Digital strategy engagements and their implementation offspring take on a variety of shapes and forms, but most fall in one of the following three categories:

1. Marketing – applying digital marketing strategies for brand building and business development

2. Infrastructure – building or overhauling online properties (e.g., websites, microsites, communities, custom tools such as Mac-Gray’s LaundryView)

3. Clean-Ups – efforts aimed at refining and optimizing existing, under-performing digital assets and programs

Through trial and error over the years (read: dozens of unnecessarily painful projects), we now employ a series of project “briefs” that provide clearly defined structure and process to digital engagements, and address of of the different moving parts.

We can’t make claim to inventing any of these documents, necessarily, but their particulars and inter-dependence might be considered unique. No matter; we know they work.

Given the high stakes associated with many web projects – and how easily they can spiral out of control – it’s our opinion that no amount of planning is too much. The repercussions of stalled or failed digital projects can be far-reaching, with all involved parties left frustrated, vulnerable, and – if the dollars involved are big enough – quite possibly searching for a new job. Not to mention the un-recoupable losses incurred by organizations that are left with inferior or nonexistent web properties in the wake of botched engagements.

There are six varieties of planning briefs that we rely on to guide successful projects. Some engagements necessitate the use of all of them, while others only one or two. While no two projects are ever identical, the role of these briefs is almost always the same: to define goals, roles, responsibilities, decisions, and expectations.

The Engagement Brief

  • Purpose of Document: Let everyone know what is going on, and why.
  • Primary Audience: Everyone, from executive sponsor to the administrative intern. This document should serve as the guiding vision for the project.
  • Secondary Audience: n/a
  • Might Also Be Called: Proposal, statement of work, vision statement, project brief, roadmap.
  • Content: Organizational overview; high-level project description, objectives, and requirements; success criteria (how will success be measured?); project team; deliverable; and scheduling.
  • Optional Content: budget (this might not be appropriate for ‘all eyes’).
  • Land Mines to Watch Out For: “We need to get moving asap with this project in order to meet the deadline, so we can’t spend a lot of time spinning our wheels with discovery and planning.”

The Creative Brief

  • Purpose of Document: Add a dose of analysis to an otherwise highly subjective activity. Provide the design team with the information and direction it needs to meet project requirements. Set expectations for project sponsors (i.e., those who can squash a concept because “it doesn’t ‘pop’”.
  • Primary Audience: Project manager, creative/art director
  • Secondary Audience: Stakeholders, executive suite
  • Might Also Be Called: Design brief
  • Content: Marketing strategy, communications strategy, audience definition and prioritization, creative approach, asset availability/sources, relevant competitor/best-in-class properties for review, property requirements/intended use.
  • Optional Content: Information architecture, site promotional plans, site functionality
  • Land Mines to Watch Out For: “Our creative team prefers to work in a more ‘organic’ environment, without much structure”, and “You don’t need to worry about having our CEO involved in creative strategy discussions – it’s never been a problem in the past and I don’t expect it to be here.”

The Interactive Marketing Brief

  • Purpose of Document: Ensure that marketing and promotional considerations are being discussed and planned at the outset of the engagement.
  • Primary Audience: Marketing executives, content developers
  • Secondary Audience: Technology team
  • Might Also Be Called: Search marketing strategy, media plan
  • Content: Inteactive marketing goals, historical performance/baseline (as applicable), traffic generation (past, present, future), keyword strategy, email marketing, display marketing, social media, offline integration considerations/requirements
  • Land Mines to Watch Out For: “We’re planning on addressing SEO after the new site is launched” and “if we build it, traffic will take care of itself”.

The User Experience Brief

  • Purpose of Document: Define how site visitors – i.e., “users” – will be encouraged to behave upon arrival on the digital property. Plan for primary, secondary, and tertiery conversion goals.
  • Primary Audience: Marketing team, sales team
  • Secondary Audience: Technology team
  • Might Also Be Called: Conversion plan, analytics, measurement goals
  • Content: User experience goals, historical user behavior analysis (sources, popular content), user testing data, personas, scenario planning, site architecture and interface planning
  • Land Mines to Watch Out For: “User interviews and testing seems like a waste of time and money given all the planning we’ve put into this project so far.”

The Technology Brief

  • Purpose of Document: Specify technology requirements and digital property administrator expectations, evaluate options, and specify implementation plans.
  • Primary Audience: Technology implementation team
  • Secondary Audience: Digital marketing/maintenance team, project sponsors / funding source
  • Might Also Be Called: Software solution, content management system
  • Content: Current infrastructure assessment/definition (as appropriate), requirements definition, technology platform, functionality requirements, technology/vendor options/evaluation/selection, hosting plan, integration requirements
  • Land Mines to Watch Out For: “The IT department is taking the lead on this digital initiative and will have final decision-making authority on all matters.”

The Management & Optimization Brief

  • Purpose of Document: Define post-project launch property administation and optimization plans. Specify roles, responsibilities, and expectations.
  • Primary Audience: Marketing team, technology team
  • Secondary Audience: Relevant partners (content providers, digital marketing vendors), sales team
  • Might Also Be Called: Maintenance plan
  • Content: Budgeting (hosting, software, personnel), webmaster definition/assignment, asset management (e.g., webinars) requirements, property updating/refreshing strategy (e.g., content), workflow/access permissions, analytics and monitoring tactics, and proactive evolution.
  • Land Mines to Watch Out For: “If we build this thing the right way, it should serve our needs with minimal maintenance requirements for the next five years.”

While digital project management best practices are a constantly moving target, we’ve used these planning documents with great success over the past five years to manage engagement risk and navigate complex projects through to positive outcomes. No engagement ever goes exactly as planned, and surprises (mostly unpleasant ones) lurk at every project twist and turn: budgets shrink, key personnel leave, corporate strategies change, and teams get stuck mulling over complicated issues. It happens.

What’s more, the reality of the digital industry is that it continues to move at warp speed, and even the best digital properties built today will likely be obsolete in two years due to rapid advancements in technology, techniques and user behavior. And that’s exciting and daunting and perplexing all at the same time. But, through it all, one trend seems to be emerging as undisputable: winners and losers are increasingly being defined by their ability to implement successful digital strategies, and these planning tools can help project teams reach the finish line with confidence and predictability.

David Polcaro is a founder and partner at East Coast Catalyst. He can be contacted at dpolcaro(a) or 617-314-6400.