Digital Transformation & Embracing Change: Ruminations on Beth Comstock’s INBOUND 2018 Keynote

After her keynote presentation at INBOUND 2018 on Wednesday, I walked away with a clear impression of Beth Comstock’s journey. Previously an introvert and wallflower, Beth made the decision to not get lost in an industry it’s easy to get (or feel) lost in. She gave herself permission to take risks. A point she stressed throughout the 30-minute prelude to her Q&A. And quite obviously, by looking at her accolades (former CMO and Vice Chair of GE, co-founder of Hulu, President of Integrated Media at NBC Universal), she succeeded.

Beth Comstock is a changemaker. She holds true to her mantra: if failure isn’t an option, then neither is success.

Digital Transformation…?

And that’s part of digital transformation, isn’t it? Despite Beth Comstock not mentioning “digital transformation” during her 30-minute talk, I found myself thinking of the term while she was speaking.

Digital transformation is about relying on technology to enable new types of creativity and innovation.

But to Beth’s point, we don’t want to become machines. We don’t want to lose our creativity. On the contrary, we simply want to allow the machines (AI, machine learning, etc.) to do what they’re good at. And humans can continue to do what we’re good at, which is the more imaginative side of things.

This means us humans rely on the data and automation of machines while employing our creativity to the best of our ability to drive innovation.

And digital transformation allows us to do something that Beth emphasized at the end of her talk: become empowered. Technology enables us to take new and exciting risks and test things we didn’t even know were possible a few years ago.

Just walking the floor of INBOUND, you can see a variety of software as a service companies and other digital technologies. Our innovation is making this new technology possible, which in turn enables us to innovate in further and push the boundaries.

What new companies will we see at INBOUND next year?

So how do we better apply digital transformation to our marketing practices? After considering Beth’s words of wisdom for a few hours, I began to think of a few truths that I know to be true as a digital marketer:

1. Don’t let technology rule you

Technology is the tool. It’s the way we enact change. But we can’t be so dependent on it that we become a slave to it.

I think this is most obvious when we look at the variety of strategies available to us in our digital campaigns. When we can create display ads on hundreds of networks using video and static images, we have a ton of choice. And a lot to test.

But we can’t over-commit to one platform. The technology is just the tool. We’re responsible for our results. If something isn’t working, change it. If a platform isn’t working, move away from it.

We need to be more comfortable with navigating to a new solution if our current one isn’t doing what we need it to. There are other options out there. And it’s more beneficial to make the change sooner than wait until it’s hindering your strategy and, consequently, your organization.

2. Be data-driven, but still human

The term “data-driven” is about as buzzwordy as you can get. And while it’s often seen as a positive, there is a darker side to it.

Being too data-driven might mean you act on the data (and only the data) to a fault. It means we’re just doing what the machines (whether they be reporting tools, SEO recommendations, or advertising software) tell us to do. It takes the creativity out of our thinking. In a sense, it makes us totally replaceable by an AI. Total bummer, right?

In Beth’s keynote, she highlights the importance of throwing the data out sometimes and acting on instinct. And this viewpoint still makes sense in light of digital transformation.

We need to look at the data. We need to understand what it’s saying, and derive our own insights. And we need to decide whether or not to trust that data.

Sometimes the data seems to be pointing towards a specific conclusion. But don’t take that at face value. As a human, you have data outside of the reports, outside of your software, to refer to. You have your instincts, your networks, and trends. Relying on this first-person data is just as important.

3. Keep your ear to the ground

What technology are your competitors using? What strategies are peers adopting? What’s on the bleeding edge?

Let’s look at Beth’s recommendations for how we should focus on our time:

  • Spend 70% of your time on the here and now
  • Spend 20% on what’s next
  • Spend 10% on what’s new

To fully transform, we need to continue evolving. That might sound counterintuitive. But in many ways, digital transformation isn’t 100% attainable. We can get 99% of the way there, but we need to be flexible. We need to adapt quickly. We need to see what else is out there and push ourselves harder to attain better (or more) success.

After Beth’s keynote concluded, I was inspired by the questions she asked the audience. What risk would I give myself permission to take?

How about to move forward further into the future? To enact better strategies by embracing digital transformation, and not be afraid of the failure that might accompany it. Because that’s testing. That is gathering data. That is becoming data-driven, and remaining completely human while doing so.