Digital Strategy Books

Someone recently asked me if there’s one really good book about digital strategy. After a little thought, I explained that I didn’t think there is, but mentioned a few books I really liked or found useful. You’ll find an expanded version of the list below. However, before you scroll down, it’s probably worth explaining a little about how I chose them.

Put simply digital strategy is the process of defining how best to use digital media and platforms to further the goals of an organisation. Of course there have been people defining how best to use digital platforms for quite some time, but digital strategy hasn’t existed as an explicit and discrete discipline for any length of time. And like lots of practitioners in other new disciplines, digital strategists tend to have quite diverse backgrounds – some have been programmers, designers, business school graduates, brand consultants, games designers, management consultants, UX and web producers, content strategists, advertising planners – all come at digital strategy from their own particular perspective.

All of this diversity is reflected in the following list, so I’ve split it into five different categories, which are not intended as a definitive ontology for the entire domain, more of a rough sort to help me organise my thoughts. The categories are as follows:

Businesses and Strategies
Customer Behaviour and User Experience
Information/Cultural Theory
Technology
Advertising, Brands and Storytelling

Finally, this list is a very personal view and I’m sure I’ve missed some really obvious books which strategists from other backgrounds rely on and included others you don’t think merit a place.

Which is why I’m really interested in your feedback, which you can, of course, leave in the comment section below.

Businesses and strategies

Crossing the Chasm – Geoffrey Moore
The seminal tech marketing book based on Moore’s own insights from his experience at Intel and the work Everett Rogers did on the diffusion of innovations. A must read.

The Innovator’s Dilemna – Clayton Christensen
Outlines the impact of disruptive technologies and the need for companies to continue changing strategies when confronted with new technologies. Another must read.

Competitive Advantage – Michael Porter
No strategy list would be complete without Michael Porter’s Competitive Advantage. It was written over 30 years ago, but remains the most important book on competitive strategy. It says almost nothing about the Internet per se, but is also a must read.

Wikinomics – Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams
Wikinomics outlines how communication technologies are enabling mass collaboration and how this is changing how whole industries do business, with some excellent case studies from IBM to gold prospecting companies. Another must read.

Accidental Empires: How the Boys of Silicon Valley Make Their Millions, Battle Foreign Competition, and Still Can’t Get a Date – Robert X Cringely
Entertaining and pithy account of life in Silicon Valley in the 1990s – lots of interesting insight into the background of the most iconic tech companies.

The Facebook Effect – David Kirkpatrick
A detailed and rigorous history of what is arguably the most influential tech company in the world at the moment.

The Google Story – David Vise
There are several books about Google on the market – this happens to be the one I’ve read. I found it a little fawning in places and quite badly written, and it is now a little dated as it doesn’t cover Google’s various recent missteps or its great recent success – Android. Worth reading however to understand how Google started and how it views the world.

Boo Hoo: A Dot.com Story from Concept to Catastrophe – Ernst Malmstein and Kajsa Leander
The cautionary tale of Boo.com, the poster child of dot.com excess as told by its founders.

Customer behaviour and user experience

The Wisdom of Crowds – James Surowiecki
An exploration of the value and limits of group intelligence – something that becomes more evident in a hyperconnected world.

Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape Our Decisions – Dan Areily
A simple and engaging introduction to Behavioural Economics with lots of case studies and personal observations.

The Tipping Point – Malcolm Gladwell
Another book that isn’t really about digital, but about how ideas spread. And though there’s a good deal of redundancy, the core ideas offer interesting insights into networked communications.

Nudge – Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein

This book is important, not least because it has been adopted as the unofficial handbook of Government communications policy. Arguably it covers much of the same ground as books like Tipping Point and other pop psychology books, but like Tipping Point it focuses on the huge impacts that seemingly small decisions can have in a networked world, and for that alone it’s worth attending to.

Influence – Robert Cialdini
A classic of traditional marketing, Influence remains a relevant touchpoint for analysing users motivations.

Don’t Make Me Think – Steve Krug
A simple and practical introduction to usability. Even though it was written over ten years ago, it’s still a good place to start.

Designing Interactions – Bill Moggridge
Covers everything from physical to website design and interaction. An excellent and provocative starting point for learning about interaction.

About Face – Alan Cooper
A fairly arid take on the subject, but very influential nonetheless. Very good on the role of personas, customer journeys and goal centered design.

