The five commandments of digital marketing

The marketing communications industry world-wide can almost never be accused of jumping the gun. Marketers tend to err on the side of caution, waiting for a more adventurous competitor to make a move, sticking with what they know. Except in the digital space, such caution could have potentially terminal results. It’s a medium that’s left brand, and agency playing catch up, even before a particular aspect of the business has been ‘mastered’, there’s something new and complicated waiting in the wings. For instance, marketers were just getting the hang of display, when search engine optimisation (SEO) was the flavour du jour. SEO is still critical except marketers now need (or want) a social media strategy as well. Here are some lessons from the frontlines of digital marketing which will at least reduce the margin of spectacular failure and at best, deliver enviable results.

Thou shall not treat digital as an afterthought

Digital is often the runt of the litter when it comes to marketing spends. The specialist agencies are called in at the last minute when it dawns on a CMO that the 360-degree plan is perhaps not 360 degree enough. Agencies soldier on trying to retrofit ideas that were never elastic enough to go digital in the first place.

Gautamm Mehra, chief socio-search architect, Ignitee, says, “Both creative people and brand managers can think TV and print ads. Unfortunately, visualising social media and banners does not come as naturally. So we adapt TV commercials on YouTube and print ads on banners in a worst case scenario.”

With digital accounting for just 2% of advertising spends according to Nielsen, we are still a good distance away from a large number of big budget campaigns tailored for the medium. A viral campaign all too often has a budget ` 3 lakh while a TVC’s budget hovers around the ` 30 crore mark. The jury is out on whether this is changing and to what extent. Max Hegerman , president, Tribal DDB prefers to consider retro-fitting a challenge: “It’s difficult if you think ‘we have to transliterate what’s offline into digital.’ But we come up ideas that leverage the strategic direction, idea and objective.”

The first time that Hegerman’s agency hears of a new campaign for Idea is when the client passes on a brief; a different agency (Lowe) handles the creative for the brand. In case of the ‘save paper’ campaign, TV and digital had the same theme and energy but went in different directions. Tribal DDB came up with the idea of acquiring points online to grow a virtual tree.

The activity was spread over both a micro site and Facebook. Points were granted for tasks like sending SMS instead of a fax. Hegerman recalls, “At some point, you could plant a tree in your name. It allowed you to engage with the brand in a way that was meaningful. It captivated people and they were rewarded via give-aways; a blackberry in this case.”

Thou shall not be content with mere followers

If you have ever sat through a presentation on social media, chances are you’ve heard this fairytale ending. “Post activity”, the agency or marketer will tell you, with the smug smile of a conjurer at the fag end of a trick, “we amassed thousands of followers and fans!” Cut to a screen grab from Facebook. And that’s it: the end. We are left to assume they lived happily ever after. Except it is nowhere close to being the end or the truth. In the bubble building around social media, followers cannot be counted as currency except by the very easily impressed.

First off, gathering followers is absurdly simple. They can be bought for as little as Rs 100 a piece. Apart from getting genuine followers, the most challenging part is keeping them consistently engaged and interested. Chhaya Balachandran Aiyer, managing director, BC Webwise admits, “Tackling user generated content in a free and dynamic environment can be a very big challenge.

Even if their campaign on social media worked, they still hesitate to take the next steps. They would rather not give time to this when their immediate KRA is to build business and get sales rather than engage and listen to their target audience.” Too many official fan pages on Facebook and Twitter languish in a horrible limbo; ghost towns of the internet that are slowly being encroached by spammers.

Hegerman of Tribal DDB recommends that brands talk when people are interested and generate even more energy when they are not; a 24 hour-seven days a week-relationship. Especially given opt-outs are very easy on most online platforms. He adds, “If clients have a benchmark of 10,000 fans, it’s like a media buy; we can get them. But what can you do to keep them? A lot of energy is spent getting those names, just to have it dissipate.”

A possible workaround employed by Ignitee is to not accept any social media campaigns that are tactical. It prefers to lock marketers in for year long programmes. The number of followers/fans has acquired such mythic dimensions because it is at least easy to measure. Mehra believes this is a fallacy: “Twitter is more of an influencer than a mass medium. It’s less about number of followers; what’s important is how many retweets are happening, and the sort of people retweeting.

