7 Deadly Sins Of Digital Media

andrewshebbeare“Data-Driven Thinking” is written by members of the media community and contains fresh ideas on the digital revolution in media.

Today’s column is written by Andrew Shebbeare, founding partner and global chief strategist at Essence.

I love digital media. I particularly enjoy the geekery, the data, the possibilities. The only trouble is that when faced with this wonderful box of marketing Lego, I sometimes lose track of what I was building.

In an industry as complex as ours it is probably inevitable that we sometimes miss the woods for the trees while we try to connect irreconcilable data sources or argue the nitty-gritty features of DMPs. Here are a few of the pitfalls I’ve encountered. I know I have been guilty of all at one time or another.

1. Not Having A Strategy

In the era of predictive analytics and auto-optimizers, it is easy to forget to ask what we should do and why. The temptation to flick the switch on your programmatic acquisition machine is strong. But don’t confuse a few smart tactics for a strategy.

A media strategy is an articulation of how media will help you achieve a business goal. Any tactics that don’t align need to be set aside. You might have a cool lookalike model bringing in cheap signups, but is that going to propel your business to success? Would you be better off creating brand love that will convert millions of loyal, impassioned users?

I tend to start with barriers: What is holding the organization back? Can media help us overcome those barriers? If so, how? If not, hold off. Fix your product, your customer service but don’t default to activating media because you can. Those cheap signups could quickly turn into a toxic brand problem.

2. Thinking You Can Avoid Taking Risks

You can’t, at least not without making huge sacrifices. With the amount of data generated by digital campaigns, it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that your historical performance will tell you what to do next. Unfortunately, if you want to generate really awesome results, you’re going to need to be much braver. You should use data to shape ideas and understand audiences and how they relate to your brand and products. But you can’t expect data to have ideas for you.

Brands regularly back themselves into a marketing corner by being risk-averse and forgetting how to be creative. They get caught in a “whittling trap” — refining down to the perfect creative, media plan or landing page in small increments when a radical overhaul is what’s needed. Meanwhile, a new entrant is only too happy to disrupt through innovation, agility and a healthy dollop of gut feel.

I recently met with an advertiser stuck in this loop, unable to grow their business but refusing to accept that their narrow attribution methodology was holding them back. Their flawed reporting had become the unshakeable foundation of their marketing beliefs; to question it was anathema. This cycle is hard to break.

3. Believing You Can Measure Everything

You can’t do this either. Obviously, the data that the digital medium generates is pretty amazing. The large-scale integration of data across multiple screens, place-based actions and offline transactions is very exciting, but we should not mistake big data for perfect measurement. There are some fundamental statistical realities that can’t be overcome.

Until we can read people’s minds in real time, we can’t measure brand effects in real time. Until we have the ability to predict behavior for every individual and measure changes influenced by marketing, we can’t measure direct response in real time either.

Thankfully, there are helpful proxies for behavioral and attitudinal change. You use them all the time. They help us make educated inferences about what works, but you should remember them for what they are. Attribution models are still models. Brand studies are based on samples. Both have statistical error. Even black and white metrics like last-click ROI are really full of noise and shades of grey when you scratch below the surface. You should use all these tools, but keep them in perspective. They can help you optimize, but may not reveal the truth.

A common mistake is to rule something out because it is “unmeasurable.” What people usually mean by this is they don’t have a familiar proxy that is compatible with other proxies and will tell them how much to invest. Once you accept that nothing is totally measurable, having a few different tools in play may not seem so bad. Next time you rule out a marketing opportunity, don’t rule it out because you can’t measure it. Rule it out because it doesn’t feel right.

4. Brushing Bias Under The Carpet

Marketers love testing, but not all really understand it. The truth is that much of what is considered good practice can be flawed.

Media people, for example, talk a lot about “optimal frequency” — an important input into any planning model. It’s harder to measure than many realize. If you see your lowest CPA after five impressions, is that because five is your optimal frequency, or because people who convert tend to see five impressions? The only way to really understand optimal frequency is to hold out separate audiences at each marginal impression — a complex and expensive undertaking.

I will enter the confessional myself. A few weeks ago a client pointed out that because my control ad in a recent campaign required a lower version of Flash than the exposed ad, the incidence of backup images served was lower in the control — introducing bias in the audiences exposed to Flash. Thankfully it was a small bias and one we could isolate, but a bias nonetheless.

Bias is everywhere: in frequency, recency, sequence, time of day, site, audience and screen size. The discipline of experiment design needs to enter the mainstream of marketing. These are hard lessons because they cast doubt on some of the basic “best practices” we have come to accept. It is tempting to say something is good enough, but when you are dealing with small changes in behavior or attitude, it may not be.

5. Losing Sight Of The Human Connection

In the programmatic era, it’s easy to forget that audiences are made up of real people. Sitting behind virtual levers and dials, you might feel like some sort of virtuoso manipulating millions of faceless zombies. Take a reality check and give people some credit; it will pay off.

