While most people still use the word "digital" interchangeably with the online channel or digital devices and technologies, "digital" is the thread that weaves through all of advertising and is already making it more effective, efficient, faster, longer lasting, and more measurable.
Digital shouldn't be a bolt-on to general advertising or just "matching luggage" made to go along with "above-the-line" ads. Instead, "digital" techniques and analytics can and should infuse into every phase of the advertising process. Here's how.
Digital Informs Strategy
In the past, brands and their agencies started the advertising process by creating and manicuring the brand message they wanted to push out. They then identified desirable target customers, made ads to target those customers, and ran focus groups to ask small numbers of people if they liked the ads.
Based on this process, large quantities of dollars were spent on the creating and airing of the ads with fingers crossed, hoping that they would work. And the only thing advertisers got as an outcome actually wasn't an outcome at all - they were told how large of an audience may have been exposed to their ad (i.e., reach and frequency).
With digital channels, we can turn this process on its head and start, instead, by understanding the needs and habits of customers, then assessing how products fit those needs, and finally identifying what information the customers need to move toward and complete a purchase.
For most products already in the market, the lack of awareness isn't their main problem; consumers are aware of the product. Something else is keeping them from buying it. We call these missing links - the tiny bits of information that individual customers still need before they're willing to make a purchase.
For example, I needed to know who has access to my fingerprints and iris scans before I was willing to buy the Fly Clear service. Others need to know which motor oil was the best for their car because they lived in frigid climates. Still others need gory technical details about why one microprocessor was different or better than another before making multimillion dollar purchase decisions; but such technical information couldn't be conveyed in TV ads, banner ads, or any other form of push advertising.
Listening in digital channels reveals these missing links - what are people asking about or talking about? Knowing the missing links of customers informs the strategy of the marketing campaign. Data from the digital channel can also reveal new business opportunities (e.g., whether to market "chocolate covered strawberries" or "chocolate covered cherries" during Valentine's Day or Christmas, when people shop for luxury goods, whether it's wise to sell your house in the winter, whether people are getting more involved in their personal finances, or other examples).
Digital Inspires Creative
Understanding what customers need or what questions they have can also inspire creative - what key message should be incorporated into ads to address those missing links most effectively? For example, for an auto manufacturer, perhaps most consumers already know their cars are "performance" and "sporty," but how are these cars different or better than other cars that are also "performance" and "sporty?" How is one insurance company's product different from another's?
The answers to these questions usually aren't adequately addressed in the short space of 30 seconds, and answers sought by different individuals aren't addressed in a one-size-fits-all general advertising message designed for a mass medium. That's where "digital" channels come into play. The general advertising message can inspire awareness of the product, category, or topic. The consumers then go online to look for more details and dozens upon dozens of variations of ads can be used to address their specific missing links - all with analytics to measure impact.
At a finer level of detail, digital can also tell us what words to use in the creative executions. In deciding how best to describe LinkedIn to small business owners, a Google AdWords campaign with 90 variations of ads was used to show that "professional networking" was ideal, compared to "business networking, computer networking, social networking, or just networking."
There are also recent examples of companies leveraging the digital channel first to test creative and then decide which version is best to air in channels that require far larger investments of media dollars. For example, Intel ran variations of their now famous "Sponsors of Tomorrow" videos on YouTube and then on TV. Evian recently "ported" their proven "Roller Babies" viral video to TV.
Digital Enhances Impact
If advertisers think of the "digital" channel as complementary and not antagonistic to traditional channels, then they will see it as a necessary part of the "whole." For example, even if awareness advertising generates the initial awareness, modern users' habits are to go online to do their own research. When they search, if they can't find the said advertiser, they may abandon or, worse, they may find a competitor's products and buy those. This necessitates holistic thinking (i.e., integrated marketing) where as much thought and effort is spent on the "pull" side of the equation as on the "push" side.
Further, if advertising is backed up by an awesome product, digital channels also facilitate the social amplification of the message as users pass along the key bits of the message to friends they know will benefit from knowing. That's how Groupon grew from 0 to 3 million unique users a month in eight months. Drobo launched purely by word-of-mouth by the right people to the right people - digital photographers who desperately needed an easy, foolproof, infinitely upgradable way to back up their hard-earned digital images.
Digital channels can also be used to launch products. JetBlue built up a large following on Twitter and simply tweeted its All-You-Can-Jet Pass upon launch - which led to 31 million search results and about 10 million blog posts in the first seven hours. As people talk about the product and forward it on, those social actions are archived online for others to see in the future - it creates a lasting effect or lasting impact.
Think of the product reviews on Amazon - positive product reviews accumulated over time will continue to drive sales of, say, a particular digital camera, without any further effort or expense by the advertiser. Similarly negative reviews can be a hole that no amount of advertising can dig out of.
This necessitates a focus on great products and services and proper connection to the right customers (these customers may not be the ones the advertiser originally thought their product best serves).
Digital Proves Success
Finally, digital tools and techniques can be used to prove the effectiveness of advertising in all other channels. This is predicated on the habit of modern users to go online and search for more information no matter where they got their inspiration (e.g., they heard an ad on the radio, they saw an ad in print, or they watched an ad on TV). They need more information and so they search.
The lift in search volume can now be used to correlate the relative effectiveness of advertising in various channels. This was difficult, if not impossible, before because Nielsen, Arbitron, and Publishers Information Bureau (PIB) data are apples to oranges to watermelons; they couldn't be easily correlated nor were the audiences necessarily the same.
Now lift in search can reveal relative effectiveness no matter what the channel. For example, the Evian "Roller Babies" video generated more search volume for Evian than the talking babies Super Bowl ads did for E-Trade. Given that far less money was spent to create and air the Evian videos, the ROI (define) was orders of magnitude greater for Evian than for E-Trade.
These insights into what is working (or not) provides near real-time feedback to inform tweaks to the campaign strategy. And thus we form a continuous loop for the optimization of every part of the advertising cycle. In this way, "digital" is not just a bolt-on to general advertising. It is indeed the very DNA of advertising. And with it, comes the ability to finally integrate and correlate all forms of advertising and marketing into what I call the Grand Unified Theory of Marketing.
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Dr. Augustine Fou is the senior digital strategy advisor to CMOs, marketing executives, and global brands. Dr. Fou has over 15 years of Internet strategy consulting experience and is an expert in social media marketing strategy, data/analytics, and consumer insights, with specific knowledge in the consumer packaged goods, financial services/credit cards, food/beverage, retail/apparel, and pharmaceutical/healthcare sectors.
He is a frequent panelist, moderator, and keynote speaker at industry conferences. Dr. Fou is also an Adjunct Professor at NYU in the School for Continuing and Professional Studies and at Rutgers University at the Center for Management Development, where he teaches executive courses on digital strategy and integrated marketing.
Dr. Fou completed his PhD at MIT at the age of 23. He started his career with McKinsey & Company and previously served as SVP, digital strategy lead, McCann/MRM Worldwide and group chief digital officer of Omnicom's Healthcare Consultancy Group (HCG). He writes a blog "Rants, Raves about Digital Marketing" and can be found on Twitter at @acfou.