It goes without saying that the Internet and the digital revolution have reshaped nearly every aspect of business, but one of the industries which has been most impacted is marketing. Marketing and advertising tactics went for nearly a century with only minimal revision, which led to a lot of agencies becoming a bit complacent.
Then when the digital revolution hit and totally reshaped how consumers and brands interacted, most marketers were caught completely off-guard. Even now, after 10-20 years to adjust, the industry is only beginning to get its bearings again and start embracing the potential in electronic data.
Understanding such trends is at least as important as a company’s own data handling practices. Data must have context to be relevant or useful, and in this case, that context is how the marketing landscape has changed in recent decades. So, let’s take a brief look at how the Internet and big data have shifted advertising and marketing, and how that may impact brands going forward.
Let’s start with one of the best new changes. Finally, after over a century, it’s possible for advertisers to actually start getting a handle on the ROI of their efforts. All-digital outreach efforts – such as banner ads, emails, and website hits – are inherently trackable, down to the level of individuals. Better yet, many offline forms of outreach are also trackable. It’s increasingly common for magazine ads or physical mailers to include barcodes for the lead to interact with – which, again, means being able to concretely track response rates in a way never before possible. It’s finally possible to demonstrate, with hard numbers, the value of your efforts. And to keep the positives rolling, let’s talk about…
As the 20th Century pushed onwards and the number of products on the market continued to grow, product differentiation became increasingly difficult. Worse, all too often they were basically parity products. When a typical supermarket had literally dozens of soap brands on the shelves, how does a soap-marketer ever manage to draw in a steady customer base? You can’t always compete on price alone. Now, brands can compile massive databases on their customers as a whole, and start deriving real insights into why a particular customer prefers Ivory vs Irish Spring. (Or any other brand comparison.) This, in turn, lets them focus their outreach efforts in a far more targeted way, crafting specific brand images and messaging the buyers most likely to embrace that image. Such “image” differentiation was previously the purview of high-end brands, but now it’s a tool available for nearly any agency.
There’s a lesser-known ad man from the 1960s we think more modern advertisers should know about: Howard Luck Gossage. Dubbed “The Socrates of San Francisco,” he spent his career crafting extremely eccentric and idiosyncratic ads which were also extremely effective. He famously despised most traditional “push” marketing methods and even penned entire op-eds explaining why billboards are terrible (PDF). He instead focused on creating advertisements which – get this – customers would actually enjoy. Unsurprisingly, Madison Avenue didn’t like him either. However, looking back after 50 years, he seems downright prophetic. He understood the importance of getting the public to not just buy a brand, but to genuinely like that brand. Today, this idea has become the very core of both content marketing and social media marketing, turning advertising on its head by putting the customers first. If you have an opportunity, read his ads or the books written about him. You will undoubtedly find inspiration. Which is good because…
There is, of course, also a dark side to the increase of big data in marketing, and the corresponding increase in the number of advertisements in general – buyers are becoming apathetic, desensitised, or even hostile towards advertising. In particular, among the younger buyers (<40 or so), advertising is distrusted, if not outright despised. This means it is extra important to find ways to get buyers on your side. That’s why social media matters so much. That’s why creating good YouTube content matters so much. That’s what makes the difference between a brand only purchased when it goes on sale and a brand with online ambassadors who are genuinely enthusiastic about it. You can uncover these trends using customer data and buying habits, but it still takes genuine human insights and creativity to find ways into your buyers’ hearts.
Finally, let’s look just a little bit into the future because we think one of the most remarkable changes to marketing – brought on by the Internet and big data – is often going unremarked upon. The movement of brands towards being their own media channels. Throughout the 20th Century, brands might sponsor a radio or TV show or even video game, but they were just leasing time on someone else’s content. Now, with the rise of blogs and Twitter and YouTube, you can be your own channel. Some brands have been spectacularly successful at this, creating blogs or video series full of entertaining and informative content, which is watched and enjoyed by large audiences. Even small businesses can rack up hundreds of thousands of followers if their content is good. If we were to make one prediction for the future of digital marketing, it’s that the brands which will succeed in the next 10-20 years will be those who truly understand the implications of this paradigm shift, and move to embrace it. Why rent air-time on other people’s content when you can just make your own – and make it any content you like?
So that’s where we are today – decisions are driven by data, shifting the market, and shifting customer responses in the process. Those who can see the trends adapt, and make data work for them will succeed.