This post will challenge your assumptions and might make you feel uncomfortable. But I am sharing what I have learned through a decade of success & failure. And of learning from my mentor (Umar Pirzada), some great leaders (Debbie Baertschi & Sam Bodley-Scott) I had the good fortune to work with. The best experts+teachers in the digital arena (Avinash Kaushik & John Marshall). And by reading the Harvard Business Review as well as other books on strategy. Then… applying what I learned whenever I could.

A Digital strategy is supposed to the over riding force that drives all the other operational strategies in the product/marketing/service mix. Without a good digital strategy there can be no plans (or strategies as most people call them) for SEO, PPC, Social, UX and WhatNot.

Take this post seriously, and by the end,  you will be better at designing a digital marketing strategy and more capable of executing it for better results. Then it will be up to you to change the fate of your organization or procrastinate until you are forced by time.

Let’s begin!

Digital Strategy in a Nutshell

Digital Strategy is NOT a Digital Marketing Plan. But most marketers confuse them to be the same. In a way we can’t blame them completely because the digital marketing universe expands daily. And quickly. So online marketers are busy doing stuff and learning new ropes and seldom have time to reflect on the bigger scheme of things.

At its core, imho, digital strategy, much like general business strategy, is about three core concepts; creating a unique online brand positioning, deciding what will ‘not’ be done and designing a unique set of integrated activities.

The execution of digital strategy is a wider subject but I will stick to three that have worked for me over the years; clearly defining decision rights & accountability, ensuring that insights flow horizontally across the organization and formulating performance based incentive structures.

As you see from the underlined statements above. We are talking about higher level actions. And that is because designing and executing a strategy is not about targeting and placements and tactics and plans. It is rather about setting a direction which has better chances of success. Without strategy, marketers should feel like zombies… out on a bloodthirsty rampage to attack everyone and hopefully get a bite.


Designing and executing a strategy is not about targeting and placements and tactics and plans. It is rather about setting a direction which has better chances of success.


Strategists would argue that there is a lot more to strategy than the six points I have listed above. And that is true. But things move so fast in digital media that we have to make many more choices than other strategy professionals. I am convinced that if you apply the simple strategic principle of ‘choice’ or ‘selecting what NOT to do’ on strategic options themselves… you will end up in a very good place!

Following is a 4-step action plan for you… laid out simply. And it is immediately actionable.

The 4 Steps – Prelude

Please assume with me… a new home based e-commerce bakery startup called Bake Dive (because I love baking & here is my fb page). I will use Bake Dive to form concrete examples as we go along this journey. After all, no x-step guide is useful without solid examples to work with. Right?

Right! Let’s dive in!

STEP 1: Recognize & Respect the forces at work


The first step in strategy is to ask questions about the environment that our business operates in. Don’t restrict your thinking to digital business avenues only. We live in a world where the lines between online and offline have blurred out of existence. So think Business… not digital marketing yet.

The environment spans five major sections – external, internal, customer, competition & strengths/weaknesses. Asking a lot of questions in these 5 areas will enable you to check-out two (out of three) core elements of digital strategy design. Namely, creating a unique online brand positioning, deciding what will ‘not’ be done.

And always remember that you first have to set a strategic time frame you are solving for? Business strategies usually span 10+ years, but I believe digital marketing strategies should not exceed 2-3 years.

Now let me propose one broadly-encompassing question to ask for each environment section and then give you my truthful answers for Bake Dive for a 2 year time frame and for the UAE geographic location.

External Environment:

Question> What important economic, social, political & technological trends do you foresee over the next 3 years that might affect the Bake-Dive home bakery business?

  • Popular bakeries like the Cheesecake Factory, French Bakery & Magnolia will push e-commerce on their websites aggressively.
  • Many home bakers will take advantage of social media and cheap/easily-scalable e-commerce solutions to enter the market faster.
  • People will understand and appreciate home baking better.
  • The UAE Government will increase policies around food related businesses as we get closer to Expo 2020
  • More e-commerce platform providers will enter the market and cost of launch will go down.
  • Smartphones will take up much greater share of internet usage.
  • VR & Wearables will become more predominant and mobile apps will integrate with them in much better ways.
Internal Environment:

Question> What are your company’s core cultural values and how does your business categorize the market?

