What is a digital planner, anyway?

Caitlin Mackie, Leith Planner, explores the murky world of digital planning…

Planners have been arguing about this for a while.

On one hand, continually building your skill set is part of a planner’s lifeblood, and understanding new tech is kind of a part of that.

On the other hand, digital is more than just a single skill; it’s like learning a new language (or two).

I’d suggest that digital planning and traditional account planning are not mutually exclusive though, and here’s why:

It’s still about audiences, but from another point of view

Digital planners often interpret ideas for different platforms, but they’re rarely involved in coming up with the ideas in the first place. This may be because digital agencies are often tasked with producing solutions rather than questioning them.

As a result, digital briefs will sometimes refer to ‘users’ as a set of faceless metrics rather than actual people with needs and goals. There’s not much emphasis on what the audience’s digital habits are, or what problems they want to solve, or what makes them tick.

Asking (and answering) these questions is hard. It’s very easy to get caught up in the technology without considering who’s going to use it and why.

But, to produce truly great ideas, digital planners must focus on peoples’ digital behaviours and the motivations that underpin their use of technologies or platforms. The difference is that traditional audience segmentation doesn’t always fit neatly within the digital world.

For example, when a person visits a website, we can’t easily see how old they are, how much they earn or what their favourite flavour of ice cream is (beyond making assumptions using analytics). Instead, digital planners view their audiences by what they’re trying to achieve when they’re navigating a website.

Thus a big part of digital planning is producing personas, which are single users that represent groups of goals. This is useful because it combines traditional segmentation (such as age, income, location etc.), with digital behaviours, needs and goals. Knowing this, we can construct a website or a campaign that’s genuinely useful and intuitive.

Basic Spotify persona: SparkPage

It’s still about briefs, but they look a bit different

Just as a planner will brief creative work, digital planners do the same thing. It’s no different in that you should still be able to explain what you think the solution is. If you can do this clearly and convincingly, you’re more likely to create a product that matches your users’ and client’s requirements.

It’s still a brief, but the medium is different; for example, it might mean mapping user journeys throughout a site, creating a sitemap or wireframing pages.

These are, like briefs, often ugly and clunky to present, but they should still be inspiring. They might not look like much but they’re a launch pad towards a solution, and they provide a solid rationale to support it.

Similar to presenting a brief to a client, presenting these outputs gives you a chance to discuss the principles that underpin the idea, and how that idea might come to life, without getting caught up in the details too quickly.

Basic sitemap and wireframe: thenounproject

It’s still about finding insights via unexplored routes

Digital planners must have a good grasp of SEO, UX, design, development, community, content creation, syndication, analytics and more.

But knowing about this stuff doesn’t preclude asking the same questions as you would for any campaign, like:

What’s the insight?
What’s the proposition?
Who’s going to use it?

To me, a digital planner is like any planner: someone who balances user objectives with functional and commercial objectives in a logical and effective way.

I’d argue that digital skills are just a small part of the full spectrum of planning skills, which broadly fall within the same process and outputs.

That process is what attracted me to planning in the first place: it’s about having a wild, crazy, unsupported hunch, doing lots of research to prove it, the ability to admit when you’re wrong and the courage to speak up when you’re right.