Are advertising campaigns really extinct?

I have just read a rather extraordinary whitepaper. According to customer experience “experts” SDL.com, advertising campaigns are extinct. This is because “Digital channels, social media and mobile communications have fundamentally changed the way consumers interact with brands”.

This is a well worn argument and one that many digital evangelists have promoted since the early 1990s. But it is not a valid argument.

SDL start by saying that “customers orchestrate their own experiences, no longer following pre-determined, linear routes from exposure to conversion to advocate”. This statement is absurd. Obviously people need to be exposed to a product before they purchase it (even if that exposure is merely seeing it on a shop’s shelf), and certainly before they become an advocate. A “linear route” is an inevitable component of any behaviour that results in a sale.

Apparently though, the sales funnel is extinct and “marketing success depends on customers seeing, engaging with – and sharing – your content within their trusted social networks”. I don’t deny that content marketing is effective. It’s not exactly new after all (it was being used 150 years ago). But it’s not the only route to success; indeed it’s probably not even the most effective route to success in most cases. Direct response marketing still works, as does buying shelf space in a shop, and (dare I whisper it) mass market advertising.

But, as SDL say, “No one is waiting to be wooed by elaborate campaigns”. Were they ever? Well, yes, I suppose they were once but we haven’t had a supply economy since the 1960s. Perhaps SDL haven’t noticed.

Even old fashioned digital channels such as search marketing and email are dismissed by SDL. Instead, millennials, we are told, “typically discover new and interesting things online” via social networks. I am sure they do. So do I. After all using search or reading your email inbox wouldn’t be a very efficient way of doing this. But just because social media is a popular way of discovering new things, that doesn’t mean email and other outbound marketing techniques don’t work as marketing channels for existing products.

Oh, and we shouldn’t assume that because social media is a great way of discovering new things online, that it is impossible to tell people about new things off line, for instance via TV ads – after all we all watch TV (even millennials) and the vast majority of TV is watched live so you can’t skip the ads.

What does this mean for marketing? According to SDL, you should “Begin by focusing on the personalized experiences your customers want – not campaigns. Make it a priority to build customer experiences that are ongoing, consistent, meaningful and mutually-rewarding”. Well, yes of course a good experience is what customers want – although I think it would be hard for most brands to build “personalised” experiences: how would you do that for the 900 million people who ate Heinz Baked Beans in the last year for example? (Proud to be one of that number.) “Campaigns”, not personalised experiences, are the only way for almost all brands to reach the maximum number of prospective customers.

But it’s all about trust, I hear SDL say. After all “49% of consumers don’t trust digital ads; 38% don’t trust emails; and 36% don’t trust information in branded apps.” I am sure that’s true (in fact I am surprised the figures are so low), and I am sure that similar figures would be found for TV ads and posters. That’s not really the point. A lack of trust in a brand’s advertising doesn’t mean it will be dismissed from a consumer’s consideration set.

In fact SDL seems to be saying that millennials are different from the rest of us and have discovered that advertising doesn’t always tell the whole truth. So anyone in their 30s upwards believes everything they see on the TV then? Hmmm…

Oh dear, there is so much to take issue with in this shrill and deceptive whitepaper. It repeats so many of the things I have heard at digital marketing conferences over the last 20 years. When, when, when will people in content marketing, social media and digital generally have the confidence to accept that, while digital channels are important, they sit alongside existing techniques, and don’t replace them?

Sorry, I just had to get that off my chest.

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Measuring social media engagement

Facebook engagement rates fall as your fan base gets higher. At first sight that seems odd. But of course it isn’t.

Most people tend to engage with brands infrequently on social media. Seduced by a particular post they may “Like” it on a whim, but then stay away from your page. They have little motivation to comment on or share other posts unless they are real fans. And of course unless you are spending serious money, chances are they won’t see those other posts.

So most Facebook “engagements” come from people who have recently become fans. The larger your fan base, the longer your “average” fan has been with you; and because of that, larger fan bases have lower engagement rates.

This is a problem for people using a common metric for evaluating social media effectiveness: the formula “Likes + Share + Comments / Fans” as it can make it look as though your campaigns are getting worse over time.

So how can you evaluate effectiveness on Facebook and other social media platforms? There are a couple of ways.

First there are some comparative measures. For instance you might want to compare engagement rate of different types of posts or different campaign themes. This won’t solve the problem of lower engagement rates with larger fan bases but it will help you focus on improving your campaigns.

Second you can measure engagement of recent fans. By dividing the number of engagement actions (shares, likes, comments) in any one period by the number of new fans acquired in the same period you will get a useful measure of true engagement that should be comparable across time periods.