  • Use good, halal & organic ingredients
  • Act as trustees for the customer’s money… that is… give them the very best value for the money they are paying
  • Share baking techniques and ingredients openly with customers.
  • Market is categorized by Nationality (because different nationalities have different tolerance for spices), by Meat Preference (veg/non-veg), Health Preference (health conscious, diabetic, sweet-toothers etc), Baking Enthusiasm.

Question> Who are your customers and what content/people/actions trigger them emotionally?

  • Customers are people who like sweet & savory baked goods (pastries, cakes, cookies, roast leg of lamb, roasted potatoes etc)
  • Customers are parents, especially with young children who might want to make large orders for birthday parties & family celebrations.
  • Customers are socially active people who might host parties at their homes/offices
  • Customers have affinity with chefs & bakers like Jamie Oliver, Julia Child etc and shows like MasterChef and Great British Bakeoff etc.
  • Customers use mobile apps like Food-on-Click, Talabat, Yummly etc
    Customers like short and entertaining recipe videos

Question> Who are your direct & indirect competitors and how do you foresee the competitive landscape evolving over the next 2 years.

  • Popular bakeries like the Cheesecake Factory, French Bakery & Magnolia pushing e-commerce aggressively.
  • Many home bakers who will take advantage of social media and cheap/easily scaleable e-commerce solutions to enter the market faster.
  • New celebrity bakers and chefs will start operations in UAE as Expo 2020 draws closer.
  • Stiff competition will raise the prices for ads especially on premium display placements and search engines.
  • Video marketing using 3D and VR will come into play, especially by the established bakeries and celebrity bakers/chefs
Strengths & Weaknesses:

Question> What are your major strengths & weaknesses and what factors contribute toward entrenching them?

  • Strengths: Quality baking, unique flavors, unique recipes, digital marketing & analysis skills, access to cheap organic produce from Pakistan and home growers in UAE & Oman, more personal customer relationships, customization, low operational costs and higher margins.
  • Weaknesses: Smaller menu, less capital, less time, less marketing budget, low brand recognition, no economies of scale to reduce supplier’s bills.
  • Strengths are entrenched by: Expertise in digital media and marketing, people skills, digital product creation skills, personalization, philosophy of open sharing of our recipes and helping aspiring bakers learn unique techniques, and personal contacts in radio networks.
  • Weaknesses are entrenched by: easy flow of new entrants in the market, continuously increasing prices for paid traffic channels, major players getting bigger share of shelf for social and search, new innovative recipes by competition.

Conclusion for step-1

If you have read through all my answers you would have realized, as I  just did, that starting a home baking e-commerce business would not be easy because UAE is a tough environment. There are regulations, big names and established bakeries to deal with.

But we also have some unique strengths like customization, personalization, digital marketing prowess and above all, a belief system that no one can take away our destiny so we will willingly share our knowledge, techniques and recipes with customers… or maybe loyal customers (think Game Theory here… the more loyal a customer is, the more things/time they get from us). Of all things, this willingness to share has potential to be our biggest edge & our unique strategic positioning. Let’s write this strategic position down as,

A Personalized, Delicious & Helpful Online Bakery.


And for this positioning, our initial customer base has got to be

  • aspiring & passionate bakers
  • friendly, socially active people who love to throw parties and treat their guests with unique food
  • people who like baking AND support start-ups and entrepreneurs.

Together too, they would still make a small group of people but a bunch with whom the chances of success would be far better than if I were to target everyone.

So… what we will not do then is the following;

  1. We will not target the masses
  2. We will not compete on scale/price/menu-size
  3. We will not rely on paid advertising except a bit to push an initial message to a very small niche of passionate but new bakers/cooks/chefs
  4. We will not do search marketing for broad terms
  5. Our blogs and content will not be around recipes (especially not video recipes)

You might disagree, especially with the last point. But think again… what are the chances that a small startup home baker will be able to produce a very good video recipe (think about the cost of cameras, editing, managing a youtube page etc). Its best to play and entrench the strengths and not waste time in a crimson ocean of cut throat competition. It will be wiser to spend energy on getting analytics right for personalization and re-marketing setups right to reach out to people who have already found me through free/organic channels.

So… we have a unique strategic position we want to be in after 2 years and we have decided what we WILL NOT DO.

