I started out in marketing around 2005, when TheFacebook had just become Facebook; the email of choice was Hotmail. Marketing back then was what would be considered today as traditional marketing. The industry was all about figuring out the client’s brief (product launches, etc.,) and coming up with a compelling, creative message to shout out to the world. Media (i.e., newspapers, television, banners) were secondary to that effort.
Things have changed since then.
The advent of analytics, performance marketing, pay per click (PPC), SEO, and the whole spectrum of data-driven advertising (which, for the sake of this debate, we’ll bundle under “Digital Marketing”) has created new ways to make an impact, measure it, and readjust, in a continuous loop. Media is now king, and the people who manage it make up the bulk of marketing professionals. In 2019, digital ad spend surpassed all other traditional ad venues put together.
These developments lead us to question: Is the move to digital marketing a long-awaited evolution? Have we become too reliant on quantifiable metrics or not nearly enough? Are advertisers today that much savvier or at more of an advantage than they were 15 years ago?
Here are three arguments against the hegemony of digital marketing and three for it.
The Case against Digital Marketing
The New Normal
Sure, a decade ago, any marketer knowing how to work the new platforms of Facebook and Google had a major advantage over the established ad man, but these days are long gone. The analytical approach has created a reality where most marketers perform the same actions, on relatively few platforms. In his book Alchemy, Ogilvy vice chairman Rory Sutherland asserts that if your entire marketing strategy is based on the logical and fairly established digital marketing venues, then your best-case scenario is reaching a crowded point, standing side to side with your competitors who have also followed the same logical and established routes. What’s the point of marketing if it doesn’t single you out?
The secret of success
We assume that digital marketing took over traditional marketing because it provided a better result for those paying for it. However, there may be other factors that account for its success. Here are a couple such factors to consider:
The business world at large, and the hi-tech sector specifically, are characterized by leaders who come from one of two backgrounds: business or technology. For these analytical minds, excel makes more sense than a creative hunch. A spreadsheet displaying CTR (click through rates) percentage over time is something they easily ‘get’; hence, they welcome performance marketing. In other words, digital marketing is their default choice – not because it’s necessarily better than traditional marketing but because it’s more familiar.
This is also true for marketing agencies. With digital marketing, you have the playbook pretty much written before the client enters. The crucial know-how (CPC, CPA, CTR, etc.) relates to the media, not to the specific product. This is very different from traditional advertising, where you have to tailor a new suit for each creative challenge. Also, with digital marketing, it’s much easier to guarantee a 2-5 percent improvement year over year, which keeps the client happy.
People are strange
It doesn’t matter if you’re erecting a billboard or sending a mass newsletter. There is always one person at the other end of a marketing message. This person is a human being, and, as such, s/he is led by evolution, circumstance, mood, culture and subconscious to an equal or greater degree than logic. The basic idea here is that you can’t use a rational tool to illicit action from an emotional and unpredictable being. (Ever tried to logically persuade someone from the opposite political agenda about your point of view? Did it work?)
Our attachment to our views despite evidence to the contrary is well documented. This innate human “failure” also comes into play in the way we understand data. Big data means that there are enough facts to support more than one claim. We can more easily identify and demonstrate patterns we are partial to, or as the renowned economist Ronald H. Cause once said: “If you torture the data long enough, it will tell you anything.”
The Case for Digital Marketing
You can’t improve what you can’t measure
Any advancement that you can measure, be it revenues, productivity or number of employees, is what drives business forward. Digital marketing provides a clear understanding of what works and what needs fixing. It’s astounding to think that for generations, marketing was so expensive (up front) and offered so little in the way of clear return on investment. The tools and technology that are now part of digital marketing allow us to reach the relevant people with the relevant message, while eliminating redundant costs. (How many of viewers of a dogfood ad on TV actually have a dog?)
It elevated the whole marketing industry
For a long while, marketing was seen as an important but not crucial function. It was the realm of the ‘creative folks’ and not of the people who actually built the business. Digital marketing matured the entire advertising industry and made marketing accountable. Unlike with traditional marketing’s elusive ROI, with digital marketing, it suddenly became clear where money was going and how much of it was earned in return – the same as any other business function. Marketing was invited to the big boys table and, as a result, became more influential, more professional, enjoyed increasing budgets and bigger staff.
It opened up opportunities
Traditional marketing was thought of as an operation that only takes effect once the product was ready to launch. In contrast, digital marketing (or more specifically product marketing) is thought of as part of an ongoing process in which feedback is collected and product improvements are made continuously. Through marketing data (i.e., how many people have reacted to a specific message or product), customers get to influence the products they consume.
This integration of marketing into the company’s core business is key to the rise of many online giants. For companies like Booking.com, the optimization of marketing reach is what determines their revenue. The publishing industry’s revenue is comprised of the gap between the cost of acquiring a user and the money that can be made during their stay on a website (ads, subscription, etc.). There is a whole subset of businesses that drive traffic to other sites for a portion of revenue. Their whole operation is nothing but online marketing.
Digital marketing also opened up new opportunities for small and medium business, where traditional marketing offered very few options for a local business. Digital marketing enhances the voice and precision of any interested individual for any budget and with minimal know-how.
The Bottom Line: Humans are more complex than marketing data (exclusively drawn from the past) would suggest. But data provides metrics that are crucial for managing advancement, suggesting there may be an advantage in combining both traditional and digital marketing. Use creatives to generate unique insights and data to measure their effectiveness. Use data to understand what people really want (as opposed to what they say they want) and then creatively devise ways to act on that knowledge.
Disclaimer: The Author Is the Founder of The Perspective.