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Digital Strategy through Innovation – Why Its Practice Should Mirror a Coral Reef

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When we research the history of innovation and in what situations it flourishes, we discover that several types of collaborative conditions support new ideas and inventions. A recent Harvard Review story noted that collaboration was a key ingredient for innovation. With this in mind, how can we use these optimal conditions to create rich professional experiences and resources for better digital strategy innovation?

Steven Johnson, in his recent book Where Good Ideas Come From, theorizes that two examples of these environments include large cities (urban communities), and the Web. Why? Because numerous connections are made and remixed in these densely populated environments, the result being a sort of hybrid melting pot of ideas and solutions.


Source: PSFK

What are the benefits of collaboration in the digital strategy process? Good digital strategy is often best created in an open environment, not a vacuum, where teams representing various business specializations work together. This way, good innovation is not compromised, and conflicts in strategy, design, and technology can be overcome by better innovation and workarounds, rather than having good ideas excluded in the end.


Source: PSFK.com

Digital Strategy planning requires broad business knowledge and digital marketing experience, including business startup experience. Startup experience is valuable because of the dynamic fast-paced culture of startups, which provides opportunity to be technically and creatively inventive and financially resourceful (a requirement for many brand campaigns). Startups are often required to launch products and services; their small intense business teams quickly develop excellent cross-platform collaboration skills.

So in practice, the digital strategy planning process should mirror the coral reef: an environment where different forms of information and experience, such as media, ideas, digital and legacy media experiences, business operations, technology research (trend and non-trend types), and strategies should be integrated. Your personal “digital strategy center of excellence” then becomes a complete resource toolbox for better and more insightful digital solutions and innovation.

For example, in a healthy coral reef, zooxanthellae can provide up to 90% of a coral’s energy requirements; this symbiotic relationship enables corals’ success as reef-building organisms in tropical waters. Sometimes businesses do not allow for cross-department collaboration and broad research during the digital strategy planning stage. The result: the strategist is required to produce a “strategy report” and launch and implement a timeline before proper macro and micro research is complete.

An environment that truly supports innovation at the digital strategy level should operate like the “zooxanthellae, coral, and the parrot fish, not competing but collaborating, borrowing and reinventing each others work” on a micro and macro level. For more on innovation see Steven Johnson’s book referenced above.

Collaborative environments allow for ideas to develop, like the Internet and the Web do. The Web was developed through a collaborative effort of academics and with government funding. Once the academic and private sectors came together, only then could the strength of the Internet/Web come into existence.

If you take a look at digital strategy from a macro perspective, you will also find that good ideas can come from good research into areas such as: a brand’s history, the competition, current global trends in a specific niche or broader target market, current digital technology, consumer behavior, where technology trends or non-trends are headed in six months to a year, and identifying and addressing the requirements of clients. All this allows for the development of innovative new tools and techniques. By using technology together with traditional promotions, you also drive new features, social integration, and strategy.

Usability feedback (UI/UX), organizational vision, goals, and market opportunities and initiatives are also important to maximize digital investments. The digital strategist should also be flexible and experienced working with a company’s senior management, marketing and sales, and service stakeholders with a goal of understanding their business strategy.

How does a global perspective play into good digital strategy planning?

Good strategy research includes intelligence gathering on a global level. For example, understanding current and future global trends in urban centers can develop insights into successful branding, PR, and marketing campaigns.

In large urban centers there are millions of urbanites with buying power. From Manhattan to Mumbai to Barcelona, consumers demand the latest trends and are sophisticated and connected through social media. These urbanites are willing to try new products and services, and are comfortable with media campaigns and digital conversations. I am referring to urban consumers who have some level of disposable income. Here are some interesting insights:


Source: Trendcentral.com

For example, here are several current global urban trends that could possibly  affect your brands strategy planning:

  • China, Africa and India are all set for immense urbanization in the upcoming few decades.
  • Close to 180,000 people move into cities daily, adding roughly 60 million new urban dwellers each year. (Source: Intuit, October 2010.)
  • By 2050, the global urban population is expected to be 6.3 billion, or 70% of the population at that time. (Source: UN, 2009.)
  • By 2030, China will have an urban population of one billion, and India 590 million. Currently, Europe’s urban population is 533 million. (Source: McKinsey forecast & UN data, 2009-10.)
  • By 2030, China will have 221 cities with more than one million people, and India will have 68. In 2010, Europe has 35. During this period, 400 million Chinese and 215 million Indians will move to urban areas, more than the population of the U.S. and Brazil combined. (Source: Foreign Policy, August 2010.)
  • Finally: In January 2011, Chinese city planners proposed merging the nine cities around the Pearl River Delta into a single metropolitan area, containing some 42 million people: more than Argentina, and covering an area 26 times bigger than Greater London. (Source: Reuters, January 2011.)

