Back in the mid-90s when we first engaged in digital marketing, we were very naïve. Our agency won the global account for one of the world’s first ‘internetworking’ companies – a brilliant, innovative early competitor to Cisco which cashed-in in the dotcom boom.
We had email at a point when there was no-one else to email, and we won our first award for ‘Best Website’ in 1996. (Yes, it was a Flash website, if you remember that wonderful interactive technology which Google did for, and then Apple finished off.)
Anyway, our working assumption was that digital marketing was absolutely marvellous and would usher in a new utopia for business. Clients would have a simple, transparent, direct and astonishingly cheap relationship with the customer compared to traditional advertising.
Oh, how you must be laughing, if you know anything about how digital marketing actually turned out.
The digital ecosystem
Some people think digital marketing is like a machine, you crank the handle and get the results. But we feel it’s best to think of your digital marketing as a ‘living, breathing’ ecosystem. You need to be alive to the changing dynamic in the market, in people’s mood and minds, in how the platforms are working.
So, it’s critical that you’re clear in terms of your strategy and implementation for any digital marketing – in targeting, testing, media buying and evaluation. And, because all inventory is effectively the same – basically, a blank space – it’s content that really makes the difference in performance. (And the algorithms are designed to reward you for quality and effectiveness, so it’s a double win.)
And yet, in many ways, the science of digital marketing has made the process of marketing more competitive, more complicated, more costly. The near total dominance of a couple of well-known tech behemoths can be construed as anti-competitive, putting brand owners at the mercy of rising prices to access their audience.
For example, in terms of cost-per-impact, social advertising can be surprisingly expensive compared to, say, television.
So, as well as offering new opportunities, digital marketing creates a potentially problematic environment for clients, particularly in sifting ‘brand and demand’ effects: long-term brand impacts vs short-term response.
One of the double-edged sword of digital marketing is the very low barrier to entry. Anyone can run a small campaign. But this also tends to make the media market more competitive and noisy and, from the advertiser’s point of view, less good value
Now, some will doubtless disagree.
Digital marketing brings with it a plethora of benefits, such as potentially valuable data – so much so that you can drown in the numbers. Sometimes it’s hard to compare data from different platforms’ performance like-for-like, especially if you’re not in the business of direct selling.
And then there’s the temptation to get hooked on hits and clicks or even, god help us, ‘engagements’.
With an addiction to numbers or economism, some people can get sucked into the McArthur Fallacy, named after the US general in the Vietnam war who averred that ‘if you can’t count it, it doesn’t matter.’ (This led to a serious underestimate of the Vietcong’s fighting spirit, with disastrous consequences.)
Indeed, sometimes the data just doesn’t mean what you think it means.
One large digital platform was once blown away by the way people in a major European city interacted with its products. They wondered how to replicate this globally. Until it was pointed out that this city had a lot of unemployment, and that the platform had a big office in the city, and a lot of people thought that, if they were super-users, it might help them get a job with the tech giant.
So, you know, healthy doubt is a valuable tool, especially in digital marketing. You’ll want to use online tools in your marketing, but it pays to be sceptical of ‘silver bullets’.
Nonetheless, like modern life itself, there is much to celebrate in digital marketing.
There are tools, techniques and platforms for most situations. Wisely used, you can reach highly targeted audiences by geography, demographics, interests and attitudes.
You ‘test and develop’ efficient campaigns which work the sales funnel from TOFU to BOFU. If you’re lucky, you can get direct attribution from marketing spend to sale and profitability.
Here are a few of the core techniques you can use:
They say the best place to hide a body is on page 2 of search results, and that’s pretty much true.
But it’s also true that there’s a great deal of paid-for misdirection in search engine results. Intermediaries and your competitors will be aiming to capture customers who could be / should be coming to you. This means that – like it or not – you do need a carefully formulated strategy for SEO, and probably PPC too.
It probably matters even more in B2B where prospects will have carried out a great deal of their research online and completed, say, 80% of their buying journey before you ever get an RFI or tender invitation from them.
