Channel Bias, Or Why “Digital Marketing” Is A Farce

There is no shortage of jargon in marketing, advertising and branding. In fact, business communication is peppered with terms that have such divergent definitions that they’ve become all but meaningless. In any given client meeting, or on any given brief, words and phrases like “digital”, “web”, “online”, “mobile”, “interactive”, “social media”, “socialCRM”, “digital PR”, “new media” and others get thrown around liberally even when the likelihood is great that the sender and recipient define those terms differently.

Every time a new technology or platform gets introduced into the communication mix we get lured into believing we need a new strategy or approach. We start believing we need to rethink the principles of communication. I think this is a big mistake. This is why…

Marketing, branding and advertising is all, fundamentally, communication. Whether it’s internally or externally focused, business communication and therefore all marketing, branding and advertising can be simplified to a set of 4 building blocks:

Content, delivered through a Channel, to some semblance of Community, with a Commercial objective.

Content, Channel, Community, Commerce.

This model adequately describes everything from a 30 second spot aired on TV to a tweet published from a branded Twitter account, to a billboard on the side of the M1 highway. The only difference is that some channels allow for dialogue with the community that receives the content, whereas others are strictly a broadcast medium. If a channel allows for dialogue, then Conversation (or the ability to converse) becomes critical – a 5th building block and arguably the only “new” one.

Conversation, or at least the need to converse, reminds us that if nothing else, the social era of business has forced companies to acknowledge the individuality and humanity of their staff and customers. In a world where pretty much everything is commoditised and customers have a wealth of choice, companies are finding it harder to differentiate on price and product and are left with only personality as a competitive differentiator. Put simply, in today’s world a brand’s ability to converse – to differentiate – lies in is its ability to scale humanity.

All great marketing, brand and advertising campaigns can be traced back to content that was contextual, relevant, interesting and shareable. Whether we’re remembering the Cremora “It’s not inside, it’s on top” tagline from decades ago or the latest Old Spice “I’m on a horse” viral video of months ago, the essence of the success of those campaigns was truly brilliant content. In most of these instances the channel is all but irrelevant.

Why then, as agencies and clients, do we have an inexplicable channel bias? It seems all the attention and focus of budgets, strategies and ultimately execution revolves around the channel, the platform, the technology! We call ourselves “digital marketing” agencies and “social media” experts and “mobile media” sales people – defining ourselves by the channel. Is it that we haven’t evolved our thinking as quickly as the environment has evolved, or is it that the intrigue of the channel has us focused on the wrong things, or is it simply that where there is mystery, there’s margin, and agencies are happy to capitalise on the hype?

When we focus on the channel, we almost always do so at the expense of content, community and commerce (and conversation).

We assume putting a video on YouTube will inherently make it viral (as if YouTube has some magical power that transforms crappy content into something interesting)… Channel comes before content.

We assume that because there are a billion people on Facebook, having a Facebook page will make us popular and “liked”, as if every user with a Facebook account spends all day looking for branded content to read… Channel comes before community.

We pour millions into a TV ad, not because we know for sure people see the it, like it or actually buy something after viewing it, but rather because the marketing director before us did. And the marketing director before them… Channel comes before commerce. And common sense, in this case.

I’m not saying TV is not a viable channel. I’m saying making an ad because of some legacy budget allocation or a director’s decision in the 80s is not commercially smart. Same goes for that “microsite” (whatever that is), app or Twitter account you’re planning.

Very few of our clients at Cerebra have a content problem. even the most boring brands produce extraordinary quantities of content. The bigger issue is how effectively that content is collected, repurposed and contextualised for communication. So, brands don’t have a content problem, they have a storytelling problem. We are starting to work harder on helping clients effectively collect and package their existing content. And when we do, they win.

We also know that every client has communities. Whether we’re aware of them or not, whether we’ve quantified them or not, every company we work with has communities of existing customers, potential customers, employees, investors, stakeholders, influencers, media, etc. What we don’t do very well is understand what drives those communities, how they function and what they really want. The industry lacks community intelligence – something we all need to work toward fixing.

I believe that when agencies and clients start focusing on creating remarkable content (being great storytellers) and understanding communities (understanding measurement, intelligence, research, insight, data), the channel is the easy part. In fact I’d go so far as to suggest that when you have the content and community parts right (and you’ve considered the commercial objective), the communication will work on ANY channel.

And yet, we still have “digital marketing” agencies. Or “social media” specialists. All the focus on the channel, zero on the content or the community.

If I were you, spending hundreds of millions on marketing, branding and advertising, I’d be thinking about holding my communication partners accountable to their understanding and competency in and of content and community, and their ability to show a real commercial result, outcome or benefit on a consistent basis.

Here’s another thought. Perhaps there should only be three kinds of agency partners:

1. Those that specialise in content aggregation, creation and publishing.

2. Those that specialise in “community intelligence” (or research, insights and data).

3. Those that specialise in a channel, or technology, or platform. These will likely be developers, engineers, technicians. Their job is exclusively to build a solid platform (be it a billboard or a website) for the delivery of content.

And then the client’s job is to measure commercial success, and scale conversation.

I think marketing, advertising and branding falls over when specialists in content, community and channel try to eat each other’s cooking. It is only the vary rare agency that has managed to resource for all pillars, and avoid the temptation of establishing departments by channel – i.e. truly achieve the promise of being “full service”.

I challenge you to simplify your business communications to these four (or five when we throw conversation in) pillars, and watch it transform the effectiveness of your campaigns, your relationships with your agencies, their relationships with each other, and the market’s response to your brand.

