Do We Need A More Digital Brief?

I have heard some version of this question asked many times over the last decade.  It usually happens when a senior client-side marketer feels that their campaigns are “too traditional” or when an agency president feels that their people “don’t get digital”.  The first moment typically leads to the second.  In an effort to address this crisis of digital confidence, the conversation then leads to changing the brief – the document that has changed the least over the last 50 years. 


“If we make the brief more digital then the work will follow.  Right?”  This is when a Planner transforms into a live boardroom version of Munch’s The Scream.  “The brief is about the idea, not the execution!  The brief needs to be media-agnostic!  The brief is about the problem, not the solution!  What is digital when everything is digital?  The brief needs to stay brief, adding a new field will MAKE IT TWO PAGES!”  And so, it goes. 


I get it.  There are many good reasons why the brief has more or less remained the same.  It is a critical document that bridges strategic thinking to creative execution.  The brief also needs to be fit for purpose, and that purpose is not always creating conceptual ideas only.  Many times, the purpose of a briefing document is to provide some executional direction for teams.  In these cases, I have found that there are a few tweaks that can be made to document (the brief) and how the document is used (the briefing) that can lead to stronger and more creative digital marketing solutions.


1. Involve digital specialists upstream as collaborative thinkers, not just technology doers

People in digital roles are typically involved after a brief has been written, to vet or cost a technical solution (and this usually happens far too late).  Digital SMEs can provide valuable strategic input prior to digital tactics being identified.  They are closest to customer data, technology trends, and Internet culture.  Collaborating with your digital folks early on can sharpen your customer and marketplace insights.  Including digital folks upstream can also help build internal relationships that help when projects get thorny in development.


2. Include what you want people to do, as well as the message that you need to say

The beating heart of most briefs is the key message – what needs to be communicated.  Briefs often include more direction on how we want to change customer perception than how we want to change customer behaviour (beyond driving sales).  It is critical to understand what exactly we want customers to do when identifying the right mix of digital tactics.  Do we want to drive social sharing, conversions on a website, search volume?  The more specific that briefs can be about behavioural goals—often proxies or contributors to financial goals—the more focused digital marketing can be.


3. Include insight into what is being discussed in social & search relating to your points of engagement

Understanding the social landscape is not only relevant for informing social media-focused campaigns but can also provide valuable insight into how people think and feel about a particular topic.  What are people talking about?  What do people find valuable?  What do the community norms tell us about how this group interacts with each other?  Search volume and competitive search bidding can also provide useful clues into the ebbs and flows of customer interest.  Including a few of these data points can help shape the description of the marketplace in your brief and can provide inspiration for downstream content ideas.


4. Provide insight on moments and contexts that represent new opportunities to influence and engage

Incorporating aspects of user experience design into briefs can lead to fresh digital creative work.  By highlighting what a customer is thinking, feeling, and doing at key moments helps teams to build empathy and explore more service-based ideas.  For example, if the brief includes common customer friction points, teams can identify new areas of content or online self-services to help resolve.  Highlighting the mindset of a customer can lead to new media ideas that align with context / emotional state.  As UX Designers are becoming more involved in strategic discussions, including this type of input in a brief can help them to orient themselves and contribute quickly.


5. Provide guidance on those digital tactics that are relevant and should not be overlooked

While Account Planning tells us that briefs should be about the idea and not about the execution, I have yet to work with a creative team that does not appreciate some direction on digital media and technology.  Getting Digital SMEs to provide an early perspective on what seems to fit helps - especially if the brand/ organization has deep technology capabilities and a number of owned digital properties.  Make sure to present this input as a starting point and not a prescription.


6. Create a big brief for the brand that can nest tactical briefs for specific digital initiatives

Allowing for smaller tactical briefs ensures campaign briefs do not need to be ‘catch-alls’. These smaller briefs can be focused on specific tactical projects (i.e. new website section, a new customer acquisition campaign, a new triggered email) and do so in a way that ladders up to the larger brand brief.  Having these smaller briefs can provide more specific insight and direction for what needs to be executed (more useful for the teams), and don’t need to include everything (more efficient to produce).    


7. Incorporate relevant learnings from past campaigns and testing goals for the current brief

What have we learned before that we should consider?  What do we want to learn this time?  These are two great questions to ask yourself when putting together a brief.  Too often, campaign lessons are (at best) captured in campaign post-mortems and not applied to future work.  Hardcode a field into your briefs to allow teams to understand what has been tried / learned before.  Also consider incorporating a field for ‘what you want to learn’, and include a hypothesis, test, and implications.  Utilize the brief and marketing technology to get smarter and more effective over time.