How to Create a Digital Center of Excellence

J. David Green
October 15, 2018

Why Create a Center of Excellence?

Never ending waves of technology innovation wash across marketing departments every day. Ignore this innovation at your peril. Change happens on a day to day basis.  The complexity is daunting.  One proven strategy is the establishment of a digital center of excellence (DCoE).

I participated in one of these digital journeys earlier in my career and it’s an exciting adventure for anybody who hasn’t yet tried building a center of excellence (CoE). I think if done properly, it delivers an enormous amount of value to the upper middle and large scale business.

To find out the best ways to set up a Digital CoE and to learn more about the benefits of center of excellence methodology, I talked to Siara Nazir, Head of Digital Marketing at Autodesk. You can listen to the entire interview on the LeadCrunch B2B podcast.

Siara’s knowledge of the digital landscape is immense. She spent nearly a decade as Director of Online Acquisition and Global Paid Media at Symantec and has won awards for excellence in media and the Equality Impact Award for breaking industry barriers. Siara has also planted a lot of new approaches in digital marketing that have been covered in publications like the DM News and Forrester. She will speak about artificial intelligence (AI) and marketing at this year’s MarTech conference in Boston.

Siara has a decade of experience building digital centers of excellence and has hard-won knowledge to share with other people embarking on a similar journey.


What is a Digital Center of Excellence?

A Center of Excellence is a team of specialists deploying and managing customer-facing technologies, with marketing often at the forefront.  The goal is often to improve the customer experience and use digital to gain a competitive advantage.

With a Digital Center of Excellence, you create a plan that helps you understand what you need to reach your goal. That plan usually includes building a team and assigning objectives central to that goal as milestones to measure success.


Why are Companies Setting up Digital Centers of Excellence?

Siara points out that as more and more customers are learning about and transacting with brands online, those connections are intertwining with various channels including social media, search marketing, email marketing, chatbots, programmatic adverting, retargeting, and other technology innovations. Companies have to adapt to a consumer journey paradigm shift.

As those companies adapt, their marketing teams are finding that the traditional marketing generalist lacks the knowledge to meet all of the growing expectations of customers.

Instead, Digital Centers of Excellence assemble teams with deep expertise in key technologies to assist the rest of the organization with capitalizing on digital. In this group of people, each has a specific focus area that they bring to the table. Digital Center of Excellence teams analyze data about customers, conduct A/B split tests, and follow UX/UI best practices. These actions help improve the customer experience.

Using an assistance structure like a Digital Center of Excellence is also a matter of keeping up with or surpassing the competition. Siara says, “It comes out of a need to grow your business and to have a deeper understanding of your consumer. A lot of it is also rooted in competition. Your competitors may understand their customers a lot more deeply and, as a result, they’re growing double digits while you’re lagging behind.”


Starting a DCoE: Understanding Digital

Siara notes, “It’s becoming critical for companies to understand the digital space and ensure that their businesses are built up to offer services and values of any kind in this space. Companies also need to ensure that platforms and processes exist to not only garner insights from those journeys but also to track and expose analytics that help inform our spending and strategy.”

According to Siara, a digital marketing center of excellence helps marketing operations understand both the consumer journey and how the company needs to assist that journey.


Setting up a digital center of excellence – the key steps:

Martech Today recommends a Digital Center of Excellence that is “centered around core organizational needs – business models and sales objectives” and that it should contain “specialist subgroups – digital creative, website development, SEM, content production, display, media buying, email, and social media.”

That enterprise model won’t work for smaller teams, of course. For very small teams who want to lay preliminary ground work, begin by hiring focus area specialists in roughly this sequence:

  • Head of digital marketing
  • Marketing operations
  • Specialists by marketing channel (e.g., web, email, social, search, and so on)
  • Augment skill gaps with agencies and outside consultants, as possible.

And always think about the sequence of marketing technologies you want to deploy and what you need to do to improve the customer experience and make that experience scalable. A successful CoE starts with the end goal in mind – what quantifiable business result are you looking for?


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  • Evaluate your market and identify your target demographics

Siara says that what they’re seeing lately at Autodesk is that the purchasing demographic is getting younger. The age of customers purchasing media and entertainment products is set to drop from the 24-35-year-old range to the 18-23-year-old range.

Once you understand the target demographic for your objective, you have critical business intelligence for creating a strategy and acquiring technology in a logical sequence.

Siara says, “Understanding this (demographic) shift is the first realization that a whole new generation of up and coming buyers will be interacting with your brand and consuming related information in a wholly different way. Understanding how they are doing so is a critical part of understanding what tools and platforms you need and how to evolve your processes and infrastructure to expose that.”


  • Do an internal data audit

An internal audit will show you how clean your company’s data is. Siara says, “I think data cleanliness is important. Can your infrastructures and data warehouses absorb more tracking data? Do you need a more robust data warehouse?” When you understand and then mitigate any issues discovered in your audit, you can add more tools and platforms that can further reveal customer insights, improve the customer experience and better support operational excellence.


