Advertisers are innovating to draw your attention online - here's how it's done.
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If you think about advertising, you’ll probably think of the billboards you walk past, banner ads that spoil your favourite website, movie trailers in the cinema or the millions of adverts that flick across your TV screens while you make a cup of tea.
These are the traditional adverts which, aside from using new media, are basically the same as they’ve always been: Companies pay the publisher to put up a message that says how great they are and they hope that it’ll drive up sales.
However, with the power of social media, website tracking and Google, modern digital marketing is able to use more subtle, more effective ways of persuading you to part with your cash.
Just to explain how I know all this, I’m the co-founder of Digital Marketing Agency, Distract. We launched in 2015, shortly after Facebook found a way to monetise its service effectively.
While it took a few years for the service to find its legs, the change started a whole new world of marketing which has created new ways for people like me to help companies market their products to you.
The limitations of traditional advertising
Although traditional TV advertising used to work and companies still put millions into it, more and more people are watching programmes on demand; they either fast-forward through the adverts on recordings or they’re watching Netflix.
A lot of people my age don’t even have TV licences since all we watch is Netflix, Now TV or Amazon Prime where there are no adverts.
Small businesses have largely given up making coupons and vouchers which they push through letter boxes because they’re expensive to print, time consuming to distribute and, in an age of myvouchercodes and coupons online, they’re a faff to use.
As roads and streets have been getting busier and busier each and every year, there are more and more things things vying for your attention as you walk or drive around.
Whereas posters and billboards might have stood out in the past, they’re now far more easy to ignore. You probably drove past several bus stands, street corner ads or raised billboards this morning, but can you remember any of the posters that were on them?
Newspapers sales are constantly falling and, as with live TV, the vast majority of young people don’t read them at all. We’ve become a mobile first world where we literally find everything online first so while newspaper journalists don’t want to admit it, physical printed adverts are a waste of time for most audiences.
Another problem with all of these traditional forms of advertising is that they’re all pretty useless for consumers. No-one really believes an advert that says a product is the best thing ever and that’s about all that traditional adverts are able to do.
Traditional adverts also have to cast their net ridiculously wide because it’s difficult to target an advert to a specific market effectively. Some traditional advertisers are adapting and changing with the times, but they’re very much changing in response to the new media and they’re still limited by their old-fashioned platforms.
Now, through modern digital marketing, we’re able to target adverts to exactly the people our clients want us to reach. We can pin-point adverts to people in specific locations and specific times, people who buy specific products, visit certain websites, search for specific phrases and who are within the demographics we want to reach.
We no longer have to waste money buying advertising space in newspapers hoping that we’ll reach the 1% of readers who are in our target audience, instead we can advertise to them directly.
Digital marketing means we can test campaigns and tweak them in real-time to see immediate results and we can monitor how successful they are at every stage and we can use social media and we can use website tracking to use far more advance techniques than any marketers have ever used before.
While it might be alarming to see just how much advertising is changing, this use of new technology and new platforms to sell products and build up brands isn’t new and it hasn’t come out of nowhere.
How new media transformed marketing
In sales, people have known for decades that telling potential customers that a product is the best thing ever isn’t the best way to get them to buy from you. First, you have to build a relationship with your target customer, get them to like you, trust you and appreciate what you do.
Until recently, advertising struggled to do that or it was always limited in the ways in which it could build a connection. One of the most effective ways of doing that is by giving people help, advice or high quality content for free.
In 1981 MTV launched and it transformed how the music industry advertises its products and its brands, setting a template for a more effective form of advertising. They had the great idea of making a TV channel where artists create high-quality content that they would broadcast for free.
At first, artists were up in arms, thinking, “Hang about. I’m not going to spend millions making a video which I’m going to give to away for free’, but some did and their gamble massively paid off.
Madonna embraced this new medium by going out and creating her own music video. Almost overnight, she became one of the biggest brands in music and her willingness to put quality content on TV for free was certainly a major factor in her success.
It also helped that Madonna was one of the first to use a brand new marketing platform because embracing a new medium early can bring massive rewards.
Just like MTV helped artists get the appreciation of their viewers and it helped them become relatable and appeal to people’s identities, modern digital marketing is allowing businesses of all sizes do the same and more.
Building brand relationships through quality content
While a TV advert might have a nice message which makes you like the company behind it, they’re rarely ever helpful and they’re completely passive.
