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What Is Digital Project Management? [Ultimate Guide]

There’s a burning question within the DPM community these days: In our evolving digital world, is digital project management a role, or a skill? But before we get into answering that:

What Is Digital Project Management?

Let’s lay out exactly what digital project management is with a nifty math equation:

illustration of an equation showing that project management + digital equals digital project management

The fast-paced world of digital + project management = the leading, planning, organizing, motivating, and delivery of web-enabled projects using the internet and delivered through screens or connected devices, and often within digital agencies, studios, or internal web teams.

AKA, digital project management.

Now, Are We Talking About A Role, Or A Skill?

The growing collaborative nature of many organizations is the driving force behind this question. The temptation, of course, is to save money and put a team member with great communication skills in charge as project manager.

We have to acknowledge our own bias here, but time and time again, we come back to the same definitive answer: Digital project management is a key role that bridges all the stakeholders on a particular project and achieves optimal results that could not have otherwise been achieved.

We occupy that unique spot right in the middle of the spider web, constantly scanning in all directions, feeling and responding to vibrations from all the different strings. As the critical information hub, we then interpret those signals and translate what they mean to the overall outcome, the other sections of the web, and to the client themselves.

And we’re always on the lookout for problems that could rip a hole in the web and hold the project up.

In essence, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts; without doubt, digital project management is unquestionably a critical role.

It also comes with a particular skill set.

So let’s explore what our role as digital project manager really is (and does) so we can truly own what we do—and the results we get for our clients.

So… What Is The Digital Project Manager Job Description?

The Digital Project Manager co-founder Galen Low said it best one day in a casual phone conversation: He said, in simplest terms, DPMs gather, curate, translate, and communicate to deliver a project on time, and on budget.

DPMs specialize in getting things done, and by that we mean making sure everyone on the team has the resources, time, and skills they need to do their job.

If that still sounds a bit vague, let’s get more specific. We asked Mackenzie Dysart, a PMP- and CSM-certified Product Manager at Connected, to tell us what a typical project lifecycle looks like for her:

  • Scope & Expectations: Understanding the scope of the project and digital products involved, and what was sold (which might actually be different!)
  • Internal & External Kick-Offs: Establishing the client’s preferred project management software system and communicating your project management methodologies, meeting your project team, setting the project schedule, and determining key metrics for project success.
  • Daily Stand-Ups: Checking in with your team and leadership daily to make sure everyone is on track, assessing resource management and time management, and communicating those updates between teams and leadership.
  • Budget Reports & Scheduling Logistics: Tracking and communicating budget updates and planning for scheduled holidays and breaks, and dealing with unforeseen issues as they relate to the overall budget, timeline, and scope.
  • Getting Client Sign-Off & Going Live: Obtaining final approval and getting the Minimum Viable Product to market for assessment
  • Addressing Concerns & Optimizing For Best Performance And Results: Assessing performance and leading improvements to the product in real-time.

When you look at this exhaustive list, it makes you wonder: Why would anyone launch any kind of digital product without a digital product manager at the helm?

A DPM Goes By Many Names

Humans love to complicate simple things, and the DPM job title is a perfect example. A digital project manager might be called something different depending on what industry you’re working in, or the agency you’re working for.

Sometimes you’ll be hired as a ‘product manager’. Or a ‘technical project manager’. Mackenzie Dysart says sometimes a DPM will also take on a strategist role, although that’s not a defining feature of the role in most cases.

What is a defining feature? Logistical gymnastics. We’re talking functional logistics (project scope, timelines, pricing, who’s doing what and when, etc) and, perhaps more importantly, emotional logistics.

“The ‘command-and-control’ style is becoming less effective in our working world and that’s allowing ‘newer skool’ leaders and ‘newer skool’ project managers to be more empathetic and people-oriented,” says Galen Low.

“People are not machines—they have a lot of stuff on the go and we’re not just drones. It’s a really delicate balance of humanity.”

Galen Low

That observation echoes a recent Future of Jobs report by the World Economic Forum, which identified a rising global demand for emotional intelligence and other social skills.

Soft skills like conflict resolution, negotiation, mentoring, training, decision-making, and team-building are fast becoming highly valuable qualities in job candidates in general, which means great project managers are poised to become even greater key players in the digital space, bringing even more value to the table.

Digital Project Management Tools Vs. Qualities

Flexibility is the most valuable tool in your project management tool box. Okay, maybe flexibility is less of a tool and more of a quality, but it’s the best darn quality a DPM can have.

Because the actual tools you use aren’t always up to you. Your job is to hop aboard whatever workflow processes your client works in to create a project plan and drive the deliverables.

Anyone can follow SCRUM, waterfall or agile project management systems but what sets a successful digital project apart from a catastrophic one is having a DPM who is constantly evolving their project management skills.

Why? Because in the digital space, speed matters.

Mackenzie Dysart Quote about traditional project management vs digital project management

“Traditional project management has all this time and space to address fixes. The digital space is a lot faster. You need to be nimble,” says Mackenzie Dysart. “It’s a lot of questions, answers, and decisions being made in a tight space in a matter of hours,” not days or months. But this iterative nature of digital projects is exciting, for both the client and the user.

We iterate because we can—it’s software and it’s easy to change—but also because users are demanding it, notes Galen Low. Users are not only now accustomed to incremental improvement, but in having a direct say in what those improvements are.

It’s this feedback loop that makes digital project management such an exciting space; “the product will improve as it sits in my hands,” he says.

When Digital Project Management Meets Digital Marketing (because they’re not the same thing)

Okay, so you’ve just launched a digital product: You’ve set up the entire technology base for your client, fully coded with custom CSS and HTML and an enhanced user experience, on budget and on time. The web project or app product is ready to drive traffic and content with digital engagement models already built in.

So… that’s it, right? That’s a wrap!

Nope. Not by a long shot. There’s a whole other lifecycle to consider here, and that’s optimization and digital marketing.

Writamvar Bugga works in IT project management for Transcend Digital and he sees transitioning his clients into digital marketing an important part of his job.

“The client now says, ‘hey, I have a page on my website for loyalty rewards, which was included as part of the application development, so let’s get that going,” says Bugga.

“It’s a great marketing idea and at the same time, it’s a beast! So scope management becomes a really big part of my job as I start developing marketing that can be accessed through newer features.”

Writamvar Bugga

In other words, digital marketing is often the next phase of the original delivered digital project. It falls perfectly under your digital project management umbrella, as you are now directing the execution of compelling social media and marketing campaigns for your client.

Let’s Shift The Narrative From Overhead Cost To Value-Add Investment

Digital project managers usually come last, says Mackenzie Dysart, adding they typically onboard for new projects only after a company experiences a certain amount of growth, and that’s because it’s seen as an overhead expense, not the value-add it really can be earlier on.

“I don’t think a lot of the organizations are set up to be digital. Especially during the pandemic, a lot of businesses had to adjust their digital space. All of a sudden, digital agencies were the backbone of a lot of these organizations’ businesses because that website was the storefront.”

Mackenzie Dysart

She’s right. A report by the International Project Management Association highlighted that in 2019, as the pandemic was just ramping up, only 30 percent of organizations felt their ability to manage organizational change was actually effective. This means that today, more organizations are suddenly turning to project managers to drive change initiatives, which most often means digital transformations.

That shift was fast and somewhat forced, resulting in a frightening amount of organizations who hire DPMs not fully understanding the complexity of the job, the project, and/or the exact role of a digital project manager.

Here’s a great example from a Reddit post: The poster is the co-founder of an unnamed small digital agency that wants to hire a DPM to free up the co-founder’s time and deliver more projects with better quality.

The problem is, says the poster, “all questions that I googled for PM’s interviews [seem] either too general or too open or it’s not clear what answer will be good/bad/excellent.”

They then explain they already have a small selection of candidates and are looking for interview questions or tests to filter out the top 5 percent of applicants; they want to give specific questionnaires to “to their HR manager with good/bad/excellent options, so no extra experience/knowledge [is] needed to spot good/bad answer.”

They also want something only the top 5-15 percent can even answer, and they want something as “quick and short as possible.”

The red flags are battling gale-force winds at this point. And as you can imagine, the responses in Reddit were not kind.

The problem is, this client ⬆️ … is not an outlier.

DPMs are notoriously under-appreciated and over-allocated, Dysart says.

“At some point, I was running 23 projects across 14 clients at the same time and … at that point, that doesn’t even allow you to give each project more than one day a month of effort,” she explains.

Mackenzie Dysart

The irony is, a good PM is rarely noticed. When they’re really supporting the team, the team barely notices they exist; all that crucial gathering, curating, translating, and communicating is working quietly in the background to prevent fires from hitting the ignition point.