For search strategies to be effective, you need to find complete alignment between the information your audience is looking for, the way the search engine parses that information and the user experience or ‘quality score’ you have on the page.
As the name implies, automated marketing takes the slog out of hand-cranking digital marketing messages. Prospects sign-up (usually to gain some information-marketing) and are then fed further communications and offers depending on their behaviour and lead scoring.
There are any number of well-known platforms for integrating your CRM with automated marketing such as Pardot from Salesforce, Hubspot and Marketo, though we believe SharpSpring offers better value.
GDPR has made this kind of ‘permission-based marketing’ an essential feature of any sales process with a long gestation period. (In the UK and Europe, it’s only legal to send people digital communications which they have specifically asked for.)
Particularly in markets with big-ticket purchases (eg in B2B) customers aren’t always in the market and need to be nurtured politely along their decision-making journey – providing welcome, valuable information at key points.
In B2B automated marketing, you also need to work out how to cast your net wider to reach out the entire ‘decision-making unit’ – the group of people who will vet and validate any large scale, costly or business-critical purchase.
Yet, automated marketing has gained a poor reputation in some cases where the ease of marketing enables a flow of low-quality content – in other words, spam – with predictably poor customer engagement and rapidly diminishing returns.
In reality, good customers are smart enough to reward respectful, useful marketing and to find ways to avoid stuff that clutters their inbox and their mind.
As an internet user, you would have experienced these types of ads popping up on web pages as banners, and small square mid-page units (MPUs).
The buying process automatically matches client’s or agencies’ bids with publishers’ inventory, usually delivering guaranteed levels of impressions for a price with a predicted click-through-rate (CTR).
While simple for buyers and sellers, the system can be convoluted and typically delivers only a fraction of the advertising value to the publisher. Lack of transparency also lead to suspicions of mis-selling and fraud, and the risk of brand unsafe environments.
It’s really a numbers game and programmatic ads can be very cheap for high volumes but can also be famously unresponsive. So, it’s perhaps worth looking on these kinds of ads as ‘air cover’ in your campaign – providing a degree of brand awareness and recognition for harder working, more responsive media.
Account-based marketing (ABM)
Once upon a time in advertising, ABM stood for Allen Brady and Marsh, a 1980s ad agency which came up with That’s the wonder of Woolworth’s. These days, ABM means account-based marketing – a B2B technique (and it’s an idea as old as the hills) by which valuable customers are targeted directly.
Back in the day, this would simply have been achieved by direct mail. This would usually be considered prohibitively expensive nowadays compared to the ease of digital marketing, but perhaps that’s a mistake.
Using digital tools, you can target prospects by company, job function or title, for example, via LinkedIn. Due to GDPR constraints, targeting people by name is more difficult, but if you have a GDPR-compliant CRM, then email marketing remains the obvious option.
There are also novel techniques for uncovering your audience and its intentions such as reverse-IP targeting. (For example, you can look at a large company’s HQ and find out the search terms which people inside the business are using that are relevant to your business.) You can then use this information to target relevant ad to people using that IP address – eg web browsing coming from within that HQ.
It may sound a little sketchy but it’s eminently do-able – though it’s costly to set up and the results in our experience have been variable.
Yes, granny’s on Facebook now and you can target people in granular detail based on their demographics, location, interests and so on.
There has been a serious shift in the platforms for social advertising – Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok – with new methods for sharing content now taking up the lion’s share of younger audiences’ screen time.
In many ways, social advertising is expensive in terms of cost-per-thousand. You are paying over-the-odds for finer targeting but, in many instances, finer targeting doesn’t necessarily produce better results for brands.
And yet, while social media has gouged out the heart of many traditional media models, there often isn’t another way to reach specific audiences. You have to ‘fish where the fish are’…
Making digital marketing work
This quick flash through some key concepts in digital marketing has been as fast and simple as building an early website in Flash.
If you’d like to have a more sophisticated discussion around making digital marketing work for your business, let’s talk. We can help your business cut through in noisy competitive environments.