More on the Digital Garden

As I prep for SXSW, here's a virtual "Ode to Spring."  Sitting here anticipating springtime flowers in the midst of winter dormancy.... I was inspired to build on my last post, Paring, Planting, Pruning -- Managing Digital Growth.  Check it out if you want to see what inspired me, or for a picture of my dog, whichever interests you most.  Some more thoughts on Managing Digital Growth:

1. Your Digital Presence is like a Garden.  Left to itself over time, site messages, pages, conversations and "user paths" (set of pages/interactions which drive people to a desired end) can become overgrown, unwieldy and compromised.  This isn't just a result of the natural growth and "the elements" at work (people posting content and making modifications) over time.  The overgrowth and confusion, which produces areas that fail to thrive can also be a result of pestilence (ignorant people doing stupid things) or even neglect. Like our green gardens, digital gardens require regular care, watering, daily attention and oversight.

2. This Makes You a Digital Gardener.   Green content thumb or not, if you build or maintain a digital presence for yourself or your company, your job is to lay out paths, construct order, present your own array of natural offerings for all to see, cultivate content and community in a manner that best engages visitors and attractively displays your unique beauty.  Your job is to take people on a journey that is a sensory delight, which leaves them with a unique sense of who you are, what you stand for and what you have to offer.  All of us could use some work in this area, and to improve, we must embrace our role, and our own competencies and put them to work to our advantage.  This also means that where we are deficient (e.g. design, development), we need to find skilled support to help us. (Singing to my own choir right now)
  
3. Plan with Clear Intent.  Designing with intent means we always start with an understanding and keen knowledge of people you wish to reach, as well as where they congregate.   Understand what they need and value and want to accomplish - and then envision how you will serve them by defining the journey you will take them on.  How will they understand and experience your brand, products and services or other offerings?  How will you captivate them with relevant, useful and usable experiences that are lively, unique, memorable and pleasing? These are the questions of an Experience Architect.

For example, planning a garden with a cascading vista is a different task than planning a delightful tea garden in a courtyard or a modern outdoor dining experience. Whatever you are building, it's important to make sure that what you create meshes well with the landscape, looks as good from afar as it does close-up, is well engineered for the types of users who may visit (e.g. needs, ethnography, awareness, different-abilities), and what they want to accomplish.  It should also align to your brand in a way that is memorable, and personable.  So -- define the kind of personality you want your garden to have, and to make sure you build in mechanisms to accommodate the varied needs (e.g. rest, refreshment, interaction, help) of the people you are serving.

4. Create Access and Flow.   In a day and age where most people are using more than three digital "outposts" to manage life, work and communication, and multiple devices, it's important that we  accommodate user flow across different digital (and offfline) properties, devices and platforms. Creating connectivity or flow between the experiences offered across properties, apps, devices and channels requires familiarity - but not sameness.  We must make easy for people to find us, and maintain communications across a variety of systems or devices - wherever they are and whatever they're using to find your brand.  Further, from the entry points to the remote corners of the garden, it's essential to make sure all areas of your Digital Garden (mobile site, website, social site, application, etc.) are not only well tended and highly functional, they must be updated enough to properly serve the needs of the people who visit. That means they must always be able to find what they need, especially an outlet for satisfaction -  such as a real person who can offer assistance as appropriate.

5. Diversity Creates a Vibrant Ecosystem.  The best gardens have have plant and terrain diversity. That balance of life not only creates a more healthy ecosystem, it attracts more interesting wildlife -- creating a  more vibrant and stimulating environment for visitors. The zones and pathways in your own Digital Garden should carry the same diversity.  Regurgitating the same press release or post in every channel is tantamount to planting the same bush in every bed, and will not yield a compelling experience.  Instead, staggering and varying your offerings (content and functionality) to stimulate the audience found in each "zone" (e.g. Linked In vs. Facebook vs. Mobile) will yield a much more compelling result.  Tailor your design, functionality, messaging and content to build your own thriving digital ecosystem.

6. Prune, Water & Fertilize for Success.  Be methodical about pruning away clutter and trim down content to expose messages that are crisp and clear and compelling.  Reduce, reuse and recycle ... updating old content, cleaning out "dead" material and sweeping for on and offsite comments and mentions that may benefit from your attention.  Sprinkle your digital presence with fresh with new messages and content regularly.  Reduce information clutter.  Clear out visual clutter and make sure your properties "Draw the eye" and the user down key paths effectively.   Keep your presence fresh, relevant, accurate and compelling.  Finally, encourage growth and interaction by having friendly, knowledgeable people respond to visitors in  a way that best demonstrates your values. 

