The truth about the digital-first movement

WalkMe Team
By WalkMe Team
Updated June 9, 2022


Digital tools and automation are being utilized globally by businesses who want to secure their digital futures. CEOs,CIOs, and other thought leaders are building digital-first strategies that reimagine and reset outdated business practices. Businesses are purposely disrupting processes to ensure lasting digital innovation in an effort to make the most out of new burgeoning technologies. 

The world of digital-first marketing is expanding quicker than ever before. With inbound marketing expenditures costing 62% less than traditional outbound marketing, and a 55% increase in web traffic for those businesses that take advantage of new media tools such as content hubs, it’s not surprising that businesses are pushing towards an inherently digital-first culture with an emphasis on digital disruption. 

Digital-first is a critical philosophy in which business leaders and CIOs are investing heavily. It’s essentially a mindset that drives digital transformation and innovation in a way that relies on technological solutions. This means that businesses have the opportunity to unlock a range of benefits including a customer-centric approach, better commercial performance, and future-proof operations.

In this article, we will define what digital-first means, explain how it coincides with digital adoption, and provide a wealth of advice and guidance on what you can do to streamline your digital-first approach to maximize beneficial disruption in your business. 

First, let’s define digital-first

Digital-first means approaching any new challenge or opportunity with the assumption that the solution should be as digital as possible.

Consider in advance, “What can I do to ensure as many aspects of the service that I am creating as possible will be used by customers in digital mediums?” Then, determine how as much of the service as possible can be powered by digital platforms.

Early criticisms of the digital-first approach

In the early years of digital adjustment, some employees criticized digital-first practices and were hesitant to jump on board and fully commit. This is most likely because of several challenges that arose during the early philosophical stages of the digital-first ideology. Most significantly the need to adopt new practices, manage data, and track viewership was what worried people the most. 

It’s hard to imagine now, but during the transitional period of the digital revolution, people didn’t quite know where this movement was headed. Prospects of change fostered fear, resulting in a period of stagnation. One glaring case of this appeared as traditional publishers feeling uneasy about publishing content online before publishing it in paper media first—a.k.a “What? This is how we’ve always done this.”

The digital media revolution 

It wasn’t until the onset of the digital media revolution that businesses first started to realize the full potential of the rapidly expanding internet. This was further fuelled by the adoption of handheld smart devices that gave consumers the ability to access virtual electronic data from anywhere in the world for the first time. 

The digital media revolution taught us that digital disruption happens very rapidly. The print newspaper sector is a perfect example of an industry that had to adjust quickly to disruption. Before the digital revolution, newspapers held 32.7% of the advertising market share, whilst today it’s plummeted to a meager 9.4%. This is purely down to the sudden and rapid rise of the internet which forced newspaper publishers to concentrate their content strategies in the digital sphere.

The global magnitude of digital-first 

Changes to social norms, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, and increasingly divergent financial markets mean that organizations are going through long-term digital transformations and by doing so are creating unique experiences for global businesses. Savvy businesses that embarked on their digital transformation journeys ahead of time are now acknowledging that the wants and needs of their customers are driving and accelerating the digital transition. 

The growing digital-first culture is helping cement the importance of global digital transformation. Ever-changing customer behaviors are becoming more complex with a growing desire for personalized communications. Customers are more demanding than ever before and businesses are taking advantage of customer-centricity to fully realize the potential and capacity of digital transformation.

The modern digital-first approach attempts to dismantle old ways of working and requires that businesses understand the need to offer their consumers ongoing and innovative digital customer engagement in order to truly succeed. 

How to pivot into the digital-first stratosphere 

Digital-forward businesses have made huge advancements by adapting their business models and adopting global digital-first strategies. They have moved far beyond the boundaries of their more-traditional counterparts and are innovating at an incredibly fast rate to cultivate long-term digital transformation strategies that disrupt business processes and upend business practices. 

These are the critical steps that businesses should follow in order to accelerate digital-first-based digital transformation: 

  • Always focus on customer experience (CX) & develop a customer-centric culture in all major business processes.
  • Integrate deep-rooted global readiness into products, services, and offerings to bolster innovation.
  • Make sure that content is delivered throughout multiple channels and is accessible worldwide.
  • Create, build, and establish new innovative business processes that support and strengthen digital transformation. 
  • Use data and analytics tools to measure the success of your digital transformation strategy.

The strategic steps mentioned above will help businesses to remain focused and broaden their customer base. Being a truly global business is about offering digital services across sectors, countries, and international boundaries. Focusing on areas where content distribution could be improved is a fundamentally important strategic move that will see businesses become worldwide digital powerhouses in the not-too-distant future. 

