A properly executed digital strategy can help your business meet customers' needs and compete more effectively in a fast-changing business world. In a recent blog, I wrote about the key components of a sound digital strategy. But how do you develop such a strategy? And how do you ensure that it will evolve and adapt as your business requirements and environment change over time?

The following six-step process was designed to help our clients formulate a winning digital strategy.

Digital Strategy Process

1. Gather insights. It is important to look internally and externally when building your customer-centric strategy. Talk with executive stakeholders and other key constituents within your organization to understand their plans, goals, and objectives regarding customer engagement. Interview customers and prospects to understand how they interface with the brand or company and how they would like to do so in the future. From the perspectives of both internal and external stakeholders, what do the current state and the future state look like?

2. Assess marketplace. Compare your company's use of digital technologies with that of competitors. You'll want to determine how their positioning in the marketplace differs from yours. How progressive are they? How strong is their web presence? Are they responsive to mobile devices? Do they offer mobile apps and, if so, what kinds of platforms support these? Take a look at the content they deliver via web and mobile channels, to determine how fresh or recent it is and to gauge the look and feel. If competitors are leveraging social media channels, note how they are using these to target customers, prospects, and potential employees/recruits.

You might wish to go beyond assessing direct competitors and include companies in adjacent industries and/or companies that offer adjacent services. The marketplace assessment typically ranges from as few as five to as many as 20 companies, depending on how broad and deep the assessment needs to be. It is important to throw in companies that exemplify excellence in customer engagement, even if they aren't direct competitors or in adjacent industries. Before moving to the next phase of the process, share what we've learned thus far with the same internal stakeholders you included during the initial interviews, comparing our findings with the client's perceptions of the marketplace.

3. Declare digital vision. In one to five years, where do you want your organization to be with respect to the use of digital technologies? Establishing a clear vision helps ensure that everyone in the organization shares the same objectives. That typically requires a collaborative, workshop-driven approach. Guide your stakeholders through the visioning process and provide external insights intended to help them articulate the vision. A vision statement should be clear and concise, stating it in fewer than 10 words if possible. Support the digital vision with more concrete and specific objectives which allow for direct alignment of potential initiatives to the overall vision.

4. Identify and prioritize initiatives. Once you understand where you are today, what your customers and competitors are doing, and where you want to be in the future, it's time to determine how to achieve the vision. Gap analysis is helpful while comparing the current state with the future state. Those gaps can then be translated directly into a list of specific initiatives that will make incremental strides to fill the gaps.

Prioritizing the initiatives can be difficult, as individual stakeholders typically have a bias towards one initiative or another. A mathematical approach, using a Six Sigma modeling tool that weights the initiatives based on their relative importance to the organization and to segments of the customer base, aids in the removal of individual subjectivity. The process helps the business decide whether, for example, creating a mobile app for a given customer segment is of greater value than creating a mobile-responsive website. Prioritization also needs to take into account project dependencies, as it may not be possible to undertake some projects until others have been completed.

The overall outcome of this phase is a roadmap. Be pragmatic in developing your roadmap, focusing on realistic steps that will take you from the current to the future state.

5. Organize and establish governance. Before executing the strategy, you'll need to have a governance structure in place to help ensure that the strategy can adapt over time. As the business grows and changes and the environment changes, you may find that some initiatives will need to be reprioritized, added, or dropped. The governance structure can provide you with a forum in which to modify the strategy as the need arises. It can also guide the establishment of a project management office or other project organization responsible for starting and overseeing execution. Often, project organizations are cross-functional and hold responsibility for executing initiatives as well as tracking and measuring project successes.

6. Execute. Once you've begun the execution phase, you'll find it useful to revisit the strategy and roadmap regularly - perhaps on a quarterly or semiannual basis - to determine whether your goals, plans, and vision are still valid and to make sure that the sequencing of initiatives still makes sense. Being flexible doesn't necessarily mean changing your vision; it means being able to adapt successfully to the demands of a changing landscape.

Using this six-step approach to defining a digital strategy will help you gain the organizational support needed to transform your company into one that puts the customer at the center of your overall strategy.