STEP 2: Create an Activity Map


We now need to look at what we WILL DO to achieve our strategic goals and how these actions/activities will integrate with and strengthen one another. This step directly answers to the third core element of strategy creation (i.e. design a unique set of integrated activities).

Remember that at each stage in strategic design & execution it is crucial not to get into low level operational details… their time and place will come after the strategy is ready.

I have created an integrated activity map for our supposed business Bake Dive. It is not perfect at the moment and it can surely benefit from the input of all you beautiful readers. But the exercise will help you learn how to go about making your own. Lets do it step by step.

Remember that our strategic positioning is “A Personalized, Delicious & Helpful Bakery”.

Lets begin with the four main activities to work our strategic positioning;

  1. Personalization: The website/mobile-site/portal will be highly personalized for the user. Marketing messages will only be delivered to carefully created profiles with dynamic & personalized content.  The system will allow user accounts to be customized at a granular level.
  2. Knowledge Center: This will be a database of articles/videos/customer conversations/orders etc all connected to individual customer accounts to provide users with a unique experience when using our website.
  3. Best in Class Customer Care: Users/Customers will be able to engage with customer care people in every possible way. Care-agents will be able to use deep insights about users to help them in better ways and to inform them about specific unique information about the user.
  4. Unique Baked Goods & Best Ingredients: Baked goods will be created to taste unique and to be customizable according to user’s preferences. Ingredients will be sourced from under-privileged sources as much as possible.

digital strategy roadmap


Now… lets take 2 examples scenarios of integrated activities from different main activity areas and add them to this activity map.

Personalization Scenario: To feel truly personalized, users will be able to customize & share everything… from their account’s look & feel to the food they are ordering. To learn baking techniques, users should be able to have a 1-on-1 discussion after which a podcast of the call should be uploaded to their account so that they can refer back to it if needed. Users should be able to re-order with one or two clicks also. Lets map these integrated activities out.

digital personalization scenario


Customer Care Scenario: We would like customers to be able to get in touch with us in any way they want. Customers should also be able to get help without any human contact if they prefer and a history of their activity should be recorded in their account. Lets add the interconnected activities to achieve these customer care goals.

customer case scenario


As you think about the numerous unique scenarios that need to be performed to create, strengthen and maintain the strategic position, you will come up with a sophisticated activity map. It may be looking complicated but it really isn’t. And it is ESSENTIAL because while competition can quickly copy some of your activities, they will find it extremely difficult to replicate integrated and supporting activities.

With the Activity Map worked out… your digital strategy design will be complete. You will have to document the positioning, the choices & the integrated activities that will be performed. The theory is over. Its time to get into execution.

STEP 3: Create Your Measurement Model


The first element of strategy execution is the Measurement Model (It was created by Avinash Kaushik and I have learned it from him & John Marshal). In truth, the measurement model is usually used by web analysts to get insights out of data. But I believe its best place is with strategy because it connects the highest level business objectives with real KPIs; and the analysis that follows through gives true insights that can guide everyday actions. The measurement model is the pillar of the bridge that connects lofty strategic goals with actual operational execution. Without it, a digital marketing strategy has huge chances of failure.

The model is made up of 5 simple sections;

  1. Business Objectives – These are the broad goals you want to achieve with your digital marketing (obviously in service to your targeted strategic position). For Bake Dive, I think they should be Sales, Brand Recognition & Viral Reach.
  2. Goals – Separated into Acquisition, Behaviour & Outcomes… Goals get more specific than business objectives. Bake Dive’s goals, for example, can possibly be to get relevant users, then make them use their account and then eventually get orders.
  3. KPIs – There can be hundreds of metrics… but the metrics that answer to the goals and objectives are KPIs. For Bake dive, these can be Unique Users, Cost Per Acquisition, Time on account page, Downloads & Video Watches, Sales and Basket Size.
  4. Targets – Realistic targets for the selected KPIs
  5. Segments – The part of the data-set that will be analyzed to judge the KPIs performance. For example, we have decided on Unique Users as a KPI. Now if we just look at the data in aggregate, how will we ever know which of organic search or mobile or social media is bringing most unique users? Besides, we are not investing in paid channels too much? Why should we let paid traffic data interfere? How will we ever find under performing areas in a bunch of aggregated data?

