Our clients often request advice about how to structure their organization for digital and social success. We often ask ourselves the same question, so we did a quick audit for how 30 of our clients structure their teams. At a high-level, we identified four broad structures for digital teams:
- Corporate Digital Strategy:
- Many clients, particularly large companies, have a senior executive directing digital, typically 1 or 2 degrees removed from the CMO. This VP or "Director of Digital" has a small team of 3-to-5 people who push out high-level strategy to the rest of the organization.
- Smaller clients often lack anyone with "digital" explicitly in their title. Consequently, the responsibility for digital strategy usually falls to someone in a senior marketing position (often the CMO). They rely heavily on the brand's agency partners for support.
- Regional/Brand Digital Strategy:
- In large organizations, there is often someone from the corporate parent constantly interfacing or embedded in the regional or brand organization. In this case, the corporate parent desires best practice sharing among brands and among regions. In other cases, corporate interfaces on an ad-hoc basis with the rest of the organization. The regional/brand digital organization typically reports into regional/brand marketing.
- Digital Execution:
- Teams, staffed by Digital Marketing Managers, typically report to a senior marketing executive or Head of Digital. These teams usually provide execution (website management, email marketing, digital media and so forth) and agency management.
- Our clients predominately outsource development to agencies. Internal IT departments don't have the skills and ideology to quickly (and beautifully) design consumer-facing experiences on the Internet. In rare cases, best-in-class brands have dedicated designers and engineers who work with digital and social teams.
- Social Strategy and Community Management:
- Most clients have social media or community managers within their PR, communications, brand, and advertisingdepartments. This is contrary to reports that decentralization and shared-responsibility of social is common. Not surprisingly, quite a few of our clients outsource social to a marketing agency.
Absent from this summary are the tiny details, like team size, title, and rank. But even at a high-level, we observed little uniformity among clients. Naturally, a lot of the differences had to do with company size, digital needs, and budget.
We quickly realized that choosing the right structure wasn't as formulaic as it seems. There's a few complex, strategic questions worth debating:
Do I need a unique digital or social group?
Digital doesn't fit neatly into a 3-5 person team. While it may seem like a serious step to appoint a digital team, it will invariably find itself touching groups such as operations, marketing, and products. In companies where social/digital sits laterally with marketing on the corporate hierarchy, we've observed conflicts around who owns decisions, projects, and even staff.
But if you look at the new breed of startups (Bonobos, Gilt, Fab, Warby Parker, to name but a few), you'll find that digital-mindedness is implicit to everyone's role. Percolate-founder Noah Brier really hits on this point in an ancient post that I recently stumbled upon:
"When the web came along and every company decided it needed a website, decisions had to be made about who was going to ‘own it.’ Problem was, it didn’t fit into the nice little boundaries that corporations were built around. If companies are traditionally structured vertically (silos) then the web is a horizontal medium, cutting across the business."
It seems to me that the evolution for traditional brands will be forwards, then backwards: assign responsibility to digital so that someone can "figure it out." Take it away once it's been indoctrinated into company culture.
How do I organize corporate vs. regions/brand teams?
The biggest challenges for large, decentralized companies are how to scale resources and keep everyone up to date on the rapidly-changing digital landscape. Communication between digital teams at the corporate and regional/brand level is often weak, regardless of senior mandates, recurring councils, and weekly updates. Counterintuitively, corporate intermediaries often stifle communication.We've noticed some initial success with an organic, self-organizing approach, where decentralized teams have the capacity to work together beautifully.
How does my social team operate?
When it comes to social media, the best companies run a content development engine. While it's easy to farm social content development and publishing to an agency, the cost (absurdly high) and quality of work (mediocre) suggest in-house social media teams (sometimes called community management) are a far better option. Such teams might look more like a media company than a marketing organization, with writers, creatives, and developers all working on an evolving content calendar.
Who should I hire to build X?
Traditional brands often struggle with development, lacking talent to build digital campaigns, platforms, and apps. But today's generation of Internet-bred startups don't have this problem, conceived with a technical founder, and consequently, a team of developers. This is why Fab doesn't hire Crispin Porter to build an over-priced website for $1M. Everything is done in-house to Steve Jobs-levels of perfection. The big challenge for traditional brands is how to adopt some of this startup know-how1. There's no question that it will be critical for a digital team to have the right caliber of agile, web-savvy engineers outside of bureaucratic IT2. And the cultural shift to a startup "always-be-deploying" attitude will be far more challenging than the hiring. There's a great story from startup mogul Eric Reis on his hiring requirements for IMVU:
"When a new engineer started at IMVU, I had a simple rule: they had to ship code to production on their first day. It wasn't an absolute rule; if it had to be the second day, that was OK. But if it slipped to the third day, I started to worry."
Perhaps that's the big lesson: across our small sample set of 30 companies, brands that were awesome at making stuff on the Internet (often daily) also had sound organizational design. People were excited to come up with new ideas. They were not required to prove ROI for every execution. Legal didn't care more than it needed to. And digital had a blanket green light to do amazing things.
 Forrester has a great study (albeit flawed) on how digital teams should make stuff for the web.
 Development teams reporting into IT have been an observable disaster.
Some visuals from our research: