Why, What, How

04 Jun 2023 » Opinion

You probably remember when you were in primary or secondary school and you were taught about the five Ws: who, what, when, where, and why. Some people will also add how, me being one of them. It is very handy that, in English, these words start with WH, making them easy to remember. When you learned them, they were just boring language constructs you had to learn. However, over the years I have realized that they are much more important than just that. It helps a lot to ask these questions in everything in life, but today I will focus on digital marketing.


If you are like my wife and me and you like crime dramas (CSI, NCIS, Bones, Columbo…), you will remember that the most important task the police has is to find the motive. Only when they find it, they resolve the case, even if they have already found the murderer.

The same applies to successful businesses: the founder(s) created a service or a product for a reason. There is even a popular book called Start With Why. I have to admit that I have not read it, but the title resonated with me some time ago, something clicked in my mind.

Let me illustrate how this applies to IT in digital marketing with an example. Imagine your business stakeholder asks you to build a segment in AEP. You may be tempted to just go ahead and build it. However, a better approach would be to ask the business team why they want to build this segment. With that information, you may be able to suggest a better segment, reply that a very similar segment already exists, show that the segment size is too small or too large, or that a segment is not needed at all for the use case.

In general, any IT project should start with the why, which must come from the business. The answer will probably be in the form of OKRs or business goals. Some examples in digital marketing would be:

  • Raise awareness of a new product
  • Increase average order value (AOV)
  • Reach a new audience
  • Reduce marketing costs

If the answer to this fundamental question is not clear, I would argue that the project should not start. If all you want to do is play with technology, buy a Raspberry Pi.


I am departing here from the book and its circles. For me, the second step is the what. In my example above, I showed how we tend to start from this second step, skipping the first step, and going directly to the execution. I know, it takes determination, but if you are given the what, take a step back and get to the bottom of the why first.

In digital marketing, typical examples of this what would be:

  • A marketing campaign
  • A digital transformation project
  • The acquisition of a new capability

In this second step, you should stay clear of technology. Although you may already have in mind which one you are going to use, remember to be strict and keep it high level. We are in the process of understanding what we have to do, not how we are going to do it.


Now that you know why you are doing something and what you are asked to do, you can start thinking about how you are going to deliver the request. This is where technology shows up, although it is not the only component of this stage.

Typical activities around the how are:

  • Evaluate alternatives
  • Decide which technology to use
  • Design of the solution

When, Where, Who

While the previous questions are the most important, you still have 3 more questions that you will want to clarify:

  • When. Do you have a hard deadline to deliver the ask or a dependency that will not allow you to start until a certain date?
  • Who. This one is easy: who is going to do each part of the process? A RACI matrix will probably help here.
  • Where. Not that relevant nowadays, when a lot of people work remotely, but worth considering. This may also apply to the location of the technology itself: in-house, cloud, SaaS…

Do it

At this point, you have answered all basic questions and you have seen that these answers align. Now it is time to implement the request. This may be as simple as building a segment, as in the example above, or starting a multi-year transformational program.

It goes without saying that the effort you should devote to getting these questions answered is proportional to the ask. For simple requests, you could have a form and a set of approved procedures, which speeds up the process. You do not want to spend days or weeks on a simple segment. For more complex requests, you will likely need some meetings or start a project.

As a final comment, I have used this process to create PowerPoint presentations, with slides titled why, what and how or as headers in columns. Not everybody likes this, but I have found it useful.


Image by rawpixel.com

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