Going The Extra Mile – Why Digital Isn’t Enough

The future is digital. At least, that’s what we’ve been led to believe, and for good reason. Fewer physical demands on a business help drive down costs, and increase scaleability. Digital allows you to go wherever your customers are – they even keep you in their pockets, carrying a part of you with them at all times. And, most importantly, digital gives us data, big data, more data than we’ve ever seen or thought possible. Enough data to drown in, if we’re not careful. So as we hurtle towards this brave new world, let’s take a second to make sure digital really is the prince that was promised, and not just another false dawn.

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Let’s Get Digital, Digital

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We’ve covered before how, in today’s complex marketing world, getting your money’s worth isn’t just about immediate financial return on your investment, as well as how, when, and why to take risks. So how do those play into the digital landscape? Well, as mentioned above, digital is the source of the vast majority of the data we’re now acquiring, and that’s making lots of people dependent on the apparent security that big data can bring. In the words of Unilever VP Patricia Corsi: “I’m a big fan of data when it takes good ideas and makes them epic… But it’s having an impact of a whole generation of marketers who believe they can’t take risky decisions without data.”

Corsi was speaking at last month’s Adweek Europe, where she was joined by Keith Moor. The Santander CMO lamented the disparity between expectations and results for digital as a platform, specifically Facebook. “Some 60% of branded content on Facebook isn’t viewed… We’ve got massively effective strategies for getting eyeballs, but it doesn’t get people to watch it.” For a recent campaign, the agency guaranteed Santander content would be placed on Facebook timelines 1.7m times, which yielded roughly 603,000 views. However, only around 31,500 of those watched all the way through, with an average view time of 22 seconds. “I was told by my agency that was good! It’s not, is it?”

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The Devil Is In The Digitals

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At first glance, this might seem like a problem of platform or content. Maybe Facebook isn’t the place people want to interact Santander. Maybe, as he suggests, they didn’t focus enough on the first five seconds, the hook that draws a viewer in for the rest of the runtime. Bill Gates has been telling us that content is king since 1996, and there’s no doubt that having the right content is crucial. But the best content in the world won’t do you any good if it’s out in front of people who aren’t interested in it, or, even worse, where no one can find it. “So what?” you might say. “Surely no one in their right mind is paying for that sort of service these days?”

Sadly, it turns out that many of us have been, without even knowing it. Digital advertising agencies, taking inspiration from the kind of tactics that caused the subprime mortgage crisis, have moved from pay-per-click to the less meritocratic pay-per-display, so that they can position viable ads on junk sites with few visitors. They then bundle these toxic, worthless placements side-by-side in a package with more premium real estate, using the complexity of automation and the increasing number of middle men to ensure these practices go largely unnoticed. This fraud prompted Kalkis Research to conclude that “Controls and regulations are nonexistent, and a big chunk of ad spending is being stolen, plain and simple.”

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Here Comes The Hotstepper, I’m The Digital Gangster

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Obviously, there are trustworthy agencies out there, just as there were financial institutions not complicit in systematically defrauding their clients and customers by bundling toxic debts with valuable ones. But, as Kalkis points out, the efficiency of digital is in sharp decline. If even the heavy-hitters like Google, eBay, Amazon, TripAdvisor, and Expedia have all seen their digital media spend outstrip their digital sales revenue in the past 5 years, then it’s only a matter of time until this bubble bursts, and takes everyone, even the trustworthy agencies, with it. It might not cause a global recession this time around, but the consequences for marketing as an industry will be severe.

When that day comes, companies will want to be as well-shielded from the fallout as possible. The key to this is simple – keep digital in context. It’s a useful part of any well-balanced marketing mix. But if you let digital become the focus, or even the sole medium, in your strategy, you’re essentially putting all your eggs in one basket, which, let’s be honest, rarely works out well for anyone. Even when it crashes, digital isn’t going anywhere, though it doubtless needs a thorough scrubbing, and stronger regulation. But savvy marketers will spread their bets, and take advantage of less saturated environments where people want to be engaged. No amount of data can beat that.