Creating a Digital Centre of Excellence

White Paper

Digital is about much more than simply writing a strategy, or building some processes. We believe that digital is a culture. Namely, your business culture. Digital isn’t just a single channel, it’s an integral part of any brand communication strategy, and it works as part of, not against, your existing strategy.

To understand, and to succeed in digital, your brand and your people have to think digital. This whitepaper will explain how your organisation can put digital excellence at the core of your brand culture and, using real-life examples from global brands, explain how the Digital Centre of Excellence model can safeguard your digital future.

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The Evolution of Digital

The role of digital within the marketing spectrum has never had such a high profile. Digital is now one of the primary sources of brand and product discovery for a consumer, it is a prominent revenue generation channel and it is at the heart of many brand-consumer communication strategies. Where a customer complaint was once resolved via the relatively private environment of the call centre, that complaint is now resolved in the very public domain of social media.

A brand’s digital presence is now a major business asset but just as that asset creates numerous opportunities, the continually changing pace of digital presents some significant challenges; and these challenges are particularly acute in large, established organisations.

In many respects, the process of generating, and optimising, a return on investment from digital is something that has been thrust upon many brands, and it is something that those brands have embraced to differing degrees. Many of these organisations are now ‘digital first’ enterprises, whilst others see digital very much as a secondary channel.

The Customer Journey

Digital media has facilitated a significant shift in the way customers discover and interact with brands. Consumers are now not only making a shift towards digital, they are shifting to a multidevice, multichannel means of product discovery.

The channels that consumers use to engage with brands and products are becoming increasingly diverse, and consumers have adapted much more quickly to these new forms of communication. Consumers are now much more likely to seek a recommendation from a stranger on a review site, or a prominent blogger, than a friend of in-store advisor.

It means that the customer journey now spans over the three key areas of marketing communications; namely owned, earned and paid. Your owned channels, including your website, social media channels and above the line marketing, are the foundation of your digital presence.

[Download PDF to see Venn Diagram]

However, this alone is not enough to succeed in digital and increasingly, brands need to ensure that they are prominent on both earned media, which include mentions and recommendations from mass media, key influencers and editorial content, and paid marketing communications.

Paid in particular is becoming increasingly important, due to the changing nature of social media algorithms that can sometimes reduce the potential organic reach of branded content in order to preserve the user experience. Facebook in particular has made very public statements that, following user feedback, its algorithm will favour personal content (ie, non commercial) content in the newsfeeds of its users. This puts an even greater emphasis on paid communications for brands looking to get their content seen.

But as these channels diversify, and as consumers utilise them on multiple devices, it becomes increasingly difficult to get these channels working together to deliver an effective and consistent brand experience.

The Role Of Search In Brand Discovery

Organic search is often at the heart of a consumer journey, and is often a channel that creates a first engagement with the user. At the beginning of the purchase path, organic search helps customers gain awareness of your product or service. Further into the journey, it helps to create desire and boost interest.

But this growth of digital channels has created an environment in which consumers are overwhelmed not only with choice, but also with noise. All of these channels are full of brands attempting to get their message heard, and audiences are constantly moving from one to the next in order to find the content that they want. The brands that can use all of these channels effectively are ultimately the ones that will succeed.

The Changing Face Of Google

As digital channels have evolved, search has also evolved. Google’s algorithm has changed considerably in recent years to ensure that search results are relevant, have integrity (in being free from manipulation), and allow Google to generate revenue from paid ad placements.

The most notable changes to Google in recent years have focused on protecting search results from manipulation from external sources. Namely, Google wants to prevent any one organisation or individual from influencing search results to their benefit and the detriment of users.

[Download PDF to see Diagram]

As a result, Google has shifted away from an algorithm that was based largely on a system of technical competence and backlinks, to a system that is much more focused around the quality of a website or page. This principally includes qualitative issues such as on-site engagement (including page dwell time, bounce rate and quality of content), social media engagement and brand prominence.

We can see this in Stickyeyes’ proprietary tool, Roadmap, which measures the correlation between both known and assumed ranking factors and organic search ranking. In total, around 200 ranking factors are assessed in some of the most competitive search markets.

The chart below demonstrates the correlation between average time on site and organic ranking, with those sites that tend to keep their audiences on site for longer enjoying more prominent search positons.

[Download PDF to see Chart]

This graph clearly demonstrates how those pages that rank in the higher positions (indicated to the right of the x axis), have a higher average time on site (measured in seconds). This demonstrates that time on site has a very strong influence on rankings.