Purists might argue that the engagement actions in any one period may be coming from people who became fans in an earlier period. That’s true; but I am not sure it matters much. For a start it is probable (at least, if you are using a period of 1 month rather than 1 day) that the number of actions from “old” fans will be low; but also if you compare different months you will be comparing like with like.

Ultimately though, “engagement” on social media is a measure of limited value. So what if people have engaged with you? What matters is their behaviour. Measuring that by using your web analytics to track visits generated from social media together with dwell time, page depth, loyalty and conversions is a far better way of measuring the effectiveness of your social media campaigns.

Measuring engagement

Many years ago, the on-line marketing industry shot itself in the foot by proclaiming that the web was the only truly measurable medium. It demonstrated this by showing how it was possible to track the viewing of an on-line advert through to a sale.

Great. But marketing has always been a bit more complex than that.

For a start not all media activity needs to end up with a sale in the same medium. And indeed, not all marketing activity needs to end up with an immediate sale (although mostly it will want to deliver a sale at some point).

But the claim had been made. And so a lot of people still expect digital campaigns to lead directly to a measurable increase in on-line sales.

In fact we need a more sophisticated way of measuring the effectiveness of on-line campaigns.

Even the “simple” business of sales attribution isn’t so simple. Many companies still count the last click as being responsible for a sale. And yet the sales journey might have started offline with a TV ad, moved on-line via some video ads, progressed with a search of an advertising strap-line that led to a website, and then ended with a search for a brand that led to the same website and an on-line sale.

Companies like MC&C are experts in attributing sales value across different media. But there is an opportunity to go further. We can also look at measures of effectiveness that are “softer” than sales.

I am talking about brand “engagement”. Measuring this is important for many marketing activities.

For a direct response campaign it is useful to measure engagement as a proxy for value created elsewhere – off line sales or sales at some point in the future.

For TV, press and on-line video ads, effectiveness can show the value of campaigns that aren’t designed to lead to immediate sales. And the same is true of PR and event marketing.

So how can we measure engagement? Well it depends on what we want to measure: brand awareness, brand perceptions, intentions, behaviour? And it depends on the medium.

For offline media it can be difficult to go beyond established methods of pre-and post surveys and surveys looking at brand recall and favourability. There are potentially ways of going beyond this though:

  • social media analysis can give clues about audience reactions, although this can be time-consuming to do properly
  • website analytics may disclose search terms that seem to be related to an offline campaign
  • eye-tracking could be used to identify the degree to which press ads or brand names and logos in TV ads hold the viewer’s attention.

It’s easier with on-line media. Where web display ads, or other marketing activity, generate a click but not a sale there are opportunities to examine a combination of page depth and/or dwell time with return rates: this is because people who stay a long time and return several times are likely to be more engaged with a brand.

More complex measures involving the measurement of accumulated indications of engagement are also possible. These indicators might include:

  • Use of search box for product searches
  • Visits to product pages
  • Downloads of product PDFs or vouchers
  • Abandoned baskets
  • Use of store locator tools

Image a visitor who clicks on two product pages, downloads a product PDFs, and then uses a store locator. They could be assigned a value of 6, derived as 2 (a score of 1 for each product pages) plus 2 (for a pdf download), plus 2 (for using the store locator). In contrast a “busier” visitor who visited five product pages but didn’t download anything and didn’t use the store locator might only be awarded a value of 5.

On-line video provides yet more opportunities. Certain measures are obvious: plays, completed plays, average length of plays, click-through rate. But it is often possible to go further. If a YouTube channel has been set up then you can look at many more indicators such as:

  • Likes
  • Shares
  • Channel subscribers and channel views
  • Feedback and comments
  • Video hotspots

In addition you can gain useful insight from identifying how the video was discovered – embedded in your website, via Google search, via YouTube search etc. And where the source was a visit to your website via Google, tracking the visit back to the search term used may also be valuable.

What would these insights tell you? On their own, perhaps nothing. What does it matter that the average visitor has an engagement score of 7? What does it matter if a video has 9900 “likes” or (beyond a trivial media value) has been shared 136 times?

But if these scores are used as benchmarks then they can indeed be valuable: by comparing data over time it is possible to track back to campaigns and make reasonable assumptions about how particular campaigns have increased engagement; there may also be potential opportunities to relate levels of engagement with sales.

Engagement is a hard thing to measure. But it does have some value. And any attempt to measure this is better that simply saying “I can’t measure it so it must have no value”. To rely solely on media that deliver hard sales data would be to miss out on many valuable opportunities.