Ads that have something to say work better. What is interesting to one may not be interesting to all. Instead of boiling everything down to averages, put yourself in users’ shoes, consider their context and how you can add value to that situation, not clutter.

Don’t assume you always know what’s best. You might laugh at your own jokes; don’t expect others to. You might get goosebumps from your new promo spot; that doesn’t mean YouTubers will. Judging from inside the bubble is tough. Your brand affinity, product knowledge and personal circumstances are skewed. If taking an objective view is hard, think about pretesting your work before going to market. You could save millions of dollars and months of time.

6. Forgetting The Sum Of The Parts

I once helped launch a new retail brand from scratch. We started with a blank slate: no traffic, customers or reputation. We activated paid media and started tracking sales. We found that on top of what we tracked, we got an extra 40% or so we couldn’t explain. Word of mouth, cross-device conversions, rejected cookies and repeat purchases were contributing a big chunk of revenue for which we couldn’t directly credit our ads. These network effects and wise investment helped us grow and reach profitability much faster than we would have done otherwise.

Since marketing diagnostic metrics are really just diagnostics, you need to understand their relationship to your business’s bottom line. I can’t promise you 40%, but it’s not zero. This isn’t just about attribution, it’s about what happens outside the model altogether.

7. Over-engineering

This is the one I find hardest personally because I get so excited by technology and innovation. There’s just so much cool stuff to play with that knowing when to stop can be difficult.

In this game, whatever you are implementing right now you will be tearing up pretty soon afterward. No matter how flexible you try and make a system, you’ll be missing the one feature you didn’t think of. People talk about CMOs being bigger technology buyers than CTOs and CIOs, but they also have it harder, with a lot less clarity of the world for which they need to designing.

My advice: Embrace the hacks that get the job done quickly. Be pragmatic. Don’t get obsessed with future proofing. Don’t be afraid to change your mind. Create a lean infrastructure and avoid getting too wedded to anything.  Make the best decisions that you can today, focus on what you know. Focus on getting “good” into market rather than waiting for “best.”

I hope this list is at least a little useful. Thankfully these seven sins aren’t actually deadly. If they were I wouldn’t be here warning you about them.

Follow Essence (@essencedigital) and AdExchanger (@adexchanger) on Twitter.

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  1. Skeptical

    Appreciate the article, but I wholeheartedly disagree with many statements here.

    The entire premise seems to push the direction of being less risk averse, more willing to let go of strict measurement when you really want to run things you can’t measure, and more willing to invest in programs you “believe” enhance your brand over programs you can prove drive $ results.

    The moment you start rationalizing breaking the rules you put in place to ensure the efficiency of your programs, you’re starting down a slippery slope.

    I can always tell when my partner reps are running out of creative ideas for me, because they start telling me I should rethink my attribution strategy or focus on brand-building initiatives. It’s a way for agencies and platforms to grow their revenue without working to find solutions that drive proven results for me. (They never push these areas of focus when our existing DR programs are flourishing, which is of some relevance)

    Loosening your demands from your programs when scale gets difficult is the lazy route. Finding ways to scale while strictly measuring and achieving your ROI goals simultaneously is the challenge.

  2. In response to Skeptical, I disagree. Sometimes rigid DR measurements and targets are not the right approach. There’s only ever going to be a finite proportion of your potential audience you can reach via DR tactics, meaning you need to explore alternative options if you want to grow. Sticking rigidly to (for example) a post click attribution methodology, means you will be stuck in a spiral of chasing down cheap clicks, at the expense of expanding your potential audience.
    The reason that agencies don’t push alternative methods when DR tactics are flourishing is that you obviously can mop up a lot of the easy wins via DR. And that’s great. You should do that until you have capitalised on all the quick and cheap wins you possibly can – why wouldn’t you? The problem comes when an advertiser has saturated this segment of their audience and but then clings stubbornly to their ROI targets, and closes their eyes to the fact that they will inevitably have to do something new to reach the next group of potential customers.
    You say “Finding ways to scale while strictly measuring and achieving your ROI goals simultaneously is the challenge.” It certainly is. And sometimes it simply is not possible. Advertiser ROI goals and growth targets are set by human beings, who are fallible. They are people’s forecasts for what they want their business to achieve, and think it can achieve. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they are achievable. When the market dictates that you cannot achieve both your targeted scale and efficiency, who does it help to stubbornly cross your arms and say “well, those are the targets we set!”?
    Moreover, I think Andrew’s point is that if you let go of your strict targets and embrace a more flexible approach to attribution, then your business really can grow. Clinging desperately onto (for example) rigid post click attribution can mean you optimise yourself into a corner – you may have an efficient campaign, but if your business goals also include growth, then this is no good.