No one notices a fire that never exists. But perhaps, along with the iterative tide of the digital marketplace, clients are starting to recognize the true value of prevention.

Stay Current With Digital Project Management Courses, Tools, & Templates

While we digital project managers continue to educate clients about our true value, we need to take the lead on up-skilling and upgrading. The best way to do that is through on-demand online programs, because who can afford to take two days or two weeks off of a project? The answer is #nobody.

However, warns Galen Low, if you don’t keep up with trends and current best practices, you may be headed down the road to being *that* DPM—you know the one. The hovering-‘do-as-I-say’ authoritarian that no one really likes to work with.

Also… templates. If you have a need, we have a template. As a member of DPM, you have access to more than 260 templates to smooth out any wrinkle in any of your processes. Here’s where you can join so you can make those templates all yours.

Here’s to happy, collaborative digital project management!

Ben Aston & Robyn Stubbs

About Ben Aston & Robyn Stubbs

Ben Aston is a digital project manager and the founder of thedigitalprojectmanager.com. He's been in the industry for more than 15 years and has worked in the UK at London’s top digital agencies including Dare, Wunderman, Lowe, and DDB. Ben has delivered everything from film to CMS', games to advertising and eCRM to eCommerce sites and has been fortunate enough to work across a wide range of great clients: automotive brands including Land Rover, Volkswagen, and Honda; Utility brands including BT, British Gas, and Exxon; FMCG brands such as Unilever; and consumer electronics brands including Sony. Robyn Stubbs, conversion copywriter and branding and marketing consultant/strategist, also contributed to this article. Robyn works with several international marketing agencies on branding and marketing projects. Her true passion lies in planning, implementing, delivering, and optimizing clean, conversion-driven copy in a busy digital world. Providing readers with high-quality, high-value information is kinda (totally) her jam... those are her journalist roots showing.

8 Comments

  • image Emily says:

    Great article!

  • image Biju says:

    Thanks, the article helps in clearly differentiating digital PM from other PM streams !

  • image Erika B says:

    Hi Ben,

    Can you recommend me what´s the kind of master I should take if I want to be a Digital Project Manager? (considering I already have experience in the digital field)

    If you have any universities in mind it will also help.

    Kind regards,

  • Am interested in taking a course on Digital Project Management. Any recommendations?

  • image Guy Pyetan says:

    I have been doing programme and project management for 20+ years under a variety of delivery methodologies in startups and established large scale corporates and and I don’t think I’ve ever worked on a project or programme in any sector that didn’t require me to wear multiple hats at various times and directly interact with customers and content. I have still not managed to find anything anywhere that explains to me why digital project management is different from any other form of project management. I apologise if I sound cynical but the difference is stil not clear to me – this seems like a trendy reinvention of what we’ve been doing for years.

    The statement below describes the delivery of practically every website and large scale enterprise system that has ever been. You might not be working with a digital marketing agency but the chances are you’re producing something that customers will interact with and you had better have a very good idea of how they will behave when they do or the web offering will fail.

    “Digital project management describes the leading of teams and stakeholders to plan and execute projects, by organizing and motivating multi-disciplinary teams in the delivery of web-enabled projects delivered through screens or connected devices – often by digital agencies”

    • image Ben Aston says:

      Hi Guy, Thanks for the feedback. As I said, in the article, there’s a lot of overlap between digital project management and IT project management.

      So is it fundamentally different? No. in many ways, as I said, it’s no different to IT project management or software project management.

      But I don’t think it’s a trendy re-invention of project management, it simply describes a flavour of it. It describes a specific context – often marketing related, within a digital agency, with quicker turnaround and smaller budgets than you’d be working on as a project manager on an enterprise project.

      So why do we need to call ourselves digital project managers rather than just project managers? Maybe we don’t. And could I call you a digital project manager? Sure. I think the main reason for adding in the ‘digital’ prefix is because it simply helps denote that we’ve got experience working on a particular type of project, in a particular setting. Maybe we have recruiters to blame for inventing the moniker in the first place, but it’s not going away anytime soon – https://trends.google.com/trends/explore?date=all&q=digital%20project%20manager

      It’s similar to someone asking for a PM with banking, government, telco or healthcare experience – it’s just in this instance the vertical is digital agencies and marketing, and to denote that experience, we call ourselves digital project managers.

      Does that help?

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