Digital Marketing: still a disappointment

As a result of a few changes at work, I’ve been paying a lot more attention to digital marketing of late.

And while I’ve enjoyed my time doing it, the experience has only served to worsen my opinion of digital marketing practice as a whole. You see, I held out great hopes for digital marketeers, that their motives for doing what they do were honourable. But it turns out they aren’t. Well not really anyway.

I’ve found that most people who have a UX background have a sort-of humanist approach to their work. What motivates them – apart from the attraction of using a Macbook Pro and an iPhone as a WORK thing – is a fundamental belief that what they do will impact positively on people’s lives. It’s an unfortunate reality that there are so many lame UX tasks to be getting on with at a lot of companies and agencies that it’s rare you get the opportunity to work on something like that. But I think this is why a lot of UX people frequently move on, or work in agencies – it’s the grass-is-greener opportunity to have a significant enough impact on the world.

I went into my stint working more closely with Digital Marketing people expecting their motivations to be match those of UX people. The received wisdom is that there’s a ton of innovation going on in this space, I thought, so surely there is some common ground with UX that focuses on customer behaviours? Surely that can be the shared agenda?

Mind you, I was not entirely blind to what digital marketing was all about either. Here’s a brief summary of how I felt about some core digital marketing topics on my way in, as it were:

  • Paid Search (PPC): number crunching dressed up as persuasive advertising. It’s not. It’s navigation.
  • Search Engine Optimisation (SEO): tinkering with content and front end code in order to game Google. Focuses on the wrong things (not customers, but search engines).
  • Online display advertising: Trying to interrupt people who don’t want or need to be interrupted with a Flash banner that jumps in front of them. Creative agencies claiming creativity through work that was out of date in 1996 (did I ever tell you about Antirom?)
  • Affiliates: hi-tech con artists who would sooner sell your grandmother than promote your business with a win-win impact on both themselves and your business. As one presenter I heard recently said, “If your affiliates manager is not making three times their salary moonlighting on the side, you’ve got the wrong person”. So, proceed with caution.
  • Social media: Trying to create a new industry out of a technology looking for a marketing problem. A grad school for junior copywriters with inadequate management and leadership.

Of course you can look at any number of business or marketing or design disciplines with a similarly skewed, negative perspective. (Please be my guest, I’d enjoy that.) Digital marketing is far from being alone in having its ‘dark side’. Indeed I explored the travel industry’s dark side in a previous post. However in amongst my cynicism I still clung on to the optimistic view that there was lots of creativity and innovation in the field.

I was hopeful for a number of reasons:

  1. Digital marketing is notoriously measurable. To the nth degree. This is not all good, of course. Measurement in and of itself does not bring about better, more relevant, more targeted and more authentic marketing. However when you’ve got a measuring stick at least you’ve got something with which you can beat yourself up. Over time, used wisely, the data should be able to make very definite hints as to whether you’re doing it right or doing it wrong. UX people like to think they can measure impact, but it’s the marketers that are leading the charge. And it’s been that way for quite a while in my view.
  2. Digital marketing is becoming more about the marketing mix rather than the marketing channel. This is hopeful because it means marketeers are starting to consider the whole experience rather than a series of one-off activities (to justify to their finance director). By looking at activity that not only drives conversions, but also drives awareness and engagement, and looking at these in a holistic manner, you’re getting to a place where UX and Marketing can talk with a shared language.
  3. Social media is changing the way marketeers are being forced to look at marketing. Those who still think measuring social media through a. conversions b. clicks or visitors to a main brand site or c. ‘likes’ on a Facebook page are missing something. Ironically, social media is easily measurable in ways that are almost totally irrelevant to business impact. So it’s forcing a new type of thinking amongst marketing that is refreshing and asks the question – what is my brand really *for*? This type of thinking is also useful to UX people.

So as I say I did go into this experience rather battle-scared but optimistic for the future. Here’s how my views changed over the past few months:

  • Paid search (PPC): Fundamentally, paid search ads are still just navigation. AdWords is designed to line Google’s pockets, nothing more. But as paid navigation it does work. Nevertheless, the games that PPC marketeers play with Google, with customers and with competitors are so duplicitous as to obscure what really makes PPC work and what can “optimise your spend”. Effectively, for a lot of brands, the best optimisation technique is brand awareness through offline advertising. Instead though, many PPC people just focus on their channel. They optimise it into the ground. When the only tool you have in your toolbox is Google AdWords, every marketing problem looks like a paid search problem.
  • Search Engine Optimisation (SEO): I lived through two Google algorithm updates and a couple of our brands were affected. Not overly dramatically, but enough to be worried about. What I learned from that experience is SEOs tend to focus on the algorithm, and their techniques to build links and high quality content tend not to be focussed on what customers want but on what a search engine deems important. And search engines will always lag behind customer needs. Still a missed opportunity.
    But there are valid elements to current SEO practice. Google’s focus on placing G+ pages within the SERPs on brand terms, YouTube videos and local listings provide opportunities to boost awareness based on targeted content. Largely though, these areas are designed much like PPC to line Google’s pockets. Sad.
  • Online display: It is still about interruption. But the data provided from display impressions can inform an overall online marketing mix approach, by looking at the influence of the channel on other channels and the path to conversion. This is interesting, but sad in that generally, it’s still not a useful form of advertising.
  • Social media: I hold social media in higher esteem because I think from a brand experience perspective it can provide a genuinely useful adjunct to a brand’s online presence. But it’s not about sales. It’s about personality first and foremost and then it’s about service. There’s a few social media people who need to come down off their high horse talking about value in terms of revenue and talk about value in terms of brand. And link that strategy to their CRM approach in a wider way. That approach is not yet widespread as far as I can tell.

Ultimately the main opportunity for excitement in digital marketing rests somewhere within the data… BIG DATA. If marketers can really unlock the opportunity for joining up commercial data, customer data and online data in an efficient manner, that’s going to have a huge impact. But this means they need to look beyond traditional marketing channels and really embed themselves in their businesses. Doing that though, would really mean they can live up to the hype.

Until then, I await further instruction.

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