  • Preplan each business process

Now that you know who you’re targeting, start thinking about what processes you need to assist those customers through the B2B funnel.

Siara says to question “What infrastructure do you need? What do you need to watch out for? How do you need to alter your data warehouses to accommodate the inclusion of new tracking parameters or new data sources?”

Keep an eye on the future horizon for what’s coming up and how you can impact it today.


  • Acquire the right digital tools

Siara gives this example of why correct tools are imperative:  “Social media is very much a big part of a consumer’s journey today. If you don’t have the tools to monitor social chatter or the journey that comes in and out of social media channels, you miss a whole part of how a customer interacts and so your strategy will as well.”


  • Curate your DCoE stakeholders

Speed and agility are key to a Digital Center of Excellence. You don’t want to slow that down with too many stakeholders. Remember that the customer experience should be your guiding design principle. Don’t allow stakeholders leverage at random – make considered choices.

Siara says, “The involvement of too many people and the shift from a directive approach to a consensus approach can slow progress when too many people are involved in decision making.”

Siara recommends implementing a process like DACI:

Driver – runs the Digital Center of Excellence

Approver – approves or vetoes decisions

Contributors – experts in assigned areas of the Digital Center of Excellence model

Informed – people that need to know the decisions that are being made

“I think everyone has their own expertise and they bring something to the table that makes the project whole. There would definitely be gaps without that. But, you have to introduce things like a DACI process to outline upfront what role everyone is going to play.” Siara says.


Know Your Focus Area

As Siara says, marketing organizational design used to include lots of “marketing generalists.” Now, no marketing generalist, however seasoned, can understand and capitalize on all the technologies.

As companies start to scale, they need to quickly step away from the marketing generalist roles and start looking at marketing specialization. There is an enormous amount of knowledge and expertise required to take advantage of emerging technologies. Marketing operations should know exactly how to respond to the evolution of social media, email, and many other channels, especially with new technologies like Artificial Intelligence marketing solutions.

Siara talked about the importance of matching skill sets to initiatives. “When you onboard these processes and this infrastructure you create a center. A lot of times what happens is the skillsets of people in your organization don’t end up matching your future state. You have to understand the skill set gap to know what new talent you need to pull in.”

Keep international workforces in mind as well. While marketing teams in the US are becoming a highly skilled in specific technologies, international teams are behind in pursuing granular expertise. That said, the international workforce can have strong skillsets and localized knowledge of culture and language. Siara says “If you have an international brand or are selling internationally, it is important to know how skillsets evolve within those countries and how that shapes your workforce.”

Consider add on technologies as well. Be aware of what tech beyond the standardized norms you might need to purchase. Siara continues, “A critical aspect is being sure you can leverage and use the technologies you’re spending so much time onboarding. You need to keep an eye on the workforce as well as the hardware and software.”


When is it time for a Digital Center of Excellence?

You are probably already noticing the signs that are leading you toward building a digital center of excellence. As more of your customers begin expecting online transactions or services to be available online and your competition is offering that convenience, you will have to address that shift across all lines of business. It will become even more apparent as Siara points out, “When AI comes up or blockchain becomes a large part of your marketing strategy.”

Siara cautions, however, that you should start building your Digital Center of Excellence before any of that happens. “The best counsel I can give executives and company leaders is to understand technology and how it can be applied in the future – two, three, or four years down the line in your business.”

Siara advises that if you can apply a Digital Center of Excellence methodology to your business unit in any way, you should flag it today. “Begin by understanding how you change your processes, what tools you need to absorb that technology, and what skill sets you need to create in your team to have the experts to run that technology and help inform spending and strategy.”

Be aware that the climax of your efforts are in the future. Siara says, “There are a lot of misconceptions about how long a process like this takes. Leadership may or may not be familiar with digital marketing and feel that it is a quick process. It’s a process that can’t happen overnight which is contrary to their perception of online in which everything is fast and you can do everything very quickly.”

According to Siara, creating and onboarding all that goes into a digital center of excellence is an experience that is unique to each company. Therein lies the complication of integrating standardized tools and platforms into a company’s unique structure.

Siara says that creating a Digital Center of Excellence can take a long time. “In my experience, I would honestly give it a year and a half to get a really strong foundation in place. Be cautious about the timelines involved and understand the importance of auditing data and having specialized skillsets.”

Companies want to be fast to market and provide the best experiences for their customers utilizing the most innovative techniques. Siara says “I think organizations have to balance all of this with agility.”


Final thoughts

Creating a Digital Center of Excellence is a journey that any viable business that gets into any kind of scale is going to be embarking on all over the world. We are going to be learning a lot about digital centers of excellence – and what it takes to create a truly successful CoE, over the next half-decade as more and more companies embark on this path.

To hear more of my conversation with Siara, listen to the podcast here.

Further Reading

September 12, 2019
Olin Hyde
October 13, 2018