Today’s column is by Andrew Shebbeare, Founding Partner & Chief Strategist at Essence Digital.
Digital marketing is at risk of becoming a demand-harvesting machine. We’re getting so good at finding audiences that will obligingly convert that we sometimes forget the point of advertising: to change the way people think or act. The combination of tempting economics and easy measurement continues to fuel the growth of digital, but all too often those economics are fallacious, that measurement is inaccurate, and that growth is in the wrong places.
I’ve met a lot of digital media "gurus" who are really just experts at making the numbers look good. They’ve learned all the tricks for intercepting sales, but they tend to have a terrible dearth of ideas when it comes to creating demand. Consider this thought experiment cooked up in a water cooler moment with a colleague. We speculated, "What if Coca-Cola had been launched as a digital brand in 2013?" What would the gurus recommend?
- Targeting fans of the kola nut?
- Running search campaigns against keywords such as "carbonated drink with sugar and caffeine"?
- Buying third-party data about thirsty people?
- Placing contextual ads on pages talking about "cocaine" and "caramel"?
I’m being silly, but you get the idea. The more serious point is that none of the above will create an iconic brand. Yet the neat and tidy metrics they give us cause digital marketers to gravitate toward the same tactics: squeezing our lemon harder instead of planting more lemon trees. That is missing the incredible potential of the digital medium for branding.
How did we end up here? Well, money talks. Retargeting has fueled the fire of programmatic growth more than any other activity. And yes, it can be effective. But when we test retargeting by holding out a control audience, we routinely see that one-quarter to one-third of conversions would have happened regardless of that media buy. Contextual- and audience-based strategies tend to see similar, if smaller, effects. The better you get at finding audiences that are likely to convert, the more likely you are to find people who were going to do so anyway. The ad at the end of the funnel is the most qualified but the least likely to be causal. Yet because it looks great on reports, this is where the dollars keep flowing.
Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing wrong with performance marketing. But it can be over-valued, with the brand-building power of digital underrated as a result. But take it one round further: Once everyone has figured out how to retarget, the playing field has leveled. Words like "zero-sum game" start to come up, and everyone is forced to ask, "What’s next?"
The next big opportunity for programmatic lies in creating new demand, instead of harvesting that which exists already. And in building brands, not just placing signposts. That’s when you need to consider going after the tougher customers. The ones who don’t love you already. The ones who need a bit more convincing. That’s when a brand needs to bring its A-game. And, in fact, this is where the strengths of real-time bidding should really come into their own.
This isn’t the fluffy stuff. This is the arena where scale and efficiency really matter; where the ability to control frequency, to prevent waste, to sequence messages, to measure changes in attitudes and behaviors, to segment communications, to innovate, surprise and delight creates huge payoffs. This is also where measurement gets heavy and interesting. And it's where digital, and especially programmatic buying, can really shine. The main obstacle is a lack of inventory in more interesting, visible and prestigious formats (yes, it does matter!), something that wasn’t so important at the bottom of the funnel.
In the end this boils down to classic strategy. Do you go after the easy wins, or the tough ones? Profit today or profit tomorrow? A margin-maximizing business will look for different marketing strategies than one looking for growth. Some brands need to make markets, some capture them, some can just wait for demand to come to them. Narrow, efficient targeting may be right for many, but it’s not all this medium is capable of.
Hopefully this underscores the importance of vision, clarity of purpose, long-term thinking and, dare I say it, gut instinct. These are things that tactical digital marketers sometimes seem to have left behind. With that in mind, here is some advice I’d give--most of it stolen from the smart clients I admire:
- Have a strategy, not just a collection of tactics. Be clear about what success looks like and what contribution you expect from your marketing.
- Align your efforts. There’s no excuse for channels working in isolation just because the metrics are different.
- Be interesting and be creative. Remember the art, not just the science.
- Think incrementally. Get yourself a measurement model that shows the real contribution to your bottom line, and keep testing and refining it.
Measure everything, together and all the time, but don’t expect change overnight. Be clear about your vision and stick to it.
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