5 questions every digital marketer should ask themselves

“Don’t mistake activity for achievement.” That’s what John Wooden, the Hall of Fame coach who won a record ten national basketball championships at UCLA, used to tell his players.

I think this is precisely the trap that too many brands and sadly, too many agencies have fallen into. They’re making lots and lots of stuff against complex user journeys, optimized for multiple channels and touchpoints, and automated to target the “right person, right place, at the right time.” But most of it’s completely forgettable. Too many marketers have abandoned the real work of building brands, believing “digital transformation” alone is a magic wand.

To be clear, I don’t think digital itself is the problem, and I’m not suggesting that brands pull back on their digital spends and invest more in, say, broadcast. What I’m saying is that, with the industry’s zeal for data-driven marketing, many have lost sight of what builds brands--big ideas and pervasive creativity across what a brand says, what a brand does, and what a brand makes.

With that in mind, here are five questions for digital marketers to ponder about the work they’re doing.

Are you connecting with people emotionally or just pushing out offers?

Yes, the world has changed, but human nature hasn’t.

Human beings aren’t solely rational — you can’t win them over with facts alone. You need to make them feel something — especially if you’re in a competitive or commoditized category. And the problem is digital, by nature, tends to be rational and transactional. It’s tough, if not impossible, to forge an emotional connection solely through those types of messages. When was the last time a banner ad made you laugh? Or an email moved you to tears? Or a tweet gave you a sense of wonder? I’ll wait.

Are you talking about things people care about or just talking about yourself?

I’ve got some bad news: no one cares about your products and services.

Even the most loved brands — the Apples, Nikes and Patagonias as an example — don’t prattle on about their products constantly. In fact, part of the reason they’re loved is they don’t. In a streaming world, you can’t buy people’s attention; you have to earn it. And one of the ways to obtain it is to talk about things they care about. For decades, Dove spoke about little else but their product. But then they started talking women’s perceptions of themselves — the “Real Beauty” campaign — and that had a profound impact on their brand and our culture.

Are you showing up in unexpected places and ways, or just in the same channels and formats everyone else is?

There are more channels today than ever — I’d argue too many.

People are getting bombarded with boring, intrusive messages everywhere they turn, so they’re tuning them out. But if you can find an entirely new and unexpected way to reach an audience, in an unexpected place, it has a huge impact. Look at how phenomenally successful “Meet Graham” and “Fearless Girl” were. Today, thinking creatively about where a message goes and what form it takes is as important as crafting the message itself.

Are you making things that people like to use or just making ads?

It’s especially hard today to get people to listen to your brand, so try getting them to interact with it.

One of my favorite campaigns of all time is Ogilvy France’s “Smarter Cities” work for IBM, in which a core brand idea manifested itself as small physical improvements to cities in the form of out of home installations. Or what about a digital product, like SPG’s Keyless, Nike+, or Starbucks’ Mobile Order & Pay? Or do something that’s just for kicks--like KFC’s nail polish or the recent Mario Day celebration on Google Maps. Make the message a thing.

Are you taking meaningful actions that build your brand or just creating messaging?

Today, people expect a greater degree of transparency and authenticity from brands.

They also appreciate it when brands take real-world actions on issues they care about that reinforce the brand’s values. Consider Airbnb’s bold effort to take in 100,000 refugees. Or Patagonia suing Trump for shrinking national parks. And look at the brand-building power of REI closing their stores on the most significant retail day of the year and building an advertising campaign around it: #OptOutside. Brands that do often beat brands that just say today.

Take stock of everything you’re doing. Don’t fall into the trap making boatloads of “content” to use a favorite David Ogilvy phrase, that passes like a ship in the night. “Content” doesn’t build brands — big ideas do. In the digital age, it’s critical not to confuse activity with achievement.

John Long is group creative director at Ogilvy & Mather in New York City. Read Long's opinion on why creatives should start working with pen and paper.

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