We're getting wicked digital now.

We’re getting wicked digital now.

The more enthusiastically people use jargon, the less they understand it.

Judging by how often I see “digital” and “digitization” no one has a clue what it means.

Digital means, of course, the representation of information as ones” and “zeros.” A 1959 IBM 7000 series mainframe is just as “digital” as a Nest smart thermostat or an Uber reservation – or a telegraph from the 1830s (think “dots” and “dashes” rather than “ones” and “zeros”.)

Dig a little deeper, such as this definition (on Dictonary.com) and you come closer to what people are trying to say: “,,,pertaining to, noting, or making use of computers and computerized technologies, including the Internet.”

Or try this, from a leading market researcher:  “Digital business is the creation of new business designs reached by blurring the digital and physical worlds. It connects people, businesses and things to drive revenue and efficiency.”

Sorry, none of that is remotely new either. Connecting “…people, businesses and things to drive revenue and efficiency” was why airlines built computerized reservation systems in the 60s, we glommed onto local area networks in the 80s, Web commerce in the 90s and mobile and social applications in the 2000s.

But people will insist on using “digital” and the related “digitize” because it means something to them — actually, multiple things. And that’s where we mess up as marketers.

The Eight Flavors of Digital

From my work with clients, I see “digital” spanning at least eight real, meaningful technology and societal trends:

  • The anywhere, anytime nature of mobile, led by smart phones and mobile apps but extending to wearables.
  • The delivery of applications, data and other services from the cloud rather than internal data centers. (That’s what one research group meant when they referred to “Applications Transformed to Digital” as if all applications aren’t already digital.
  • Social: The creation and sharing of content by customers, which can be tapped to track their needs or product perceptions or encourage their engagement with your brand.
  • The Internet of Things: Ranging from cars and smart homes to industrial equipment to health care and fitness devices.
  • Big Data: Mining insights from mass volumes of data generated by devices and things to uncover hidden trends, customer needs and opportunities for cost reduction and efficiency.
  • Everything as code: Just as VMware abstracts physical servers into code files, using software to present networks and storage as code, making it easier to reconfigure and the scale IT “plumbing” as needed.
  • Skills as a service: Using the Web to tap global talent pools on demand.
  • The consumerization of IT: The need to meet demands from customers and employees for applications and services that are as easy to use as Uber or Facebook.

Color Us Confused

With all these potential game-changers to talk about (and more I’m sure I missed a bunch) it’s no wonder marketers throw up their hands and call it all “digital.” Here’s why that doesn’t work.

Each of these trends pose massively different challenges and massively different opportunities for your customers. If they respond to your “digital” pitch with an “Internet of Things” challenge and you’re really selling social technology, you’ve wasted each other’s time.

Maybe it’s OK to grab prospects with the shiny promise of “digital” this, that, or the other thing, get them talking about their needs and then figure out if you can sell your me-too network management or software testing tool as a “digital transformation solution.”

In the short run, this might work, if you don’t mind spouting nonsense to make a living. In the long run, customers who waste hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars on poorly-defined “digital” initiatives will lose their jobs — and remember who misled them.

If you think I’m just being too up-tight about all this, ask your CEO, CMO, CIO and top two sales people to define what makes your solution “digital” in one sentence. Do their answers match? And if they don’t, does it matter?

Author: Bob Scheier
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I'm a veteran IT trade press reporter and editor with a passion for clear writing that explains how technology can help businesses. To learn more about my content marketing services, email bob@scheierassociates.com or call me at 508 725-7258.