Digital-first alignment 

In terms of strategic development, digital-first can be executed and enforced cumulatively because digital-first seeks to expand and enhance a business’s current digital offerings. Each phase of the digital-first process helps to cement integration for global features and support to develop a more engaged and consumer-centric experience. 

Truly innovative digital-first alignment happens when customers get full, unrestricted access to local content that increases the flow of information available to them. This creates a transactional experience that supplements touchpoints and puts the power back into the hands of the consumer. Forward-thinking companies are using this approach to analyze the needs and demands of their customers as they evolve. The constant shift towards digital innovation means that businesses can now respond more quickly to the changing needs of their global customer base. 

Digital-first statistics 

We have compiled a list of some of the most important statics related to the growth of a digital-first economy: 

  • 92% of businesses surveyed say that now is a unique time to accelerate digital-first transformation (Harvard Business School) 
  • 86% of businesses surveyed agree that user retention is amongst their main priorities in 2022 (Harvard Business School) 
  • 58% of businesses asked use product analytics, surveys, web analytics, and business intelligence to gain a competitive advantage (Harvard Business School) 
  • The digital transformation market is expected to grow at a compounding annual growth rate (CAGR) of 23% from 2019 onwards to $3.3 trillion by 2025 (Gartner) 
  • 89% of businesses surveyed have already adopted a digital-first business strategy or plan to do so (Gartner) 

How can CIOs establish measurable digital-first strategies? 

Forrester Research has predicted that as much as 20% of the Fortune 500 companies will not survive into 2023. Businesses are trying their hardest to transition in a time of uncertainty post-pandemic. CIOs are emphasizing the importance of launching intelligent automation initiatives to flourish in the ever-expanding world of digital-first operations.

To build a landscape that incorporates the multifaceted aspects of digital transformation, businesses are figuring out how to meet customer expectations economically whilst simultaneously prioritizing internal areas of focus and investment.

Employee experience is becoming a hot topic for businesses that want to provide their workers with the essential tools to operate in a digital-first environment. This poses a challenge for organizations that aren’t investing enough in employee satisfaction.

To promote long-lasting change and development, businesses need to capitalize on the long-term evolution of their employees and facilitate a digital-first culture that’s at the very heart of executive decisions and business objectives. According to Forrester Research, 30% of an employee experience score is defined by technology and the way that technology empowers them. 

Addressing digital-first leadership  

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic thrust unprepared businesses into the void and tested their limits to the max. Organizations have had to adapt in ways that were unthinkable as little as five years ago. True business resilience derives from executives and CIOs that take the same approach to change as the entire organization. 

For business leaders to thrive in the digital sphere, they need to take advantage of the following key traits that have been identified as essential in establishing a true digital-first culture: 

  1. Empathy 

During the pandemic, compassionate CEOs understood the financial, health, and psychological constraints that their employees faced. Employee empathy is a key driver of innovation and enables employees to react quickly because they have ingrained purpose-driven values that are shared throughout the organization.  

  1. Purpose 

Making sure that employees are engaged and connected to the business’s broader purpose reinforces the collective mindset that their efforts are helping to accelerate the long-term goals, ambitions, and digital-transformation efforts of the business. The most tactile and supportive leaders focus their efforts on finding new ways to articulate and model purpose and integrity. 

  1. Driving imagination 

A digital transformation requires the focus, commitment, and drive of the entire organization to succeed. The only way a business can become truly digital-first is by finding new and innovative ways to engage, apply, and connect with digital technologies. It’s important that organizations embody the whole process and not just leave key aspects of digital transformation to the C-suite or IT department to truly deliver ingenuity.  

The digital-first eCommerce experience 

In a nutshell, the digital-first commerce experience refers to the ever-developing need to be, imagine, and cultivate innovative transactional experiences with a digital-first perspective. This approach helps businesses to recognize the expanding digital landscape and realize that buyers’ habits and expectations are changing beyond recognition.

Businesses are working round the clock to keep up with changing consumer demands and are innovating at a record pace to maintain a competitive advantage. 

You might be wondering, “Why are businesses putting such an emphasis on digital-first operations following the pandemic?” Digital-first and digital transformation strategies are particularly important to online retailers and merchants at the moment because of the sudden change in shopping habits. In order to compete in an oversaturated market, businesses are using digital spaces to create seamless shopping experiences that keep customers engaged and inspired. 

The introduction of virtual spaces has also seen businesses with a digital-first approach capitalize on the burgeoning metaverse. Keen CIOs identified a trend and saw potential in investing in something that wasn’t fully understood by the public. This has resulted in the introduction of new technologies such as unique, stylized NFTs (Non-Fungible Tokens) that can be purchased digitally. These new ideas and innovations are only possible when organizations are willing to adopt a digital-first approach. 

