How to Leverage Digital-First Thinking

by Feb 26, 2020

Digital-first thinking is a concept that’s frequently promoted – but poorly understood. The term has been misused and applied cheaply to any solution with a digital component. But far from being a hollow buzz-word, digital-first thinking is a key principle behind successful innovation and business transformation.

What is Digital-First Thinking?

Many businesses have been embracing digital media, platforms, tools and solutions since the earliest days of the internet. But the conventional view has long been that digital activities serve only as an add-on to more traditional, non-digital activities.

The digital-first approach requires a shift in mindset, and an acknowledgement that digital channels now represent the primary means of reaching and engaging customers. Digital-first thinking isn’t about abandoning traditional channels; instead, it’s about abandoning our instinctive bias toward them. At the heart of the digital-first approach is the belief that every challenge (or opportunity) we face should be tackled with a solution that’s digital to the greatest possible extent.

Too many businesses attempt to implement digital strategies without first adopting a mindset to match. This weakness undermines the ROI delivered by tech, marketing and business-development projects. Take the leap by truly embracing digital-first thinking, and the possibilities are endless.

Key Benefits

Commercial Impact

Unlike traditional services, digital services can be delivered globally, on demand. It’s also easier – and far more cost-effective – to scale a digital service, since customer-acquisition costs rarely display linear correlation with growth. Overall, the commercial impact of taking a locally focused service global are impossible to overstate.

Customer Appeal

Digital experiences are established in the collective mindset as being easier, faster and more convenient, so customers actively seek them out. (The shift towards online retail perfectly illustrates this trend.) By offering high-quality experiences that are wholly/primarily digital, you can hugely increase the chance of widespread customer take-up.


Our lives are gradually being digitalised through a series of incremental steps, and as digital as today’s world is, tomorrow’s will be more so. Early adopters of digital-first thinking are actively positioning their businesses to leverage emerging technology, moving further ahead of the curve with each development in tech and user behaviours.

Creative Surprises

Adopting a new and innovative approach allows us to see our current behaviours in a new light, highlighting opportunities (and exposing weaknesses) that may never have been discovered otherwise. In this way, embracing a digital-first approach can lead to a host of creative surprises and unlock the latent potential within any business.

Adoption Strategies

Embrace Technology

Successful adoption of a digital-first approach typically involves the introduction of new technology. This might include a CMS, CRM software, product-design software, UX-design software – the options are almost limitless. Crucially, it should also encompass analytics tools, since a primary advantage of digital channels is the wealth of data they can generate.

New Business Models and Human Behaviours

The switch to digital-first thinking is about more than just embracing new tech; it’s about a root-and-branch change in business models and human behaviours. You may need to adapt your business model as – for example – you transition between publishing content in print then digital, to publishing content in digital then print.

Such a transition could involve a profound shift in writing style and SEO focus, which could necessitate bringing in new specialists, or up-skilling existing team members and having them adapt their working practices. This is only a simple example, yet it illustrates the way operational workflows and human behaviours must remain nimble in the face of change.

Are We There Yet?

Some business owners respond to the challenges of the digital age by simply doing more digital activities. But it’s important to maintain perspective and recognise that this is fundamentally different (and more limiting) than full-scale adoption of a business-wide digital-first culture. The following section should help you assess how far along the road your own company has travelled.

Key Components of a Digital-First Culture

The Customer Experience

When transitioning to a new model of working, the customer experience can sometimes suffer (at least in the short term). Not only is this damaging, but it also undermines a primary objective of the switch to digital-first thinking.

Developing customer empathy allows us to build a superior customer experience – one that’s born out of a genuine understanding of our customers’ needs and wants. We can use design-thinking techniques like customer-journey mapping to mindfully design a better experience that breaks down barriers between the digital and non-digital spheres. In this way, it’s possible to seamlessly integrate both online and offline interactions, while facilitating that vital journey from prospect to paying customer.

At the same time, it’s important to recognise the changes taking place in the world of marketing. Overexposure has diminished the worth of traditional marketing messages; today’s consumers seek value first – and engage only with brands that deliver it. Content marketing is no longer an optional extra, but a keystone of success that engenders a deeper, more consensual engagement between brands and their customers.

Equally, the one-size-fits-all approach must be allowed to die out; evolution clearly favours personalisation and today’s consumers expect experiences that are about them – as individuals. Increasingly, automation – and even AI – facilitates this personalisation, without the time-based overheads that traditionally accompanied this approach.

Tech and Data

Tech’s potential reaches far beyond personalisation of the customer experience. We can leverage technology to unlock one of the key benefits of the digital age – the wealth of data at our finger tips. Data alone is a worthless commodity – but processed correctly it can deliver actionable insights into customer behaviours.

An everyday example is the use of analytics within online retail. With analytics software in place, it’s possible to determine where customers come from, which items they compare and how long they take in the vital decision-making stage. This level of insight facilitates better decision making and suggests answers to questions like: Where do we need to advertise? Which products should we prioritise? And how can we streamline the buying process?

Strategies that empower superior data collection and processing enable a data-led approach to decision making – which, coupled with ‘human’ elements like instinct, form the keystone of success in business. This interplay between left-brain and right-brain thinking is central to effective problem solving, and the process can be boosted by the switch to digital-first thinking.

By no longer repurposing non-digital, or analogue, concepts, you’ll start building fresh solutions from the ground up. Innovative strategies like design sprints empower us to tackle genuine customer needs and develop workable solutions in a matter of days, in a process that encourages both divergent and convergent thinking.

One Team, One Vision

Having a shared vision that spans both the leadership team and the implementers is the key to success. Top-down reforms dictated by executives and management not only risk alienating vital contributors, but they also undermine the efficacy of the resulting solutions. These solutions should be born out of a collaborative process that encourages engagement at all levels, and recognises the value of all staff as stakeholders in the project’s success.

Be sure to involve your operational teams, product developers and marketing and sales teams. Equally, never underestimate the role that IT and regulatory/compliance teams can play in developing your new, digital-first business culture.

Our clients are on a mission to make a positive impact for their customers, however, they are struggling to reinvent their legacy go-to-market model & team operating model fast enough.
How do we help them? 
Combining design-thinkingexperiential real-time learning and a challenger mindset we run unique 
Workshops & Programs to support 
  • innovative marketing strategy development, 
  • align effective execution, & 
  • improve in-market performance.

Interested to learn more? Get in touch!