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What we talk about when we talk about digital

Online? Mobile? Virtual? As the digital world of internal communications continues to grow, 44’s Head of Digital Projects and Products, Alan Coates, asks the question: “What do we mean by digital anyway?”

I’ve been with 44 Communications for almost nine years and in that time, I’ve always had an eye on how we can be making the best use of digital channels. Anything from moving printed publications online through custom websites, creating unique employee apps or even planning virtual reality experiences for colleague conferences. With such a varied suite of tools, channels and technologies, I wanted to really get to the bottom of what makes digital tick.

In search of a definition, I uncovered that there isn’t actually a Wikipedia page for Digital Communications. It redirects to a page on Data Transmission and, as a result, we’re left with the idea that Digital Communications is a ‘digital bitstream signal, sent over a point-to-point channel’. This may be true as definitions go, but I personally think we can do better.

The four pillars

From banking, to broadcasting and beyond, Digital Communication is such a broad term, that I think trying to define it is in fact a fool’s errand. Instead, let’s take the decision together to define what it should be. The difference being: it shouldn’t matter if it’s an email, an online magazine, or an intranet – if it’s in line with the following ideals, it’s likely to be a successful digital channel.

The four pillars the 44 team have set down are: Intelligent; Always available; Personalised and predictive; Empowering through self-service tools. Here’s what they mean to us.

1. Intelligent

“Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change” – Stephen Hawking

It’s not likely that every digital channel you come across will look like the Starship Enterprise or the latest iPhone, but it should solve a problem. As businesses change, new problems will always appear. This might be financial strains on existing channels, new audiences that are culturally challenging, or an increased strategic objective to do things differently.

An intelligent digital channel would solve that problem, by reducing print costs, allowing new audiences to tap in via their personal devices, or by creating a channel where colleagues can feedback to the business – in ways they weren’t able to before.

2. Always available

“There is a revolution happening, and within two years I think that Wi-Fi and Netflix will be built into all televisions” – Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix

I still remember when I used dial-up. It was slow, but it got the job done. When broadband came along, not only was it 10 times faster, it was on 24 hours a day. That was more than 15 years ago for me, and while I know I would survive without 24/7 internet, I would have to re-evaluate how I got things done.

The same is happening in the workplace. As flexi-time becomes more and more common, and working patterns become less nine-to-five, the digital channels we create have to cater for this new demand. Not only do our communications need to be available all day long, but also outside the office through Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) programmes and monitored external access. If it isn’t available exactly when your team wants it to be, it’s very likely they won’t come back again next time.

3. Personalised and predictive

“Always remember that you are unique, just like everyone else” – Margaret Reed, author and anthropologist

It’s no accident that in 2016, 43% of all online sales in America went through Amazon’s recommendation engine is considered the benchmark of ever-improving, user-focussed algorithms, arguably second only to Google’s search engine for converting insight into sales.

By personalising content and predicting user behaviour, we will be able to curate content for our audiences before they know they need it – based on who they are, what they do, and where they are located. There’s a saying that online channels are ‘search engines’, and printed media, like magazines, are ‘discovery engines’. By thinking ahead of the curve, we can readdress this balance and prevent our teams from having to search as a default.

4. Empowering through self-service tools

“I think it’s fair to say that personal computers have become the most empowering tool we’ve ever created” – Bill Gates

One of my favourite idioms is that the best kind of technology becomes invisible. It stops being an iPad, a computer, a smartphone – and instead becomes a great game, an efficient way of working, or a long chat with your brother.

As a result, we should always be creating opportunities within our digital channels to become less about the technology and more about what the technology enables. We should be making it easier for our colleagues to book their holiday through HR, order their company car, collaborate with colleagues on live documents or having the right information, in the right way, at the right time. After all, nobody goes on the company intranet to simply be on the company intranet.

The future

It took the world just 63 years to get from the Wright brothers’ first powered, controlled flight to landing Apollo 11 on the moon. Sir Tim Berners-Lee gave us the internet 28 years ago, and it’s already changed our lives immeasurably.

By being intelligent, always-on, predictive and empowering, we can make sure that when it’s our turn to shoot for the moon, we’re taking everybody along with us.

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