The Elements of User Experience – Jesse James Garrett
Jesse James Garrett is a founder of Adaptive Path and one of the most influential UX designers in the world. The Elements of User Experience is a very good, very clear primer into the basics of user experience and user-centred design.

Information is Beautiful – David McCandless
Data visualisation has come of age in the last year or so. McCandless is a pioneer. Data Flow
is another book on the same topic and is also worth a look.

The Visual Display of Quantitative Information – Edward Tufte
Less specifically digital than the two preceding books, but Tufte is one of the grandfathers of visualisation and is always worth reading.

Information/cultural theory

Again there’s a huge number of books that one could draw on from the fields of cultural theory, sociology, psychology and information theory. However, I’ve recommended the following books because they tend to deal directly with our relationship with computers or media.

Being Digital – Nicholas Negroponte
Nicholas Negroponte’s 1995 book is now a little out of date in some areas, however, much of what he predicted has come to pass. If you’re wondering which book on this book is the best place to start, it should probably be this one.

The Hacker Ethic
The Hacker Ethic is a series of essays about what motivates many of the people who designed and built the Internet and who now run tech companies and standards bodies. Great background on the Open Source movement.

Convergence Culture – Henry Jenkins
A masterpiece of contemporary cultural anthropology that looks at how the Internet is used by communities of shared interest and how this relates to their other media consumption. A must read.

Here Comes Everybody – Clay Shirky
Clay Shirky is prone to a certain frothy techno-boosterism when it comes to talking about the cultural influence of the Internet, however, Here Comes Everybody contains a very good description of how and why our media consumption is changing. The conclusions he draws are less convincing.

Godel, Escher Bach – Douglas Hofstader
Many programmers swear that GEB is as good a place to start as any if you want to understand how machines ‘think’. It’s also cracking fun.

Complexity – Melanie Mitchell
An exploration of complex systems from Internet networks to ant hills via the work of Claude Shannon and Charles Babbage.

The Information: a history, a theory, a flood – James Gleick
James Gleick’s book on information is an interesting summary of ideas covered in more detail in other places, in particular Melanie Mitchell’s book on Complexity.

What Technology Wants
The central thesis of Kevin Kelly’s book is that technology grows and evolves in much the same way as an autonomous, living organism. It’s a provocative and interesting book.

Simulacra and Simulation – Jean Paul Braudillard
Perhaps best known as the book that inspired the Matrix, Simulacra and Simulation explores our relationship with virtual and digital worlds.

The Society of the Spectacle – Guy Debord
A defining critique of a media saturated world. Debord traces the development of a modern society in which authentic social life has been replaced with its representation.

The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction – Walter Benjamin
Walter Benjamin explores how mechanical reproduction revises the way we consider art. Pertinent in a world of the infinitely reproducable.

Modern Culture – Roger Scruton
Not much to do with digital, just an interesting and entertaining counterpoint to some of leftist thinkers mentioned above.

The Future of the Internet (and how to stop it) – Jonathan Zittrain
A dry, but important defense of net neutrality and other important founding principles of the Internet.

The Net Delusion: How Not to Liberate The World – Evgeny Moronov
Moronov argues that ‘internet freedom’ is an illusion, and that technology has failed to help protect people’s rights. I’m not convinced, but it is a welcome counterpoint to some of the more utopian views on the impacts of digital technology.

You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto – Jaron Lanier
An early digital pioneer turned sceptic argues that digital technologies are starting to have a corrosive nature of sense of self and community.

The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains – Nicholas Carr
One of the least convincing of the digital sceptics argues that the Internet is effectively rewiring our brains making longer and more considered forms of thought much harder.

Technology

The world of software development is ever changing, which makes it difficult to recommend any specific books without them quite quickly going out of date. Having said that Dan Cederholm’s Bullet Proof Webdesign and CSS: the missing manual are good introductions to CSS and HTML, but as you probably know that world’s changing  pretty rapidly so significant portions are already out of date. In general, however, the Missing Manual series offers excellent introductions to most subjects and is a good palce to start. The followng books are general introductions to some of the more conceptual areas of software and hardware development.

Code: The Hidden Language of Computer Hardware and Software
An elegant and simple primer for any one who wants to understand how computers and software work.

Making Things Talk – Tom Igoe
The best book introductory book on microprocessors and physical computing I’ve found. Buy an Arduino and off you go.

