Kevin Adema
Kevin Adema 3 November 2016

Beware the Digital Candy Aisle

Like many of you reading this article, I’ve spent years handling all sorts of digital campaigns and programs ranging from microsites to social media, loyalty programs to response-based campaigns, and so on. Trust me—I fully understand the lure of adding more and more digital services to your agency services list.

But, as sweet as these services are, agencies risk getting digital cavities, claiming expertise when they can’t deliver or prove results. You need to make sure you take the right steps to keep your agency healthy or you’re only steps away from a not-so-pleasant trip to the “digital dentist’s chair.”

The digital services problem

Doug Levey, co-author of the classic marketing book Can’t Buy Me Like, speaks to marketers bluntly about this change: “What’s absurd is the idea that a complex understanding of yesterday’s reality will be relevant to a radically different tomorrow.”

Yes, the world has changed: yesterday’s marketing [non-digital] and tomorrow’s marketing [digital-first] are radically different. Are you prepared?

To explain this radically different marketing style, it is imperative that the agency understands not just WHAT needs to be done but WHY it happened (tactics vs. strategy).

Not to bore you with a history lesson but to make the shift into digital leadership (vs. digital tactical supplier), we need to step back in time. It all started about 100 years ago when marketing became a subject in business education, most notably at the University of Pennsylvania through their 1905 course, “The Marketing of Products.” This trend saw many developments pushing marketers through the six “ages” of marketing: Product, Sales, Market, Target Market, Response and Social.

The problem, of course, isn’t the development or advancement of marketing, or even the media used to advance the craft (radio, TV, print, CRM, internet, social, etc.). Rather, the problem is that marketing didn’t change its core fundamental approach.

Marketers have been consistently taught mechanisms relying on the classic approaches and frameworks (e.g., the 4 Ps of marketing, etc.). But those approaches simply aren’t yielding the same results in today’s digital marketplace.

Oracle made this reality concrete by citing four main brand problems in today’s digital space:

  • Loss of customer interest
  • Lower conversion and engagement rates
  • Consumer confusion and mistrust
  • Delayed consideration and delayed sales

Yes, the marketing world has changed and agencies had better be ready.

What has digital actually done to marketing?

Until the advent of digital media, marketers were accustomed to simply applying the old approaches to each new media that came along, with only minor adjustments to tactics. With reference to the marketing ages mentioned above, we simply had new channels to reach our audiences while still for the most part using those media to deliver brand messages to the desired customer. Said simply, marketing for the past century has spoken AT customers and then, at different points, brought in research firms, initiatives and programs to figure out what customers were actually saying in reply.

But tomorrow has arrived, and a whole host of digital communications modes and devices has ushered in a new age of marketing. The Dialogue Age, the age of instant, two-way communication, demands new strategies and methods.

The Digital Dialogue Age has changed the role of the agency from focusing on how to sell (4P focus) to focusing on how to inform (dialogue engagement focus). The agency also must focus on developing client brands into trusted authorities, and through digital media (via guides, websites, blogs, social, content streams, etc.) to understand how consumers engage with, speak to and yes, expect to be listened to by brands.

Sales will come when your brand is trusted and is consistent with the information being offered to readers.

The agency opportunity (it’s MASSIVE):

In a recent Forbes survey, “only 32% of brand marketers believe they’re executing an effective digital strategy.” How promising: two out of every three brands are NOT maximizing their potential, opening the door to agencies who truly understand digital marketing.

Echo this with PricewaterhouseCoopers’ (PWC) 2013 worldwide advertising media spend report (all industries) stating that only 17.5% of marketing media investment went toward digital (including wired and mobile).

Digital communications is growing daily in size and impact; but what must agencies actually do to shift their strategy, make a difference and increase returns?

The strategic agency’s role

Marketers must cease relying on yesterday’s approaches and stop speaking AT customers, risking alienation of at least some of the group they are working to attract. Agencies can lead by leveraging digital communications to reach out and speak WITH customers in a fluid conversation.

At its absolute core, the agency of tomorrow must learn to solve the poignant challenge set out in the Cluetrain Manifesto: “The onus will be on organizations [via the agency] to enter the marketplace conversation or risk becoming irrelevant.”

Businesspeople and brand managers are waking up to the reality that marketing is the answer to solving the digital challenge, and if done correctly, marketing will be the strategic growth driver for future success. Through this, there are five key areas where your agency must excel, and five steps you must use to excel in digital.

To excel in the future, agencies must have:

  1. A robust understanding of how digital actually works and how it has radically changed the brand:consumer relationship;
  2. A solid approach to new business focused on digital strategy and not simply picking up new digital-based tactics;
  3. A knowledge of how to segment/profile customers based on digital realities (traditional profiles don’t work);
  4. A strong handle on business intelligence through digital analytics and how to leverage these for sustained loyalty; and
  5. A depth of experience in digital voicing to deliver brands relevantly to the right audience via the right media.

Tom Davenport, world leader in business innovation and knowledge management and Fellow of the MIT Center for Digital Business, says it brilliantly: “The benefits from effectively leveraging data, embedding data into decision making and truly becoming an analytical competitor will apply to any firm in every industry.”

This business intelligence truth applies to you as an agency in how you must deploy any digital program: Listen, Understand and Respond.

  1. Define objectives.
  2. Harvest business intelligence.
  3. Develop strategic assessments.
  4. Guide your clients with data.
  5. Deploy evidence-based decisions.

As you forge your agencies into strategic digital leaders, remember what the great data scientist W. Edwards Deming said:

“Without data you’re just another person with an opinion.”

Digital has undoubtedly changed the game of marketing. Grasp and deploy the new rules and new approaches, and great success will surely follow.

So yes, keep the digital candy coming but make sure you brush regularly.

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