The 'build it and they will come' cliche has been put to the sword. So, digital marketers, why do you keep building?

Build it and they will come? Not so, writes John Allert

John Allert, group brand director of McLaren, asks if marketers, in their quest to create effective branded content, have overlooked the other crucial elements of the marketing mix.

Such is the dynamism of digital marketing that the lexicon we use to describe it seems to evolve faster than the technology itself.

The latest industry terms go from cutting edge to passé in less time than it takes to jump from outer space. ‘Digital content’ has become as generic a term as ‘marketing’, while the term ‘viral’ feels about as current as the ‘world wide web’.

Digital marketing initiatives once celebrated as benchmarks are becoming anachronistic before we’ve truly understood whether they even worked. Remember Old Spice? Amazing number of views, but it already seems so last year. The rules have changed so quickly that agencies and clients (particularly clients) are struggling for breath – while many of our finance and purchasing colleagues are struggling even to comprehend. And yet we all know that opting out of the digital content race is no longer an option. The problem is many of us don’t know (or can’t articulate) why, exactly.

Oh, for the good old days. The construct of old world advertising was always so simple. The task itself wasn’t, but the construct was. And terrestrial TV made it so much neater. It was a matter of picking your target demographics, then the programmes and slots all but determined themselves. Let’s not forget the media commissions we paid for this laborious task...

Effective adverts, we were taught, needed a call to action, and more often than not that call would result in (real) foot traffic, or perhaps, daringly, a telephone order.

The battlefield was creativity, and unsurprisingly, some stunning and memorable adverts resulted.

So much has changed, and so much stays the same. Well for some, or so it seems.

Unfortunately, and somewhat incomprehensibly, some marketers seem to have carried the old model into the brave, not so new world. Certainly a quick trawl of the web seems to suggest as much. ‘Make branded content, post it on YouTube’ seems to have become an alarmingly common strategy.

YouTube has long since claimed dominance in video hosting – latterly becoming not only benign über-host but active media partner, content originator and publisher, media agency extraordinaire and world’s second largest search engine to boot. Of course, plugging the might of Google into its back office hasn’t exactly hurt, but even so, what it has managed to achieve in the period since is mighty impressive, by any definition. It is, quite genuinely, threatening the viability of television, in its traditional form.

Whilst the timing of YouTube’s acquisition by Google could be seen as fortuitous, given the subsequent roll out of 4G and the associated rush to pump dense data through handsets, one has to pay full respect to YouTube for seeding the very phenomenon from which it will benefit most.

In so doing it has written the perfect epilogue to Gladwell’s ‘Tipping Point’. Clearly not the first to do so in the world of digital, but by far the most impressive, YouTube has conceived and created a global ‘tipping point’ – and built a near monopoly in order to be its greatest beneficiary.

I wonder how many of today’s careers counsellors suggest a life of content publishing? And yet, at YouTube’s recent Tune In event in London, it became plainly evident that the ‘TV channels’ of yesterday are being usurped (both in viewership and ad revenues) by living room based privateers armed only with digital cameras and good ideas. One of them, on stage at the event, was asked to describe the core demographics of her ‘channel’ viewership (numbering in the millions). No sign of alphabet based caricatures here. ‘I just think of them like my best friends’ was her reply. Millions of likeminded best friends.

And that’s the point.

If ever it was needed, digital marketing has put to the sword the old cliché of ‘build it and they will come’. Because they won’t. Sadly they don’t. And yet many of us keep building regardless.

Consequently we’ve played straight into the hands of our sceptical finance and purchasing colleagues. Remember the phrase ‘only half of my advertising works – the problem is I don’t know which half’? Digital marketing is so much more brutal, and our failings are quantified and on show for the world to see. But for the smart ones in this sector, the new phrase should be ‘only 10 per cent of my digital marketing works, but at least I know which 10 per cent... and I’m well on my way to knowing why.’

The problem is, too many of us have forgotten (and some never learned) the other elements of the marketing mix. Good old fashioned stuff like events, products, packaging, retail experiences and so on, which together with meaningful digital touch points provide not only greater opportunities for differentiation – but more sustained, emotionally enriching experiences as well.

Content marketing agency Seven found recently that 57 per cent of people feel more positive about brands that generate content for them – splendid stuff, but that’s still only half way through the purchase funnel. There’s no arguing that branded content/entertainment/call it what you will has captured the hearts, and some minds, of us all, but did we perhaps move on too quickly from the now antiquated sounding ‘integrated marketing’?

Awesome content isn’t hard to find, nor is it remarkable that people feel predisposed to those who generate it. Why wouldn’t they? It is, after all, today’s equivalent of ‘light entertainment’ TV. Honda, Oreo, Johnnie Walker, Adidas and Coke are just some of the brands that have entertained us well with clever content. But what has distinguished them all as clever marketing per se, has been their follow through into the more traditional parts of the marketing mix – underpinned by clear brand relevance.

Maybe it's time for everything old to be new again?

This piece was first published in The Drum's 25 October Digital Media supplement, which was focused on the opportunities around online video

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