Similarly, in this graph we can also see a strong correlation between high search results and low bounce rates.

[Download PDF to see Graph]

This is a clear indication of the importance of providing an engaging user experience for your audiences. By having pages that are genuinely useful, and easy to navigate, you are likely to retain your users for longer.

By taking this approach, search engines can ensure that factors that can be easily manipulated, such as backlinks and low quality content, have a much smaller influence (although an influence nonetheless) in determining the organic ranking of a page for a particular search query.

This approach has placed an even greater emphasis on brands to engage their customers across all channels. Whilst search should be seen as a core part of the customer journey, it is not the only element.

As wider factors, such as multi-device capability, brand authority, user experience and content quality become of critical importance, search begins to have a greater influence on digital as a whole.

[Download PDF to see Pie Chart]

The Need For Agility

Every digital innovation has the potential to alter consumer behaviour. Trip Advisor has allowed anyone to become a hotel and restaurant critic, social media has enabled users to communicate with brands in a public sphere, whilst comparison sites have changed the consumer psyche to value above all else.

This creates a significant challenge for brands as, in general, consumers are much faster at embracing these developments than established organisations.

An Econsultancy Report in June 2015 identified that “developing a single customer view” and understanding how a consumer engages with different touchpoints at different times was the third biggest headache for marketers (behind IT bottlenecks and a lack of testing and optimisation time).

The survey also identified that “keeping track of customers across different channels and across different devices” was the fourth biggest headache for marketers, whilst a third of those surveyed claimed that “keeping up with marketing technology” was a significant problem.

This lack of agility means that, whilst digital is a huge opportunity, it is also an extremely powerful disruptive force. Many organisations are finding that not only are they slower than their target audiences at adopting new technologies, but that they are also struggling to understand how their audiences use those technologies within the customer journey. If allowed to continue, that gap will become wider and wider, allowing smaller, more agile brands to engage with those audiences.

Digital As A Disruptive Force

We have seen in a number of highly established industries where more customer-focused and technologically agile brands have been able to overtake long-established brands and business models.

The rise of brands such as Netflix, made possible by developments in internet infrastructure and the effectiveness of online advertising and advocacy, fundamentally changed consumer behaviour towards the consumption of content. This shift in behaviour rendered an established business model, the video rental store, redundant and ultimately led to the closure of the Blockbuster Video brand.

The impact of brands such as Netflix and Amazon Prime Video is still being felt. In the United States, there has been a marked increase in the number of homes cancelling or reducing pay-TV subscription packages with major cable operators, a phenomenon known as ‘cord-cutting’. Walt Disney-owned ESPN lost an estimated 7.2 million US subscribers since July 2011, and three million in the last year alone (Neilsen).

The rise of video-on-demand streaming services are much to do with the complacency of established brands as they are the virtues of the disruptor brands themselves. When challenged by new competitors, many established brands rely on the strength of brand, customer loyalty and sheer scale. However, in an environment where consumers are more than willing and able to change their habits to buy commodities based on convenience, accessibility and price, those assets become somewhat weaker.

Every Business Is Vulnerable

This change in consumer habits is something that every business and industry needs to be aware of as, in many cases, even a relatively subtle technological development can be extremely powerful.

The taxi industry is fundamentally no different today than it was when the first hackney carriage took to the streets of London in 1605. Back then, a customer would arrange for a vehicle to be driven between two points of their choosing and the principle is no different 410 years later. Of course, the technology that powers that industry has changed.

And it is the pace of that change that has once again caused a huge disruption across the globe.

Uber has not fundamentally changed the way in which consumers engage with taxi services (particularly in territories where taxi and “ride-share” services are heavily regulated). In these markets, Uber has simply identified clear problems with the existing industry, and attempted to resolve them.

The taxi industry, like any other, has a number of challenges that frustrates consumers to varying degrees. Typically, these could include:

  • Fare rates
  • Price transparency
  • Cash-only payments
  • Service reliability
  • A lack of electronic ordering
  • Trust
  • Poor transport availability

Whatever the challenges in the industry are, the onus is on those within the industry to resolve them, because consumers will gravitate to the brand that can offer a solution to them. The solution isn’t just developing a mobile application (plenty of those existed before Uber), but about using digital technology to solve fundamental customer pain points.

In the case of Uber, the incumbent operators had an opportunity to address these issues but complacency and inertia have allowed a disrupter brand into the industry. As in the case of Netflix, consumers have been quick to gravitate to whichever brand could provide those solutions, which has resulted in cab drivers blockading airports and lobbying local regulators.

