Confession of a Digital Generalist

I am not shy about sharing that I am somewhat of a digital generalist. If there is one area of digital I have spent most of career working it is content strategy, but I have done a little bit of everything. Experience strategy, social media, email marketing, SEO and periodically paid advertising. I started out in this industry in 2006 working for startups, nonprofits, and political campaigns, all of which didn’t have large online teams and expected digital staffers to be jacks-of-all-trades. It was the Wild West of sorts, as we most of us were trying to figure out how to leverage the internet to really drive growth for business and organizations.

Aside from a training I did with the New Organizing Institute back in February 2006 and a few industry conferences I have attended over the years, I haven’t had any formal training in digital strategy. I am self-taught. I remember, while working as a community organizer in 2005, spending my free time trying to build websites and my own money placing small Google Adwords buys to learn the trade. It paid off, I feel like I have gotten to do a lot in my relatively short digital career, but my journey has been one that is atypical to say the least.

Being a generalist is not a bad thing. Some people are just good at a lot of different things. One person I use as an example of this is a former developer I worked with who taught himself to code, but was also a great writer, content strategist, and project manager. You can’t pigeonhole a guy like him, he was jus too good at whatever you gave him to do.

One thing that I find makes a generalist able to change hats to work in almost any area of digital and be effective at it is their adoption of a philosophy around using digital to connect brands with consumers. A former colleague of mine strongly believed that brands can build stronger relationships with customers by wholeheartedly addressing the needs of the individual before the business objectives of a corporation. That is a philosophy that can be applied to any area of digital. If you apply it to content strategy, focus your content on providing useful resources to customers to help them be better at X. Or, if you apply it to social media, structure your community management strategy to incorporate customer service.

My general philosophy is that strategy – whether that be content, experience, brand, creative, etc. – should be informed by data, not the other way around. I have been an analytics nerd (not an analyst) since I started in digital. I learned from a number of political campaign veterans how to use CRM and digital analytics to test and optimize campaigns based on performance of past efforts. My general approach with any type of strategy is to leverage the swath of data available to me to profile audiences based on demographics, interest, and campaign performance, then develop campaigns based on what will most likely drive increased engagement with an audience segment. This data-driven approach can be applied to any facet of digital strategy, the only thing that changes is the tactics used to implement a campaign.

I strongly believe that it’s not just your skills that make you good at what you do, it’s the philosophy that drives your approach to your work. Good strategist – adaptable strategist – are not tied to any particular medium or marketing channel. They are able to apply their core beliefs to any area of digital and succeed.

My advice is to find that approach to digital that works for you. Whether you are great at developing big ideas that peak the interests of thousands, or are better at leveraging data to take an incremental approach to developing campaigns, find your sweet spot and make it work for you.

Not every company will appreciate your philosophy, but that is fine. It is more important that you apply it in a place that embraces it and will allow you to be successful than trying to be a change agent in an organization not ripe and ready for it.