Marketers are still learning how to get the most out of digital platforms. Here are five lessons learned from a man who's been at the coalface more than 10 years.
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Last year Gartner pronounced that ‘digital marketing’ had matured, and that we should instead be ‘marketing in a digital world’. This sounds great, but in many respects I think it’s still a notion – not quite reality yet – though this is the clearly the way we now need to work.
We’ve been working in ‘digital marketing’ for well over a decade, and I’ve been reflecting on what we’ve learned in that time. I believe there are five things we need to carry with us as we make the transition to ‘marketing in a digital age’:
1. Platforms matter more than anything else, and perfection is a process
This is an obvious but important point: being quick to build sites and apps, followed by a programme of continuous investment and development, is the single most important thing brands have done to drive digital growth. Being available and good enough is better than being perfect.
Mobile is a perfect example of this. Some brands we worked with were very quick to spot the opportunity to launch mobile apps and sites. Others hesitated. Those who moved early didn’t do it perfectly, but have benefitted from building a platform they could learn from and develop – and often an early commercial advantage.
Agencies have learned that they aren’t platform specialists, and we’ve very much moved on from the days when we thought we could wing it and build enterprise level commerce platforms.
But we can help brands get the most from their platforms: picking the right opportunities, at the right time, and having the right infrastructure in place to measure what’s working. We believe strongly that if we follow consumer behaviour we’ll drive commercial success.
First movers take a risk, but are often rewarded
2. Driving digital growth is not the preserve of digital marketing teams or departments
Some brands have integrated teams. Others still separate brand communications and digital marketing. Whilst it’s evident that marketing structures need specialists in IT, UX, data, performance marketing and retention, to name a few, the challenge is to embed these skills into integrated teams.
Brands that do this are better at assessing how all activities drive growth, not just digital activities in isolation.
In paid media, TV advertising (usually ‘owned’ by brand-builders) is often the single biggest contributor to digital traffic and sales by some distance. We also work with bricks-and-mortar retailers who find that digital activities can be, per pound spent, the most effective way to drive footfall. Brand and performance marketing need to work hand-in-glove.
One of the biggest on-going challenges I see is how to get the right balance between specialists and integrators. I don’t think there’s a perfect answer, but I’m fairly certain that creating separation between digital and non-digital teams can create blind spots and skills deficits in either of those ‘silos’.
3. The logic of digital performance marketing creates perversions that end up wasting marketing money
Many digital marketing teams we’ve worked with measure their, and our success, on driving the lowest cost-per-acquisition. At face value it makes sense, but the race to get the cheapest possible sale creates wastage by over-steering towards demand harvesting (over demand creating) activities.
Where we are able to, we’ve made a shift away from spending in channels that appear to deliver the most efficient cost-per-sale - often brand search, affiliates and voucher codes. These channels look great on an analytics report but are really just claiming credit for sales that would have happened anyway.
So we’ve focused on going for harder wins: new, valuable customers. Cost-per-acquisition goes up but value to the business increases. In some instances we’ve driven big growth in e-commerce, but deliberately reduced what we spend in performance media, which by some measures looks more ‘expensive’ - and reinvested in activities that drive demand.
This doesn’t mean that paid media doesn’t have value. It does, but it needs to be incremental – and often isn’t.
Winning in online marketing takes a strategic - and sometimes counter-intuitive - plan
4. For many brands, the jury is out on online advertising
I have at, various points, been hugely enthusiastic about the promise of online advertising. But I don’t think we have made the most of the potential for smarter messaging, precision targeting or programmatic trading that it promised.
The truth is that, for many clients, we’ve been able to drive growth without significant investment in online advertising. Opaqueness in trading and delivery, intrusion into user experience, and lack of clear and focused measurement, have made clients justifiably sceptical. Frankly, they’ve made me sceptical.
But I still believe online advertising can be valuable, and I don’t want it to be dominated by a few tech behemoths. I believe all of us in the ‘ad-tech’ system, from agencies to tech vendors, are guilty to some degree. And we will have to do more to prove the worth of the channel to both advertisers and users.
The last 10 years in online advertising has been characterised by abundance: of faith, of vendors, of formats, of inventory. I believe that a bit more restraint, consolidation and some self-imposed scarcity, would not be a bad thing for the digital media sector.
5. The role of the agency will have to change as digital marketing matures
For a long-time agencies did lots of things on client’s behalf as we were growing together. As e-commerce has become business critical for them, they’ve built their own teams to deliver these activities.
That’s left us with a reduced role, but it shouldn’t leave us with a reduced relationship. I believe this is inevitable. Contracting out activities that have become a vital part of their business has stopped making sense.
So we’re having to work more like strategic advisors, selectively providing specialist advice where we are able to, but more importantly doing what good communication agencies have always done: grasp the ‘bigger picture’, inject effective creativity into the business of marketing, understand how all channels come together to drive business growth, and help brands steer their ship in the right direction.
In some respects, everything has changed. And in many respects, it hasn’t.