Stopping The Inertia

What Netflix and Uber provide are just examples where consumers are more than happy to adapt their habits and behaviours to overcome what they perceive to be a

failing with the established industry model. Consumers aren’t afraid of adapting to new technologies, which is why investors are racing to Silicon Valley.

To add further pressure and complication, Google is also much more effective at adapting to modern consumer trends and behaviours, and this has the potential to multiply the risk to large organisations.

As a brand that is more than happy to change based on the whim of how its users behave (in order to provide them with the results that they are ultimately looking for), those brands that can modify their digital marketing strategy are the ones that stand to benefit, at the expense of established brands.

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Organisational Culture Holding Back Digital

There are a number of challenges facing large, multinational organisations when it comes to implementing effective digital cultures.

Operational complexity and structure, large staff headcounts, multiple offices across different time zones (often supporting different languages and local cultures), multiple stakeholders and multiple external agencies can all create inertia throughout the operation. This can make ambitions of becoming a digitally focused business extremely hard to bring to life.

The challenges facing organisations of this scale can often be categorised into five key areas:

  • Technical
  • Resource
  • Scheduling
  • Vision
  • Corporate Inertia

Technical - “It’s Too Difficult To Do

Technical challenges can dramatically slow down transition within large organisations. This could be due to a combination of skills and resources, or due to the limitations of legacy system infrastructure.

The latter is still a very common challenge for organisations of all sizes. Many ecommerce platforms or content management systems (CMS) are not designed or optimised for cutting edge digital marketing, and either adding content to these platforms, or modifying these platforms, can be an extremely complicated process.

Many organisations are now starting to invest heavily in updating these platforms, or in creating dedicated ‘bolt-on’ microsites that allow them to upload content and customer features quickly, without the need for lengthy technical development delays.

Resource - “There Is Nobody Available To Do It Until…”

Digital now touches a number of organisation departments that, previously, did not have digital within their remit – or, at least, certainly had a much smaller role to play.

But as digital becomes less of the remit of a single, siloed department, it creates a very acute set of challenges. Suddenly, multiple departments, from technical departments such as technical SEO, market research and development, through to creative departments such as branding, PR, social media and content, have to collaborate much more closely on digital projects.

However, those working within these departments are already likely to have extremely busy schedules, already filled with multiple responsibilities, and multiple targets. Therefore, any attempt to add to that workload with new digitally focused duties will potentially meet with resistance.

Scheduling - “It Can’t Be Done Until The Next Release”

Google is an extremely agile and capricious organisation, which can and does apply significant changes at very short notice – or no notice at all.

This contrasts to many organisations that are looking to use Google as a key source of traffic. Whilst consumers, smaller competitors and Google move at an extremely fast past, large organisations are held back by technical, stakeholder and sometimes legal bottlenecks. Whilst there are often good reasons for procedural compliance, this can significantly hamper an organisation’s digital performance.

Vision - “We Don’t See The Value In Doing This”

Making the business case for digital strategy is one of the biggest challenges for Marketing Directors within large organisations.

Convincing executive level colleagues to support a change in vision from the norm is a key part of the process in creating a digitally focused brand, but it is also one of the biggest causes of delays and, ultimately, poor digital performance.

Corporate Inertia - “That’s Not How We Do Things Here”

Inertia is what leads to the business to remain in a state of normality, instead of challenging existing processes, structures and visions to adapt to modern consumer habits.

This often is the result of a lack of digital skills within an organisation. As many brands are still led by individuals from traditional, non-digital backgrounds, it becomes natural to focus primarily on traditional channels, where the business and the people within it feel most comfortable.

Building a Structure For Digital Agility

Many large organisations continue to operate in a series of individual silos and, whilst this is a situation that has gradually improved over recent years (with digital developments sometimes forcing this change), it is still a culture and structure that is holding back many organisations.

This structure means that a huge amount of decision making is potentially taking place every day with little or no consideration for how digital is affected, or for the role that digital can play.

One solution to this problem is the creation of a Digital Centre of Excellence.

The Digital Centre of Excellence

The Digital Centre of Excellence is a structure that is designed to address many of the core issues that prevent digital from featuring prominently within individual decision making processes, with the aim of ultimately supporting the integration of digital into the fibre of business culture.

The idea places expertise at the centre of the business, which can then radiate out into teams, local offices and departments to safeguard digital strategy and to ensure best practices are adhered to business-wide.

