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Responding to digital disruption of traditional communications: three planks to ODI’s digital strategy

Nick Scott, ODI’s Digital Communications Manager, has joined On Think Tanks as a contributor. This first blog in a series on digital strategy and how it has developed at ODI introduces key issues the strategy is responding to, and why it is so important for a think tank like ODI.

At a recent meeting to discuss ODI’s communications strategy, it became very clear that communications is changing – and rapidly so. ‘Digital disruption’ is breaking down barriers between the traditional functions of a communications team, throwing up new challenges in all areas.

  • At a strategic level, the ease of cross-border communications increases competition between organisations now able to reach global audiences in an instant and therefore encroach more easily on one another’s territories. This ease of dissemination is also creating an abundance of messages, making those from one organisation harder to pick out from the crowd. Finally, the loss of control over messages as they are devolved across multiple channels and routed through broad users and audiences poses a risk to reputations that may have taken decades to build.
  • On a more practical level, publications are no longer print-first; some may never be printed at all and the growth of the iPad and Kindle means that they could start to incorporate audio, video or other content rather than being primarily text and/or graphics.
  • Events involving participants from around the world can be organised with ease, bringing with them new audiences. Streaming of events can also allow you to reach distant audiences, but there’s a risk that in-person participation will drop, thus leaving events feeling stilted and very hard to manage due to interaction between the physical and virtual.
  • What constitutes the media is harder to define, as boundaries blur between the blogosphere or other high-profile individual online content creators, and the websites, blogs or online-only content of what were once considered traditional print or broadcast media.
  • Corporate websites are changing too. They’re becoming less important as more and more communication takes place on other platforms. I’m not the only person to have talked about the ‘death of the corporate website’ as other websites become more important to users.
  • Internal communications are becoming harder to sustain, as remote working becomes more common. It is a paradox that increased opportunities for long-distance external communication brought about by the internet are feeding increased internal disconnection with traditional ‘water cooler’ moments falling by the wayside.

How organisations respond to these challenges could be central to their future success. At the moment, the digital presence of an organisation is only one of many sources people look to when judging credibility or otherwise. However, all the talk of Google ‘making us stupid’ points to the increasing importance that regular users attach to information gleaned from quick, glancing searches of the internet to answer questions or gain titbits of knowledge. Think those quick searches won’t extend to finding out about your organisation, a paper you’ve written or event you’re advertising? Think people won’t make a decision based on a quick scan of your site? Think they won’t care if they can’t find you on Facebook to ‘friend’ or on Twitter to ‘follow’? As far as I can see, with increased internet penetration comes the day when the quality and coherence of your presence on the most popular digital channels is the source of most first impressions. And, as they say, first impressions count.

So, how is ODI responding to this digital disruption?

Simon Waldman of The Guardian is right when he says that for established organisations digital strategy is 90% transformation and only 10% innovation. In ODI we haven’t chucked the baby out with the bathwater: we’ve built on our existing strengths. Our events have been extended to reach new audiences with online streaming; our print publications carry new online features and editions; we’ve built engagement on high-profile external blogs into wider media strategies. ODI has been lucky to build on existing IT and online capacity, meaning we’ve been able to move right to the top of the idealware pyramid of online communications:

Pyramid of online communications methods

Pyramid of online communications methods, Idealware

(For other organisations, this pyramid can be a useful guide to concentrating effort on the right activities, based on your organisational capacities: you shouldn’t attempt activities at the top without any of the steps below in place.)

Concentrating primarily on ‘transformation’ also means that steps can be iterative, not revolutionary – more Agile and less PRINCE2. ODI’s digital strategy has not been developed in one big push, nor has it been written down in a central plan with step-by-step instructions. Rather, it has involved small steps, taken as opportunity allows, based on the integration of three central approaches to inform everything we do. These steps are each covered in separate blogs, offering examples of how ODI has used them and the kinds of tools and channels that can be employed for delivery against each:

  • ‘Being there’ communications: aiming to link information and place content on other sites or tools that are regularly visited by key audiences, rather than expecting them to come to our site on a regular basis.
  • ‘Cradle to grey content’: understanding that content on the internet never dies and can actually grow in value over time, so we’ve planned to both capitalise on the benefits this brings and avoid the pitfalls. Also, working on the basis that online networking and communications around content starts at the conception of ideas, not at the traditional point of communication: when the output is ready. This can therefore affect the tone and nature of messages being communicated.
  • ‘Reusing the wheel’ as opposed to reinventing it. The internet is full of content, tools and technologies that we can use to improve the quality and delivery of communications products, and many of them are offered either free or very cheaply. Before anyone starts building another website, or producing another training manual, check whether someone has already done it and can save you the hassle.
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25 Comments Post a comment
  1. Nick, this is a really interesting post, and I very much look forward to what follows. I think the biggest challenge for organisations is to actually get there head around this shift, and then for communications staff to understand how they can engage within these new parameters. I said last week on EBPDM that ‘engagement’ on this level is simply not tangible for some people, especially when, as you point out, this can consist of long and short term engagement. In other words, Its a little bit like talking in the dark for some people, and we need to build up a smorgasbord of case studies to help people understand how this works. This is a blatent plug, but we are launching http://www.webofengagement.info very soon, which brings a range of case studies relating to engagement and how you can measure it (should be available the end of the week). Your own case would be an excellent addition. Keep up the good work!!!