Here are some insights into urbanites’ spending power and behavior:


Source: Trendcentral.com

  • The average Manhattanite household spends 59% of their $13,079 food budget on dining out, compared to the average American household that spends only 42% of their $6,514 food budget on dining out. (Source: Bundle, May 2010.)
  • Even four years ago, Harris identified “Urban Hustlers” (who comprise 21% of U.S. consumers aged 12-34) who spend close to $9 billion (10% of their annual spending on recreational activities. Urban Hustlers are spending, on average, over 100 times more than the non-urban population monthly, with their overall discretionary spending reaching $383 per month. (Source: Harris Interactive, June 2007.)
  • The lifestyle of urban Chinese consumers has changed from a “survive” mentality to an “enjoy life” one, with 54% now pursuing a more fun lifestyle. (Source: GfK Roper, 2010.) Only 17% of Chinese urban dwellers say they are “reluctant to spend money.” (Source: Economist Intelligence Unit, August 2010.)

Source Trendcental.com

Now that we have good trend research, how can we use it in our digital strategy planning?

In large urban environments, many residents will take on identities that reflect the city’s culture, changing one’s normal identity from “I am I” to “I am NYC, LA, Sidney, or Shanghai.” So, if you were to launch a media campaign in a large urban environment you might approach it by identifying your brand with urban-specific products, services, and communications that capture a city’s character. For example:


Source Trendcentral.com

718 Made in Brooklyn is an urban furniture design company based in New York. In Spring 2010, they launched their personal “Subway Series.” The product was designed from decommissioned and recycled subway signs, which the company reinvented into lights. Their object was to market these recycled signs to urban dwellers to use in their home, office, or as gifts.


Source Trendcentral.com

In August 2010, Starbucks launched new ultra-premium, single-origin coffees only available (in limited quantities) in metro markets such as New York City, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington D.C., and Miami.


Source: Trendcentral.com

In December 2010 in San Francisco, Yahoo! installed digital screens into 20 bus shelters across the city. Commuters were given the opportunity to play video games with and against each other. Commuters are given the choice to identify with one of the 20 preselected neighborhoods, and represent one of them as a player. The winner of the two-month contest received a performance by the band Ok Go, and a fully paid for block party. The residual from this is an intense increase in your personal Facebook friends count and Twitter followers!

Finally, keep in mind that the development of the Internet was an academic and government-funded project. It took the private sector to make the Internet/Web successful, which gave birth to a very powerful new medium, YouTube. Some ideas are just ideas; some are practical and can stand on their own, while others give birth to more innovation. They come from individuals in business market/non-collaborative environments such as the programmable computer, and market/collaborative environments, which is how the calculator developed. In academic or research non-market/non-collaborative environments superconductors were developed, and in non-market/collaborative ones the computer was designed.

So given these ideas, your personal “digital strategy center of excellence” should be an ecosystem like a coral reef, borrowing and reinventing itself from different resources and global locations, in order for good innovation to occur.

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About Peter Sabbagh

Peter Sabbagh is a Marketing Strategist at Blue Sky 365 Digital Strategy. He has traveled extensively implementing marketing campaigns in the United States, United Kingdom, Africa, Pacific Basin and Asia. He passionate about digital and social strategy, technology innovation, and social media. He is also interested in how social media and digital technologies affect human behavior. He is a writer for the following online communities: Blog Critics Online Magazine Ezine Writer Expert @ http://bit.ly/ayXTFy Find Peter also on - Web Site: http://Bluesky365.com Linkedin: http://linkd.in/aNoOdV Facebook: http://on.fb.me/LXVq1y Twitter: http://bit.ly/AAG7tK Foursquare: https://foursquare.com/