7.  Be Prepared for the Dirty Work!  Make sure you are prepared for sore knees and heavy lifting, as the ugly tasks (Digging, fertilization, hauling dirt and sticks, garbage duty, paving, building or breaking down fences, fixing stuff that breaks, plumbing for irrigation) require hard work.  In truth - it's rarely a one-person job, even if you are super talented.  Share the load to ensure the proper care and management of your garden.  Ensure that all hired resources work together to ensure all the branding messaging, content, promotions, campaigns your garden are cohesive, fresh and lovely in season.  Work hard to cultivate great content and present it in formats that grab attention and inspire action.  Apply oversight to carefully coordinate multiple development projects at once (e.g. Mobile site / web site / apps) to make sure they compliment each other and function properly.  Make sure that site refreshes are done with a strong eye toward maintaining a cohesive master information architecture, and conduct user testing to validate and improve task flows and customer service, in an iterative manner. 

8.  Manage Overgrowth and Other Pitfalls.  The Digital Gardener must fight overgrowth and keep the path exceptionally clear for the visitor --  removing stumbling blocks (e.g. technical, usability), creating new paths in response to user needs (new functionality, navigational paths), eradicating roadblocks and dead-ends  (customer service flow, etc.). If we ourselves haven't visited the paths enough (shopping, buying, finding information) we may find that we have blind spots about the journeys we have created or the impressions they leave with people. Taking walk around in the shoes of the people you serve is the best way to identify problem areas and improve things.  You can do this yourself by conducting your own user testing or audience research. You can also hire an objective third party (experience engineer -- information architect -- usability tester -- ethnographic researcher) to conduct analysis on your digital presence (or individual properties) to provide some healthy insight that will help you take things to the next level and drive better outcomes. This can be a great way to adopt fresh perspective and identify opportunities for improvement.

9. Get the Gloves On!   Simply put, it's very hard to lose by diligently managing and cultivating your digital presence. I know mine needs attention this year... and I also know I'm not alone. The work can be exhausting because the job is never done - but when spring comes and everything blossoms around me, I'm reminded that it's usually worth it.  In parting, remember that it really doesn't take a revolutionary action -- like a complete site redesign to drive significant gains in your digital presence right now.  Often, highly focused tweaks and edits will do the trick.  For example, right now I'm helping a client refresh some highly trafficked web landing pages to optimize user experience and way finding. We're also carving out a few new paths for users based on feedback we're getting on the site.  What we are "planting" now should produce a nice yield in the spring and drive some delightful gains for our users.  All you need is a little user empathy, determination and vision to improve things today.  So, put on those gloves, walk a mile in your customer's shoes and examine the paths you've created!  The opportunities you find for improvement may find may surprise you! 

10.  Imperfection is It's Own Kind of Beauty.   Rather than shooting for perfection (it's elusive), shoot for creating rewarding, valuable experiences instead!  Every garden has seasons of growth and death. In like manner, your Digital Garden will naturally be more prolific in some business seasons than others. Creativity is messy and involved.  You'll deal with branches, leaves, weeds and clutter... plants that go dormant and even ones that die.  In the end, you won't always "plant a winner."  and you won't always write something that people respond to positively.  Further -- life happens.  You won't always have time to update things as much as you may like (yes! that's me!).

Tolerate and acknowledge the imperfections.  Recognize your limitations.  Pare back as necessary (me again).  Focus on what's important.  Celebrate your successes and correct mistakes or shortcomings as you can.  Don't seek a magic bullet - just get better with your aim.  And finally.... please remember... when the chore of managing your digital garden outweighs the yield of it... rethink your approach entirely.  In the end, a garden's purpose is to serve the needs of the owner as much as it does the welcomed guests.

Happy pruning!

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LEIGH DURST

LEIGH DURST
I’m Leigh Durst, a 20 year veteran in business, operations, customer strategy, ecommerce, digital & social media and marketing. Simply put, I’m a strategist that helps companies (start-up to blue chip) achieve business shift, create more compelling online and offline experiences. I also write, speak and teach about experience design and next-generation business. I’m a futurist, visionary, strategist, doer and connector with a passion for people and helping others. When I’m not on the road, you’ll find me in the San Francisco bay area, working, beaching it and hanging out with my family and dog.

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