On Facebook we consider numbers, but we should study the ratio of interactions happening vis a vis the fans. Two lakh fans and 30 responses don’t make sense.” Agencies and research firms are struggling to establish metrics. To further complicate matters, brand discussions are not restricted to on-line spaces that marketers sponsor and can control. Says Karthik Nagarajan, director, Nielsen, “discussion boards and review sites are deeply important for people to track.” It’s entirely possible for brands to aggregate vast numbers of fans and followers, at a great cost, even as the most essential discussions, comments and critiques happen elsewhere.

Thou shall learn to measure right

When online advertising first began it was touted as the most measurable medium. That’s become something of an albatross around its neck as it develops and morphs. Rajesh Aggarwal, president, Dentsu India admits, “Clients believe that the only form for measurement on digital is on click-throughs or transfers. It also doesn’t help when digital sales people go around trying to sell click-through deals for brand campaigns; it is easy selling.”

In a previous interview with Brand Equity (see Cash & Clicks, August 18th, 2010), John Burbank, CEO, Nielsen Online observed that brand advertising was being measured using parameters best suited for performance based advertising: “They provide negative feedback to advertisers promoting something that will never get clicked on. This includes a lot of products, particularly those you see on TV. The feedback they get is that ‘you spent a lot of money but have no one clicking on this.’ The natural reaction is ‘why should I spend more?’

Sidharth Rao, CEO, Webchutney agrees “We fail to apply the right metrics to measure the effectiveness of varying executions across different channels. The medium hasn’t matured beyond display/banner ads.” In reality, digital agencies argue that branding, creating buzz, generating traffic and engagement are all distinct objectives that ought to be viewed and measured either independently or in the context of a total online campaign.

Thou shall not be blinded by ‘experience’

At the risk of sounding ageist, the stumbling block that many digital campaigns run up against is people empowered to make decisions who have minimal exposure to or experience with the medium. V Ramani, co-founder and vice chairman of Ignitee observes ,”The average age in our company is 29 years (exclude me, and it goes down substantially).

The average age of marketing people in companies that
resort to digital media as a serious solution is around 29 or 30. The average age of those who are skirting around or are undecided, I guess, should be close to 50, 55 or 60. Should there be a change in the order? Or, should they attend a workshop to get an idea of how they pour serious dollars into media which do not assist their objectives?” For too long, digital is driven and championed by a single person at the marketing side.

Programmes frequently derail or lapse into limbo once this person leaves. Atul Hegde, CEO, Ignitee argues this is changing, “That one person today may be two or three people. Digital is being championed by either people who are on it or sold on it. The senior guys are getting more involved and its only a matter of time before this stops being a problem.”

Thou shall learn the language of the masses

Beautifully crafted long copy ads in English are held up as examples of a Golden Age of Indian advertising only by Luddites. Anyone suggesting that this is the best way to reach a mass audience today, would be laughed right out of the room. Let’s discount for a while the urban teenage audience whose command over the language has been ruined by too much texting.

Even a cursory glance at comments on YouTube and many popular forums online, shows an audience obviously more comfortable speaking in its mother tongue. And yet, Indian languages are hardly represented in digital campaigns. The reasons go beyond just a colonial hangover: the alphabet in any Indian language tends to be far more expensive both on SMS as well as on display ads. While countries worldwide have arm-twisted telecom operators until charges for communication in the local script were more reasonable, it doesn’t appear to be a priority in India.

This might change with the imminent arrival of 3G . According to Mehra, “It’s a challenge first for platforms and then for us. How the medium and particularly social media reacts to people from the interiors communicating in their own language is going to be very interesting.” Language has already been a roadblock down south. Retailers in Chennai would like Tamil ads instead of English ones on platforms like Yahoo or Indiatimes.

“As of now, the medium is not relevant to them,” Mehra says. According to Aiyer, “Local languages will gather more steam with relevant content. Indians in India and abroad, particularly the more educated and evolved audiences want to get back to their roots, their culture. Tactful and relevant language usage is still an area that brands have not tapped effectively, and there is a very big opportunity to do that.”

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