As always, I’m interested in hearing your thoughts and comments!

  • Melissa Attree

    Fantastic post Mike. Viva more strategic and creative content thinking and less tunnel-vision channel obsession. You touch on the point of the importance of conversation and community building. I’m still surprised by the large number of companies and brands who don’t ask their customers and stakeholders what they need or want.

    As an ex (arrogant?) traditional marketer, I’m sadly not surprised however, the old school doctrine of “we know what they want, and based on our LSM, history and usage research we know what we need to give them…. to meet our product targets and their ‘needs'” still applies for many.

    Great content drives interesting conversations that highlight valuable user insights…insights that could drive product dev and marketing initiatives.

    The modern marketing custodian needs to be brave enough to ask, for the most part the loyal customer knows your product, service or brand far better than you do. Use your databases and find out what your customers need and want. Venture out of the controlled research test group and embrace the natural conversation.

  • wwwynand_za

    Great post.

    I find it rather frustrating to be labelled as a “digital strategist”. What I do should not be limited to a set of channels, but rather a set of strategic and conceptual abilities. From a strategic and conceptual point of view, clients would hardly ever trust the “digital strategist” as “he can only understand Facebook and websites”. Sigh.

    The greatest brands in the world are the greatest because they value ideas more than channels. They also have a pretty good understanding of the C’s as described in your post.

  • John Ginsberg

    Mike, I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest that channel or domain specialisation is a “farce” as you call it. Not everyone is involved at the creative/storytelling level, although I’m sure many suppliers to the industry would prefer to be. That doesn’t negate the need for specialists across the board to assist and be involved in communicating the message once it is conceived.

    To use your example of Cremora’s “It’s not inside, it’s on top”, that particular example only works in one channel – TV. I’m sure when you think of the ad, you imagine the confused gent staring frustratingly inside his fridge for the Cremora, only to find out it’s sitting on top. However that same message translates poorly if you consider only its audio qualities, and certainly wouldn’t scale to a 140 character message on Twitter, nor a tiny square banner on Facebook. Hell, I’d imagine it wouldn’t even work as a YouTube pre-roll ad, nor as a website splash screen. You need a full 15 seconds to fully appreciate the cleverness of the campaign, and most likely have to see it 7-15 times before it even makes sense.

    Channel or domain experts are essential in order to help convert the core story into a format that works within each channel it is distributed on. I’d go as far as to say that poor executions by agencies only show how the storytellers can sometimes get it wrong, even when the message itself is spot on for the audience.

    • Hey John. Valid points and thanks for the feedback. As far as I know the Cremora ad did flight on radio too ;) And I’m not sure I agree, I see iterations of that ad working well on most channels, as long as TV leads strongly. But can we agree to disagree?

      • John Ginsberg

        Yes, the Cremora ads ran on radio, but they established themselves on TV first. I doubt they would have worked had they started as a radio ad. Besides, those were the heydays of advertising where the whole family gathered around the TV at 8pm on a Monday night to watch Knight Rider, and sat patiently through commercials.

        The best example to illustrate your point is the recent Oreo tweet during the Superbowl blackout. The tweet successfully extended the brand’s story, but I doubt it was done by the same team responsible for their TV ads. No doubt a dedicated social media specialist team (still backed by the central brand team) saw the opportunity and took it.

        Sadly this is the exception rather than the rule. Most agencies take on too much and end up succeeding at only a handful of executions rather than the full spectrum of channels available to them.

        So I agree with your premise that story telling is important, but disagree that channel specialists are not as important, if not more so, in getting the story told successfully.

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  • I know that the folks over in Seattle and Phily, who I believe are leaps and bounds ahead in this market space, chime on about this often – content is the key and with great content comes community/sales/traffic, effectively what ever you are looking for. One area that I’m naturally biased about is SEO, and although content IS king, having a correct foundation that is optimised assists strongly with that great content being amplified into my people’s visions. But yes, at the end of the day, questioning how we hide behind channel names is most certainly a great question and I can really only boil it down to clever marketers who know how to spin buzz words into money making opportunities and/or psychologists who study the way consumers consume names into an understandable medium.

  • zk

    Great post Mike.

    I agree in terms of understanding our roles are beyond the channels, but to an extent a ‘strategist’, for example needs to have an understanding of the various mediums, not specifically digital or ATL, but anywhere.

    We are all communicators, but our choice of medium to communicate on differs. Therefore we should look beyond the mediums and understand the message and story we want to tell and then look at which medium hosts the people we’re looking for.

    Strategy and content is key, but with these two, one needs an understanding on the other variables. Personally we need to think beyond channels, especially since people are fickle in nature and can so easily move between channels.

  • I think with marketing being as broad a term as it is, setting yourself apart as a channel or content specialist is not really a bad thing.
    A car needs a road to drive on and road signs that guide the driving process and together they’re known as a transportation system. But the car is not the transportation system and neither are the road signs.
    Digital Marketing can perhaps be seen as the “hatchback” of this transportation system, with Content Marketing being the luxury sedan and TV advertising being the SUV. Nobody calls an SUV a car just because it drives on a road and the driver obeys road signs. In fact no one calls a Porsche or a Ferrari a car. They call it a Porsche. They call it a Ferrari.

    Digital Marketing. Same thing.

  • This is a really good tip particularly to those fresh
    to the blogosphere. Short but very accurate info… Thank you for sharing this one.

    A must read article!

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