The model is designed to provide a single point of contact for each and every department, ensuring that multiple departments working in conjunction to do what is right from a digital perspective. It also cements consistency of practise and techniques to guarantee that these high standards are maintained even in parts of the business that traditionally don’t have a strong digital IQ.

The Purpose Of The Digital Centre Of Excellence

Any forward thinking digital business should have a plan or a roadmap. The Digital Centre of Excellence will help you stick to and deliver on this plan. Whether it’s a series of platform enhancements focused on improving the site from a technical SEO perspective or launching a new content hub to delight your customers. It’s also going to be a learning process – test it, refine it and build the right organisation to meet your business needs.

There are three core benefits of implementing this model into your organisational culture.


Education sits at the very heart of this organisational model. This model is about building processes and training that increases awareness of digital amongst the groups responsible for business decisions, both at executive and operational level.

This might mean producing a high-level overview for Senior Management to give them the tools required to choose ideal candidates for the Digital Centre of Excellence, or it could be very detailed training around a sites hierarchy to ensure a site redevelopment happens with optimal search efficiency. Making these education programs accessible and engaging is really fundamental for the success of the Digital Centre of Excellence model.


The program essentially creates digitally trained eyes and ears throughout the business. The more that people are aware of the digital consequences of a decision, the sooner and more efficiently those issues can be raised and addressed.

In order to be effective, a clear process as to how the Digital Centre of Excellence operates needs to be defined and publicised across the key stakeholders. Large organisations have hundreds, if not thousands, of internal meetings on a daily basis – knowing when and where to listen is going to be all important. It’s also vital to create a clear process of two-way communication to ensure all factions are kept abreast of the latest developments, as well as a procedure for escalation if any potential issues are uncovered.


Like any project of this scale, it will take the buy-in of senior management to bring the Digital Centre of Excellence to life. The goal is to break down some of the walls and silos between teams. This is where the importance of having a board that genuinely understands and believes in digital, able to drive change throughout the business structure and culture, really comes to the fore.

In achieving this level of collaboration, your organisation will benefit from regular meetings of Centre of Excellence members and an increased flow of information and ideas. This will help to keep a level of focus and momentum that can often be lost in large organisations where priorities and direction can change very quickly.

The ‘Digital Guardian’

The Digital Guardian, which is simply what we’ve named the position for this exercise, are the people who will be pivotal to the success of this model. These people will represent their individual departments but, as part of the Centre of Excellence, it is their responsibility to share the developments of their departments with both the Head of Digital and fellow Digital Guardians.

This role will often sit over and above their general day-to-day duties but they will become central to ensuring that what their individual operational departments do is in line with the overall digital vision, as set out by the Head of Digital.

These people may potentially have to make tough decisions, and throw red flags up on projects that they deem to be a danger for digital or search, so having the gravity and the presence to deal with potential conflict is a must. These people ideally need a good base of digital understanding or, at the very least, a huge appetite to learn.

Case In Point: Adidas Group

One public example of the Digital Centre of Excellence at work is in Adidas Group, which employed a similar model across its organisation in an attempt to increase the role that its digital properties played in the overall marketing process.

Speaking at Share Conference in August 2014, Adidas Global SEO / Social Manager Mattia Santin described Adidas’ digital properties as “all over the place” and “completely disjointed”.

This was the result of a number of disparate teams working individually and failing to acknowledge the impact that changes to one channel or marketing property may have on another. Challenges such as a lack of unique domain structure, inconsistencies in subdomains and microsites, and conflicts between brand websites and ecommerce websites, were a significant barrier to growing the Adidas digital presence.

The SEO team, which was responsible for driving increased traffic, also didn’t own many of the necessary assets necessary to achieve this goal. Namely, the creation of content was owned by individual teams and departments, separate from digital and SEO.

The Centre of Excellence model in this example works by bringing those individual asset owners (content, brand partnerships, PR, etc) and educating them about the influence that their assets can have on the wider digital picture. It ensures that these individual and disparate assets can be aligned to a digital vision, and that gatekeepers, or digital guardians, are able to understand and identify how their activity supports this vision.

In this case, the vision was to align content, social media and SEO and create an omni-channel experience for the Adidas audience. The aim was to bring numerous brand and ecommerce sites, microsites and subdomains together into a single brand experience, accessible on any device.

In the two years since the model was first implemented to the European market, Adidas saw its traffic increase by 329%. This represents a significant return on investment but, above all, it means that the organisation can implement a global model that allows it to be agile enough to respond to external threats, be that a shift in consumer behaviour or competitor activity.

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