    Andrew Clappison
    http://www.commsconsult.org

    September 12, 2011
  2. Nick,

    Interesting post! Looking forward to more!
    I think that for think tanks in the developing world, we need to do a balancing act between digital communications and other types of communications (Especially when working more locally). Having said that, I think that the digital era does imply changes to the way communications outside the digital world work as well. I would be interesting in hearing from you and others how some of the concepts you analyze, especially the strategy of agile creation instead of revolutionary plans aplly more broadly to the ‘non-digital’ world.

    September 14, 2011
    • Hmmm… yes that would be interesting. I could imagine, for example, looking at a publications review process in an Agile way where you have a set of things you want to achieve in a review and redesign of publications (including new processes, new designs, new dissemination routes, etc.) and you’d work on a week-to-week or fortnight-to-fortnight basis to set goals, carry out reviews, plans tasks, carry them out, evaluate success, and then set goals for the next fortnight. You’d have constant evolution in that period and wouldn’t go through the trials and tribulations of a massive project where nothing is delivered early on. I imagine it isn’t that far off what actually happens, but by codifying it you’d perhaps be able to do it in a better way and to manage expectations of all the stakeholders.

      September 14, 2011
      • I’m not sure which came first, but there have been many studies of using the ‘kanban’ management strategy for projects, which shares many ‘Agile’ principles. See a description here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kanban

        You can even create one to manage your own personal life –

        http://www.personalkanban.com/pk/personal-kanban-101/

        Jeff

        September 14, 2011
  3. Nick,

    Overall, I think this is a really impressive articulation of a significant shift in the modus operandi of communications. I look forward to seeing more insight and explanation around your three pillars.

    Although I know you are already hugely aware of this, I think one of the first questions is about the extent to which the online space has disrupted online communication channels. In your post, you seem to paint a rather rosy picture of a typical online evangilist. But I know that you know reality is far from the ideal. Yes, new cables being installed around Africa are set to improve internet access and penetration. But there are still low levels of penetration in many areas and costs can be a significant barrier to accessing web-based resources. Even where there is internet access, frequent power cuts can make availability variable. We know from feedback that streaming events across countries works best across Europe and North America (and even then there are still wrinkles). And for those in other countries, it’s often people working in international organisations and sitting in Hiltons or Hyatts. This is not a problem if the target audiences are the techno-cratic elite, but it would be interesting to hear more about how useful you think online resources are for reaching core interational think tank audiences.

    On a completely different note, I’m interested in particular about the tension that you seem to be grappling with between the ‘death of the corporate website’ and the proliferation of noise on the web. How do you work to gain and maintain authority (see this interesting article on the need for authority by Steve Rubel: Gaining Authority in the Age of Digital Overload http://mashable.com/2011/05/14/steve-rubel-authority/) while pursuing a ‘being there’ strategy and adding to that noise?

    Jeff

    September 14, 2011
    • Hi Jeff

      I will leave some of the responses to your questions to deal with in my later posts, as I think the answers will be clearer within that framework.

      The one thing I would say is that I think the picture I paint, whether rosy or not, is not one overly affected by bandwidth issues. Why? Because it seems to me that the places where ‘digital disruption’ is/will take place are those where there is bandwidth aplenty. As I said in the piece, the trick is not to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Yes, the world is changing for some, and over time we’re engaging with larger parts of our audience in different ways, but we’re still doing everything we’ve always done in our communications – producing the same paper publications, sending them to libraries and researchers in various countries around the world, running events in African countries, placing articles, and meeting people face-to-face to discuss research and policy issues. For a large part of our potential audiences, these activities are where our credibility and reputation is built, and we would be silly to forget that.

      Returning to digital, in general I find myself a lot less concerned about low bandwidth than I am about whether the kinds of technologies I might choose to employ will actually be used by our audiences, because they don’t tend to be early adopters. So part of the trick of responding to digital disruption is understanding the pace at which it is affecting different parts of your ‘audience’ and moving at the same pace at them – not trying to push them to move to a platform or engage with you in a way they’re not ready or able to do. I would never pretend that it is digital communications that are reaching the core audiences of international think tanks like ODI necessarily, but they are reaching an increasing number of those audiences in new and interesting ways.

      Nick

      September 14, 2011

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