The byte fantastic
SMA Question Time
Technology has moved faster than legislation, evolved quicker than the social trends that capitalise on it, and to this day morphs unrecognisably quicker than most marketing heads can get around to working with comfortably.
Virals, social networking and the promise of 3G mobile technology continue to offer new possibilities that are as much a threat if wasted, as they are an opportunity if exploited.
The Scottish Marketing Association convened a panel of digital marketing professionals and online experts to discuss the trials (and occasional tribulations) of the digital frontier with a packed audience of marketeers.
John Campbell of Spider Online chaired the debate and began by pondering whether anything as significant to marketing as the world wide web would be likely to occur again in our lifetimes. The panel largely thought not, and Mike Coulter observed that we are at the point with the internet that television was at in the 1950s.
“Television really didn’t take off until the 1950s with the advent commercial television,” he said. “We are at a similar stage with the web. We are in the very early stages of commercialising the internet, and haven’t a clue where it is going to go.”
Stewart Kirkpatrick, who perhaps comes from the sector most disrupted by the changes in the internet – journalism – argues that a fundamental change in media behaviour has been unleashed by the proactive potential of the digital revolution.
“For years advertising sales have all been based around the idea of the middleman. Now, people can just zoom in on what they are interested in. We are seeing a revolution in the provision, sharing and organisation of information, as world changing as the industrial revolution,” he says.
However, he does caution that there is a very real brick wall coming up that we are in danger of running straight into. “The one important caveat on this is something called the capacity crunch. As we all flood onto youtube, and start downloading videos we start using up all the available space of the pipes underground.
“There is a technological end point for this massive expansion. If that is not dealt with, the game’s a bogey.
“But if things continue as they are, we are not going to see anything like this in marketing, publishing or any other sector in our lifetimes.”
Tip of the iceberg
Scott Howard argues that the rise of mobile accessible internet is the trend that will define our future relationship with the web. He claims that within the next four years the vast majority of the world’s population – as well as the developing world, who have yet to access the internet – will not do it through a PC.
“It will be through mobile in some form or another,” he says. “We are very much at the tip of the iceberg, and as marketers there is a big message there.”
The digital marketing agencies who are going to survive are going to be strategic, long term and forward thinking, according to Eliza Dashwood.
“Outdoor and traditional are not going to disappear, they are going to support digital. The ones that are going to succeed, though, are the ones that see all these things working together. But they are going to be led by digital,” she adds.
Marrying up the best of technical nous with marketing savvy has been the rock upon which some traditional and digital agencies have perished, having failed to get the balance right.
But should we employ designers who are programmers by trade or employ creatives from a traditional background who understand marketing, brand and the client link, Scott Howard asked? The agencies that survive will integrate the best of creative with the best technical knowledge, he says.
“They will take a strong creative lead. Whether as part of an integrated agency, or digital specific, it doesn’t really matter. Those who build it, understand the brand, do the content planning and are able to parcel it up, sell it and see it through effectively will survive, regardless of the roots of the agency.”
Kirkpatrick points out that, whereas once it was impossible to determine which 50 percent of the advertising spend was wasted, the targeting ability of digital technology now makes it possible to demonstrate return on investment to clients, with the success of a strategy being measurable and deliverable all the way down to postcodes. And the success or otherwise can be measured both ways.
“All agencies in the future will be much smaller, more nimble, and rather than having one agency that does everything, you will have coalitions of specialists who will come together for each project or campaign,” he says.
“If you have a mobile campaign and you need creative, video and content, you’ll bring those partners together. This is a rapidly changing landscape and you need to be nimble. The future is all about content. There is no marketing or editorial, no advertising, no PR. There is only what I find when I search for something. If it is not of interest to me, then I move on.”
Underlining the importance of the digital strategy, Scott Howard asked the audience how many of them – from a brand management point of view – now saw their advertising agency as their lead agency. Only one did so.
Despite this, he argues that the oldest principle of marketing – understanding the wants and needs of your customer – remains crucial.
Dashwood agrees, pointing out that the new technology can assist in that, as long as it is embraced, rather than left simply as a forum for customers to exclude companies from.
“The tables have been turned. Thanks to user generated content, it is not now us as marketers saying ‘you will look at what we put out in front of you’, it is about them making choices and listening to what their peers are saying,” she says.
“That’s really scary from the point of view of business. You have to be paying attention and listening to what people are talking about. That is where the shift is happening. We’ll need technology to support that, but the shift is the marketing development.”
One such shift is the rise of search engine optimisation. But while it has been touted by many as the most important tool for internet advertisers, generating traffic itself through SEO is not the key to success. It is all about conversion rates, says Howard.
“If there is interest in the product and people are actively searching for it, then SEO is fundamental. But by building traffic alone, with low levels of conversion, you are building a business that isn’t going to make any money.”
The user interface is pulling brand contact towards people who can control it in their own way, and it is essential for agencies, both digital and traditional, to recognise this.
“We need to relinquish control of our brands to allow them to grow in the new environment,” continues Howard.
“Marketers can’t get their heads round that. It is very scary. For four or five years, online advertising has outstripped traditional advertising on national newspapers. If things are moving, they are moving online. If the crunch is coming it is going to hit the traditional media more.”
But, while it may be only those who are flexible and forward thinking enough that will survive – let alone have the luxury to think about profitability – in such a fluid environment, there is certainly still room for good, old fashioned marketing know how.
Stewart Kirkpatrick – For seven years Stewart was editor of Scotsman.com and is now a director of content marketing agency w00tonomy
John Campbell – Founder, Spider Online
Eliza Dashwood – Eliza is a Business Development Consultant with SEO and Internet marketing consultancy, Ambergreen.
Scott Howard – Founder, Digital aim
Mike Coulter – Former advertising copywriter both in London and Scotland, now runs his own digital marketing and creative consultancy, The Digital Agency.