The coming of the Chief Digital OfficerIt takes an expert to manage the opportunities, the strategies, and the organizational challenges that businesses face in the digital era. Keeping up with fast-changing technology and consumer behavior is a full-time job. Enter the chief digital officer, a high-level position that is becoming increasingly common among multinational corporations in publishing, entertainment, retail, and hospitality, all of which use rich digital media to generate revenue. McDonalds, Starbucks, BET Networks and L’Oreal are just a few of the many leading consumer brands that have a Chief Digital Officer. As a Chief Digital Officer recruiting specialist, I’m also seeing these positions appear in companies that market exclusively to businesses. Market research company Gartner predicts that by the end of 2015, 25 percent of corporations will have a chief digital officer . While I think it may take longer before we see that level of penetration, you’ll certainly be hearing a lot more about the CDO in the months and years to come.

For those unfamiliar with this position, the Chief Digital Officer is a company’s “digital evangelist.” Ideally, this person sits at the same table as the company’s other executive leaders in the C-suite, and serves as a transformative thought leader driving digital strategy and managing all aspects of digital media for the company. And when you think about, there are a lot of digital mediums to drive. Web, email, mobile, video, the list goes on. The challenge of reaching and engaging audiences in an always “switched on” world across a wide spectrum of digital channels and complex platforms has become a game changer. In fact, for the first time ever in 2012, companies spent more on digital marketing than they did on traditional print advertising. The Chief Digital Officer recasts fragmented accountabilities and resources into a more consolidated single, unified focus which serves to embed digital capabilities into the very core and culture of the organization, thus creating a true vision to harness all that digital has to offer.

Just as the Chief Information Officer emerged out of a need to manage huge volumes of data spread across multiple networks, the role of Chief Digital Officer has come about as a direct response to the changing ways consumers, as well as businesses, are interacting with brands. The age of the pure linear customer – someone who, especially in large-ticket purchases, moves through a highly defined process of awareness, investigation, consideration, and purchase in which the marketer can step in and be an influencer fairly early – is fading. Prospects now can conduct research anonymously, draw from a wide range of personal recommendations and online reviews through social platforms, and even complete high-ticket purchases without soliciting input from the marketer.

The CDO’s job includes recognizing opportunities – even those away from the organization’s own channels – through which the marketer can interact with, and influence, the prospect at any point in the sales process, regardless of which point in the process the prospect blipped onto the company’s radar. It’s also the CDO’s responsibility to guide those outside the company’s e-business team, such as sales and customer support, in re-thinking traditional customer marketing strategies and embrace digital capabilities. To do so, CDOs must be expert at breaking through calcified thinking at an organization: “We’ve always done it that way” is the bane of a CDO’s existence.

At many companies, the chasm between old school and new school remains wide. But it’s narrowing, and here’s an excellent example of how this internal digital transformation can sometimes be advanced by unexpected “aha” moments. A candidate I once worked with told me about his experience as a senior director of digital communications for a consumer manufacturing company– he wasn’t quite a Chief Digital Officer, but close. He remembers being introduced to one of the company’s division heads, who thought this thing called social media was nothing more than a passing fad that had little or no application to an industry like theirs. To change the division head’s perspective, this digital director told him about a popular industry blogger he followed who had a particularly large following. So large, in fact, that this one blogger could instantly reach 25 times more people with a click of his mouse than the industry’s leading trade magazine could reach in a month. Talk about a wake-up call! I’m sure this particular division head is now thinking more about the power of social media, who the major influencers are, and how those influences can help grow brand equity.