The Art of SEO – Eric Enge, Stephan Spencer, Rand Fishkin, Jessie C Stricchiola
Along with Danny Sullivan and Search Engine Land, Rand Fishkin and SEOmoz are stalwarts of the SEO community. And while SEO is a constantly moving field, this books outlines how search works and the impacts that has on site builders so it’s a good starting point.

Advertising and storytelling

Ogilvy on Advertising – David Ogilvy
Some of the advice is dated, but most remains extremely pertinent. Also, this man would have been a usability and SEO genius.

Emotional branding – Marc Gobe
Simple and engaging guide to the emotional appeal of brands. Newbie level rather than black belt, but useful if you’ve not a great deal of experience in this area.

The Advertising Concept Book: Think Now, Design Later – Pete Barry
Considered to be one of the best intros to modern advertising creative practice.

The Hero With A Thousand Faces – Joesph Campbell
The seminal text on narrative theory – the Hero with A Thousand Faces has had a huge influence on filmmakers including George Lucas. It’s possibly a little ‘windy’, but interesting nonetheless.

Film making – Alexander Mckendrick
Perhaps the best primer for the whole film making process. It’s not directly relevant for digital strategy, but film and video are becoming an increasingly important part of digital communications, so I thought I’d include it.

Digital Advertising: Past, Present, and Future – Patrick Burgoyne (ed)
This is a collection of essays from a range of people involved in the digital advertising world. The quality of writing and insight is very uneven, but there’s some interesting stuff in there so it’s worth a look.

Outliers

The Long Tail – Chris Anderson
Though recent evidence seems to suggest that long tail theory is probably not ‘true’, I think it’s worth reading Chris Anderson’s book for the attendant insight into Internet customer behaviours.

The Craftsman – Richard Sennett
Nothing to do with digital strategy. But a timely reminder that coding, design and storytelling are essentially craft skills. And that even the greatest strategies will be completely undermined if build quality is ignored.

Andrew Keen – The Cult of the Amateur
Keen’s argument is deeply unconvincing and indeed patronising, but interesting to read if you want to understand the last decade of digital development from the perspective of the broadcast media.

Click – Bill Tancer
There’s a great book to be written about Internet data and analytics, unfortunately this is not it. It is, however, a good book, but it never manages to draw broader conclusions from the specific case studies.

Perfect Pitch: The Art of Selling Ideas and Winning New Business – Jon Steel
And last, but not least, a very good book about how to sell your great strategies and ideas to clients.

Now over to you to rip this list to pieces.

10 comments about “Digital Strategy Books

  1. john says:

    Worth noting that I haven’t read all of these books cover-to-cover, some I’ve dipped into, some I’ve used for reference.

  2. Dave Allen says:

    John, that’s a good list, some I’ve read some I’ve not. Here’s a few that may be of note. The first two I refer to very often to remind myself that anthropology informs a lot of how I go about thinking around UI/UX. And Luke WIlliams’ (of frog design) Disrupt is a useful book that I’ve had my students at the University of Oregon study and then apply to the class I teach on Digital Strategy.

    The Superorganism: The Beauty, Elegance, and Strangeness of Insect Societies by Bert Hölldobler, Edward O. Wilson

    Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals
    by John Gray

    Disrupt: Think the Unthinkable to Spark Transformation in Your Business
    by Luke Williams

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  4. john says:

    Hi Dave,

    Straw Dogs is an interesting choice. I completely disagree with Gray’s thesis, but I can see why you might choose it. I haven’t read Disrupt, which looks interesting, so thanks for that.

  5. Dave Allen says:

    Hi John,

    Yes Gray can be overly stark and curmudgeonly but the book prompts some good, challenging thoughts of one’s own positions..thanks for the props on Twitter BTW, I’ll follow you back.

  6. Richard Conyard says:

    John, have you checked out the digital strategy paper from Red Ant (biased). Agreed there is too much for one source to cover.

  7. Charlotte says:

    This is a great list, and long enough to make War and Peace seem an accessible read…

    I thoroughly enjoyed boo.com when I first starting working in digital. Never was a better ‘how not to’ book written about the perils of *massive* design – and build – up-front. Scary to think that $millions could be spent with not even a cent of revenue rolling in. Hmm, that would never happen now… would it? What do you mean, it happens all the time…?

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