Five ways to stay ahead of the digital arms race

The other day I was talking to my favorite web developer Holly and encouraged her to begin moving her company toward mobile optimization and complementary apps. “I know we have to move forward,” she said, “But responding to this constant change is scary.”

Very true.  It’s also inhuman.

Homo sapiens were just not built for constant and rapid change.  We yearn for stability … literally homeostasis. For the first 99% of our human history, there were just three basic rules for life:

1) Make babies

2) Plant crops

3) Try not to die before accomplishing 1) and 2)

Downloading the latest productivity app was not on the agenda, although a game called “Angry Barbarians” probably would have been a big hit.

When President Thomas Jefferson had a chance to purchase the immense Louisiana Territory from France in 1803 for $15 million, most of the population thought it was folly. Didn’t this madman know that you could not possibly manage a country that is larger than a two-day horse ride from its center? (And that is why European countries are the size they are).

The point is, not only are we not built for change, even the IDEA of technological change was foreign to our ancestors.  The people of Jefferson’s day were carrying on the life humans had always known.  They could not even imagine a steam engine, a car, or something as mind-numbing as search engine optimization.

Of course, as digital marketers, we have squarely put ourselves in a position of mandatory and constant adaptation … or irrelevance. The owner of a Buffalo ad agency asked me last week, “What do we do?  Simply fire the people who aren’t keeping up?”

In a word, yes.

It used to be, that to work effectively in marketing you had to either be a) a great strategic thinker; b) somebody who could execute a strategy creatively, or c) a relative of the boss.

These days, there is another critical element for all marketers: the ability to assess technological change quickly and apply it to the workplace effectively. As a strategic marketer, you can’t even ask the right questions if you’re not immersed in the change all around you. As a creative talent, you are sub-optimizing your work if you don’t know all the possibilities. And as a relative of the boss … well, I suppose you’ll always have a job and so you’re probably not even reading this blog.

But here’s the real challenge.  If you think it’s hard to keep up now, you ain’t seen nothing yet. We are in a breath-taking digital arms race and it is accelerating.

As I said, we’re simply not built to handle this stress so we better surround ourselves with some coping mechanisms. Here are some that work for me:

  1. Use downtime wisely – Here’s to smartphones and unlimited data plans (clink).
  2. Don’t make professional development an after-thought. If you believe my hypothesis about the mandate to keep up with change — and I know you do — then this must be a central part of our daily routine. Are you scheduling time to learn?
  3. Cultivate a learning ecosystem – One of my best friends is a guy named Jeremy Floyd. Jeremy is both left-brained and right-brained, which means he can think circles around me. I have lunch with Jeremy at least once a month just so I can sit at his feet and learn. He is part of my learning ecosystem. Meet regularly with people who will push you in new directions.
  4. Choose your battles — Here is a truth that may be difficult to accept. You and I cannot keep with everything. We’re going to have to specialize our expertise and surround ourselves with a network who can fill in the gaps in other areas.
  5. Prioritize blog reading — Blogs can be a rich source of ideas and insights but they are usually the first thing to be cut when the going gets tough.  Streamline your blog reader and force yourself to read the essential blogs. I’m always glad I did, even when I’m busy. Blogs are typically written by exactly the kind of people you need to be networking with and learning from. Think about it this way. Being a frequent blog reader may be one of your most important competitive advantages!

Enough from me. What works for you? How are you treading water in the tsunamai of technological change? How is it affecting your effectiveness as a marketing professional? Are you being forced to specialize yet?

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