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

12 September 2011

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, Idealware
Pyramid of online communications methods, Idealware

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.