Time’s the Enemy in Digital Economy

In the digital economy, your biggest competitor isn’t another company, it’s time. Markets are moving at the speed of light, and it doesn’t matter what terrific e-marketing programs you create if they aren’t delivered in time to make a difference to your customers and your market position.

Enter time-to-value, a new approach to e-business solutions that will separate market winners from those who don’t even make it to the starting gate. Time-to-value means planning your marketing initiatives so you get maximum impact in the shortest time. But to successfully apply time-to-value, you have to believe that the shortest way from point A to point B isn’t necessarily a straight line.

Here’s what I mean. Before the Internet, most marketing plans took a monolithic “zero-to-nirvana” approach. You identified some behemoth marketing goal and outlined a long series of steps that would many months in the future lead to a final destination where you unveiled some major marketing initiative.

Today, that straight-line approach is a business killer for two reasons: You can’t afford the time it takes to deliver a be-all/end-all solution, and, when you finally reach your destination, chances are it won’t be the place you needed to be after all. When the competitive landscape shifted, you were on step 379 of the 400-step marketing plan and it was too late to change direction.

Time-to-value means thinking in terms of surgical strikes rather than monolithic battles. You still keep your eye on the horizon and the distant goal, but you get there via a series of closely spaced tack points – no more than 90 days apart – that let you deliver business results in a continuous stream rather than with the thud of a major deadline being met every six or 12 months. Each tack point, too, is the opportunity to make needed course corrections.

The key is to focus on the one or two things your company can do most quickly that will also have the most immediate impact, get successes under your belt and add victories at a rapid-fire pace.

Take Williams-Sonoma, for example. Moving three retail companies and five catalog businesses online is no small feat. So the company focused first on bringing a single, high-value service online – the bridal registry of its namesake Williams-Sonoma stores. This gave Williams-Sonoma a big-impact entrance into e-retailing that will continue to build momentum as all pieces of its e-business strategy snap into place.

Taking a time-to-value approach is essential for companies that want to be e-business leaders. But to successfully apply time-to-value, companies have to learn to do three key, but very difficult, things:

• Seamlessly integrate strategy, marketing and technology. It’s a given that marketing in the digital economy requires you to bring these disciplines together. It’s also a given how painful it can be to make this happen. You’re not bringing together inanimate disciplines; you’re bringing together people from different work cultures and backgrounds. But you cannot move as quickly as you need to until your strategy, marketing and IT people to work in concert.

• Learn to work in parallel rather than serially. This is what new marketing is all about. It’s a different way of looking at how things get done. Long lists of sequential steps no longer work. The strategy people can’t do their thing, followed by marketing, followed by technology. You have to make separate but related tasks move forward at the same time. This is, of course, much easier when you’ve succeeded in getting multidisciplinary teams to work together.

• Flatten hierarchies. One reason traditional companies are losing ground to dot-com start-ups is their hierarchical structures, which have evolved over the years as a means to protect one resource: capital. But hierarchies encourage slowness, not speed. And, as the myriad dot-coms have proved, capital is a commodity, not a competitive advantage. Recognizing the difficulty in leveling long-established hierarchies, some traditional companies are spinning their Internet initiatives into separate business divisions with the autonomy to compete as they see fit on the dot-com playing field.

Walgreens is an example. With dot-com competition heating up, Walgreens created a business division dedicated to making it a leader in the online pharmacy space – fast. The division was designed from the ground up to move in Internet time, with the bedrock assumption that strategy, marketing and technology are inseparable. Today, the company is delivering on its tack points in rapid succession. Currently you can get a prescription refill from walgreens.com. This fall you’ll be able to get new prescriptions filled online, and by the end of the year you’ll be able to order from a full range of personal-care items.

The bottom line is that dot-coms don’t play by the same rules as traditional businesses, and they don’t measure success by the standard return-on-investment yardstick. They’re doing and spending whatever it takes to reach market leadership and brand dominance. They measure success by time-to-value. If you want to play in the digital economy, you’d better start to do so as well.

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