The future digital-first enterprise 

The introduction of digital-first works brings with it a digital-first economy. A bona fide digital-first economy will enhance and intensify the impact of digital technologies to the effect of 65% GDP. This means that future economies will be shaped by the innovation offered and achieved by digital-first enterprises. We have seen a seismic shift in the digital-economy, post-pandemic, with shopping habits expected to remain fluid for the next three years. This presents an expanding spectrum of global challenges that will produce permanent shifts in the way that we work, live, play, and learn. 

It’s predicted that consumers in a future digital-first economy will be shaped and characterized by ecosystem-led innovations. More than one-third of businesses have already united with ecosystem partners to share knowledge, insights, applications, and data more often as a result of the pandemic. This had a direct impact on the creation of new products, services, and experiences. Businesses are prioritizing and using ecosystem collaboration to modify and reduce risk through the opportunities gained via transformational business models. 

A digital-first mindset 

The thing that sets digital-first companies apart from those that haven’t been as successful is the mindset. Businesses that can visualize their operations at a 360-degree spectrum that incorporates end-to-end digital experiences are most likely to win the race for the digital future.

Experiences should be digital-first in order to effectively and efficiently adapt around customers’ wants, needs, and future desires. An easy way to ascertain such a digital mindset is by defining it not as something you do, but as something that you are. 

These are the five pillars of the digital-first mindset: 

  1. ‘Digital’ is a complete business model 

Digital-first businesses focus on delivering innovative products and services to their customers in a quick, efficient, and measurable way. This business model works in tandem with digital technology instead of merely using it for the sake of appearing digitally-savvy. Complete integration creates faster digital rollouts with less friction.

Truly digital-first businesses can’t operate in an analog fashion because they have adopted new technologies and innovations that make it impossible to function without them. 

  1. Digitization needs to take place as a core function.

Successful executives, leaders, and especially CIOs focus their digital transformation efforts on core business functions that impact businesses on a global scale. Customer-facing functions, product development, service delivery, and supplier relationships are all vital areas of business where digital-first initiatives matter the most. They enable enterprises to optimize key experiences whilst minimizing discord, thus allowing them to focus on product and service delivery.

  1. Digital capabilities need to be scaled.

Digital-first companies that are expanding further into the digital sphere need to take into account growth and survival. The defining focus should be on how far to expand while continuing to deliver faster and more intuitive customer experiences. 

A digital-first mindset means that you will incorporate every aspect of the business into the digital ecosystem. It’s about putting digital at the foremost of your priorities and structuring your business around it. 

  1. Impact must be measured.

Digital businesses 

Digital-first businesses are primed to get the most value out of digital transformation initiatives. This is because the success metrics for digital are the same for business and include revenue growth and decreases in customer churn, service cost, and cycle time. The reason why digital-first businesses can easily use these metrics to their advantage is that they operate at a large scale and incorporate hybridized business models that utilize robotic process automation, artificial intelligence, and analytics.

Analog businesses 

Analog businesses have a hard time determining success metrics because they have no way of accurately measuring results. They instead rely on salespeople, customer service representatives, and customer retention teams to deliver core business functions while having to guess and justify why digital processes are better than their analog counterparts.

  1. The C-suite team should share ownership of digital operations across the board.

In digital-first businesses, C-suite executives share the same motivations and enthusiasm as the rest of the organization. For a business to successfully become a digital-first company, it must incorporate input from the entire organization. This means that CEOs and other executives need to make sure that the entire organization is on board, or at least has knowledge of what the collective digital transformation goals are. 

Whilst scaling the business is an executive-level role, it’s down to the core business force to enact often complex digital-first principles. When business leaders take ownership of digital transformation in a way that doesn’t involve input from a variety of outside teams, the implementation of digital-first processes can unfold in an unorganized and confusing way. 


There is no doubting the fact that digital-first is here to stay. In the age of the digital revolution, it’s impossible to ignore or disregard it as a tech fad. Changing consumer habits, the introduction of Web3, and the advancement of digital technologies have shifted the way that businesses operate in the digital sphere. The constant evolution of digital technologies has made it possible for businesses to react quickly to problems and build hard-wired contingency protocols into their business strategies. 

This makes for a more robust and vigorous ecosystem that champions innovation, digital transformation, and an essential digital-first mindset. The benefits of disruptive digital-first innovations are vast and include cost efficiency, ease of design, audience insights, flexibility, deeper storytelling, and an accelerated digital transformation. Only when businesses truly adopt every facet of the digital ecosystem will they see the real benefits that digital-first can bring. 

WalkMe Team
By WalkMe Team
WalkMe pioneered the Digital Adoption Platform (DAP) for organizations to utilize the full potential of their digital assets. Using artificial intelligence, machine learning and contextual guidance, WalkMe adds a dynamic user interface layer to raise the digital literacy of all users.