Here is what the Measurement Model for Bake Dive looks like.

digital strategy execution

The Measurement model will also allow you to send the right data to the right people. For example;

  • Product teams can improve their performance if they know which User-Account functions are more popular versus which are more important to hit KPI targets.
  • Marketing can benefit from knowing which channels are leaking out CPA.
  • Customer service can benefit by knowing what kinds of account-level-customizations are most shared on social media so they can nudge other users to do the same.

Leave it to your people to optimize their own efforts. But as a leader it is your responsibility to ensure the good insights get to the right people.

Now here comes the tricky part… very important to understand.


The KPIs are critical to hit. But when a desired strategic position and its corresponding activity sets are unique, then KPI handling has to be unique too… it should also be shared responsibility. This is where you have to think deeply and make sure you clarify ‘decision rights’ among the people responsible for hitting each of your KPIs.

For example, in our case with Bake Dive… we want to attract new people to our website regularly (Acquisition KPI: Unique Users) but we also want our existing users to spend more & more time in their account (Behaviour KPI: Account Customizations). Whenever a choice has to be made about investing resources towards new landing pages versus improving the experience within the account… who will make the final call? After all, resources are scare… and strategy is all about putting them to the best use. I would argue that the owners of both these KPIs should come to a mutual conclusion here. Its a very critical move. With good strategies, situations are unique and so should be the ways to approach their solution.

The bottomline is that… decision rights should reside in the hands of the people whose KPI(s) will be most affected. Brainstorm scenarios with your team and by the end of a harrowing session (or many harrowing sessions) you will be able to bucket them in a handful of situations where the rights to making a decision will need to be practiced. And ofcourse… people are people… so stay on your feet and exercise your authority whenever your team mates are unable to reach a decision in good time (but please… don’t jump in too fast).

If you have come this far then you need to be congratulated. Because you are now on the home stretch. Lets get into the final step of strategy execution.

STEP 4: Define the Performance Incentive Structure


This step could easily be part of the previous one but I chose to separate it. And the reason for that has less to do with tactics and more to do with my emotional resonance with caring for people.

I have a very strong belief that high performers should be compensated with some form of incentive. The incentives don’t always need to be cash based. They can be about special celebrations or new skill trainings or promotions into challenges that need smarter people. In the end, they will all end up in enabling your people to become better and demand a higher wage. And there is no reason not to give it to them when they deserve it.

Defining a clear incentive structure based on performance at this time will enable you, as a leader, to think clearly about what good performance for an activity means to your business. It will help you realize the importance of the team doing that job. In a nutshell, it will make your aware & generous.

Do step 4 and you are ready to get going.

Just one last parting thought. It is very close to my heart and it is vital so I have devoted a step to it.

STEP 4+1: Lead & Communicate


Ask yourself…

Are good leaders those who communicate better than the rest? OR Those who communicate better than others are the ones who become great leaders?

Is communication a prerequisite to great leadership or vice versa? It’s very much a chicken & egg situation isn’t it? Who knows??? But we all know they go hand in hand every time.

The thing is… you alone, the marketing leader – the guru – you are nothing. You can make all the strategies and all the execution maps and all the integrated activities and all the incentives… but if you can’t inspire your people… you are actually nothing.

I believe the very cornerstone of leadership is in empathy.

Want for others what you want for yourself and you will win. You want money? Fame? Work-Life balance? Recognition for your work? Bonuses? Inspiration? Time of to relapse after a rigorous project? Well… so does everyone. I strongly believe that if you give 15 minutes a day thinking about making a small positive difference in your colleagues’ life… you will end up being a leader others would aspire to become. Sometimes it would mean being exacting & harsh. Sometimes it would mean being silent when a rookie is on out-burst mode, sometimes it will mean giving people your absolute trust and sometimes it would mean stepping in and taking over. If your action is driven by your desire to help others reach their goals then you will succeed. Its science and logic… not some emotional bull….!

So here we are then. At the end.

Now go out and make your strategy.

And if you learned something here then share it with others. If everyone worked out a great strategy and executed it well, our world will become a better place to live in. There will be less cut-throat competition and most importantly we will be bombarded with less spam and useless ADs!

Cheers and Good Luck.


Originally published at Linkedin