Thursday, January 10, 2008

Digital strategy: utility vs experience

Responding to an Adage article about the limits of interactive agencies to "manage brand strategy," David Armano posted a manifesto in early December on what he thinks digital agencies need to do to lead brands into the glorious future.

He makes a lot of reasonable points, but much of it covers familiar territory: collaborate, pursue great talent, pay attention to detail, think holistically or, as he puts it, "outside the browser." More interesting to me are the implicit challenges he's responding to: the fact that most digital agencies continue to be positioned as executional vendors rather than strategic partners. Part of the problem seems to be industry wide. I've written previously about the tendency of clients--or anyone--to pigeon-hole talent within narrow frameworks: from creative agencies, to digital agencies, to design firms; identities which are hard to transcend once they've taken root.

But part of the problem might also be an unclear definition of what being "strategic" means in the first place in a digital context. (To be fair, it's a confusing, overdetermined term in even general shops, having at least three different levels: business, marketing and creative/advertising). But judging by the supportive and robust comments on his post, it's pretty clear what his colleagues think it isn't. People who "don't get it" are people who think the internet is just another media channel. No argument there. From my perspective--a convert to the power of user experience--the internet is redefining our expectations for all consumer experience. But I'd be eager to see someone articulate the key strategic challenges facing digital brands in the coming year.

Here's one for me. On most web-based brands I'm working on now, one of the key questions is whether the site should create a rich multi-dimensional experience or whether it should optimize a functional utility. In other words, should they do one thing really (search or sell or aggregate or deliver content) or should they try to create a experience surrounded by context and detail. Here's yet another way to put it: every brand is now fighting for every consumer's most precious resource: time. What's the best way to own that precious unit of time? By helping them get something done really well and fast and hope they will do it over and over again, or engaging them in something more immersive and engaging? Most digital visionary types seem to favor the experience route, if only because it leads to more interesting work. Engineers tend to like to make elegant utilities. But lots of consumers seem to like segmenting a range of behavior across a variety of sites, rather than wanting to get all immersive in one.

One of the things that those of us who study consumer behavior (whatever you call us) need to start understanding is how different consumers are behaving on the internet in relation to this utility <-->experience continuum, even though that language still isn't precise enough to clarify the nature of this particular strategic challenge.


paul isakson said...

This is something I've been spending a lot of time thinking about lately. Coming over from more of a traditional background and now working closely with our IA team the past two months, well, let's say it has been educational and interesting to say the least.

I think it's a matter of understanding the consumer's expectations of your site. Why would they go there? What do they want from your brand's web site? What do they not want?

Right now I'm in the camp of letting the main purpose most consumers visit your site be the driver for if it is utility driven or experience driven.

If the bulk of your audience is coming to your site for utility and your site is "experiential," you're going to frustrate a good number of people.

Conversely, if what drove people to your site led them to believe they were going to have an experience and all you have is utility, you're letting them down.

The place where most brands get into trouble I think, is turning their main home page into too much of an experience without giving clear direction on how to get to the utility.

Like you said, treating this as just another media channel.

Instead of understanding what people want from their site, they're saying, "Here's what we want to tell you." That's not how it works. But you know that, so never mind...

As for a seat at the strategic brand partner table, I agree with your take on Armano's post. That seat is earned, not given. You have to show your clients you can do more than talk the talk to get invited. Not many digital agencies are doing that now, nor are they attempting to. Probably because there's more work than there is staff and time right now more than anything else. Once the talent void is filled, this will start changing quickly.

Thanks for the thought provoking post & Happy New Year.

sk said...

Thanks for the comment. I'm a convert to the joys and challenges of IA as well. As I've said in other posts, IA in particular, and user experience in general, is essential knowledge for planners moving forward if they want to call themselves experts in consumer behavior. It's where so much of the behavior is happening.

In any case, agree with your observations on the problem with many sites is too much experience without clear direction. In general, it seems like brand/ marketing people (digital or not) are a little too eager to create immersive experiences, but in many cases consumers are more interested in getting something done as quickly as possible. Of course, as you point out, they don't have to be mutually exclusive. A site can do both.

In fact, that might just be the problem. It's almost too easy to make sites try to do too much. (Compared to a can of soda or a bar of soap). So clients and marketers almost inevitably try. Those of us who come from the traditional side of advertising are well-trained in the limited attention spans of consumers. Maybe it's a strategic lesson we can help apply to new world.

Thanks for the thought-provoking comment. Hope your shop has a great 08.

Anonymous said...

Oh Scott -

Do you have a really messy office where we can discuss this for hours on a public company's dime?

Oh well...

As you know, at the design studio where I am now, we are considered a pretty strategic place. Our interactive offering is obviously about experience since brand and design are king. But utility is all part of brand/ user experience, no?

Here's where the digital learns from the "traditional." It's still about meeting expectations AND surprise or serendipity. Immersive is so very subjective but the measurement behind the medium does allow for real time reaction, tweaking, etc.

Miss you!

sk said...

I have to guess who you are to know where you are, anon, but I have a pretty good guess. I know imprecise (or overdetermined) language is adding to the confusion here. Of course I agree that utility adds to the experience; in fact utility can be the entire experience. So in the interest of clarity, I'll oversimplify the opposition and ask if there is a choice between: 1) trying to build a site/experience that delivers a result as fast and easily as possible and a site that tries to lure you into lingering/exploring/playing for as long as possible.

Not sure that anyone would admit to being un-strategic, do you? Maybe that's an opportunity?

And I no longer have an office, but I'm still managing to make a mess.

miss you too