Modern digital media enables businesses to interact with audiences, understand them, build up a connection and genuinely help them, which is something traditional media has always struggled to do.
Before I started working in marketing, learned the power of branding as an alternative to traditional advertising firsthand. I was 16 years old and working at a company that sold car radios.
It 2006 and YouTube influencers had just started to break through and I decided to make my own videos, showing people how to fit and set up a range of different car radios. My first 11 or 12 videos took off in no time, earning around three thousand views each, and so I made more.
Soon, I was reaching ten thousand views with each video and people seemed to really appreciate them and they trusted my advice and opinions. With all of this faith that viewers were putting into my advice, I decided to make my own shop as an offshoot from my video channel.
I built a simple website and I started mentioning in my videos that people could buy the car radios from my site or get them from a big retailer for half the price. Weirdly, even though I told them my shop was more expensive, viewers would visit my website and buy the radios from me because they appreciated my advice and trusted my opinions.
While I hadn’t realised it when I started making the videos, I’d been building up a brand and I’d built a relationship with my audience which meant they remembered me, trusted me and wanted to buy from me.
Like Madonna had done with MTV, I was giving content for free and people were appreciating me as a result and that was driving sales.
That basic principle is now a tremendously powerful tool for digital marketing. We use this as a technique for our clients and in our own marketing: We use our adverts to build a relationship with potential clients by giving them help and advice for free.
I do this by giving speeches and presentations at industry events and my team feature in our video adverts sharing their expertise. People who find these videos useful remember our brand, they remember our experts and so when they want some help, they turn to us.
How brands get inside your head
Branding goes further than simply being helpful; brand changes absolutely everything. Whatever you’re wearing right now, you probably bought because of its brand. If a company can associate its brand with quality, a set of values you share, or with your identity, then you’ll probably like them and want to buy their products.
You might be reading this and shaking your head, thinking you’re not that gullible, but you are - and so am I.
Weirdly, I once spent £25 on a water bottle. I’m quite embarrassed about it because it literally is a metal bottle with a slightly rubbery finish and a resealable lid on a tether. I was looking for a water bottle online but I didn’t like any of them and then I saw this one and I bought it there and then. It was only afterwards that I thought; “This bottle is £25, why did I spend £25 on a water bottle?”
I then thought back and realised that a few days before, I’d seen an advert for another bottle from the same company on Instagram and then I’d seen another one on Facebook. Without realising it, they’d made me wonder whether I was drinking enough and I’d come to like the brand from seeing their adverts.
These little adverts had led me to looking for water bottles on Amazon and when i couldn’t see any that i liked, I remembered the weird looking water bottle I’d seen on the adverts and so I visited their website and found my £25 bottle.
It wasn’t because I was looking for a water bottle to begin with, it wasn’t because i was forced into it by a facebook ad as if it was mind control.
The advert had planted the seed by asking if I was drinking enough, my answer to that was ‘no’ so a few days later I went to look for a water bottle and realised that I really wanted one like the one in the advert because I had built a connection with the brand.
We’re doing the same thing for our clients: A gourmet marshmallow brand gave us two to three weeks to make a campaign to help them sell more marshmallows. They gave us a small budget and gave us free rein to do what we liked.
For our campaign, we handed out marshmallows to people and we filmed it. We gave the marshmallows to everyone and we used what we filmed to make three different videos for Valentine’s Day: One with men giving marshmallows to men, women giving them to women and men and women giving them to each other.
When we started this, we didn't understand the level of reaction we’d create and even though it was a small and relatively simple campaign with videos that were promoted on social media and online, it blew up.
The comments on the videos were incredible, because people connected with the adverts and they came to associate the brand with their own identity. They formed a connection with the brand and that led them to visiting the website and buying their products.
This all comes back to what I’d learned when I was making videos about car stereos; When you advertise to people in the way they want to be communicated with, you win.
That little campaign was seen by more than a million people and thousands of people went to the product’s website and we’ve been working with the brand on several other campaigns since which have been even more successful.
This is a massive contrast to the way advertising used to work: “Buy our product, it’s great” has given way to a more intelligent, more subtle, more helpful strategy that’s possible thanks to digital media.
Brands aren’t a blunt tool, and it’s not about mind control; it’s about making a business appeal to people and making people connect and appreciate that business.
It’s basic a basic technique that salesmen have used for years, but one that’s now enhanced and improved by digital media to help brands get inside your head.