have no cab number, nor do they have gps tracking on their taxis so even if I know where my phone was at they can't contact the driver. It was then that I realized I've the "Find my iPhone" service in my phone so after a good 15 minutes of initial flustering figuring out how to access that service – I need to go to or install the Find my iPhone app on another iPhone, enter your apple ID and password, I realized that the phone was tracked to Dorset Road.. and I quickly managed to remote lock the phone with a passcode. After that I decided to send a message that will play along a sound at full volume – on hindsight perhaps that's what alerted the passenger to the phone and to steal it. The message included my sister's phone number asking for the person to contact the owner of the phone, and it got sent as well.