A Few Rules for Finding Digital Discipline

In my last column, “The Digital All-You-Can-Eat Buffet,” we explored the necessity of discipline in narrowing your digital tactics to those that you can afford and support. We may long to incorporate every device, channel, and targeting program available to us now in our expanded opportunity set, but it’s rare that we have the required budget available or can pull off such a fractured approach successfully. There is another kind of companion discipline that marketers have to exercise and that’s in moderating their consumer touch points so that targeted audience segments are not uncomfortably or unproductively bombarded with messaging at all points in their digital day.

Without citing a million studies, let’s start with the premise that consumers are spending more of their day connected. They use multiple devices and are more reliant on them, have more usage occasions as tools and apps have become more relevant to more daily activities, and share more information over time as they trade some personal or contact information in exchange for the functionality or content they desire. Consumers use multiple screens at once, have new social patterns of interaction online, and generally consume more content online with each passing day. All of the trends are up and the impact for both consumers and marketers is a growing set of opportunities to reach and influence consumers online.

The trick for marketers is to moderate those touch points so that the consumer continues to have a comfortable online experience that also motivates desired actions at a rate that justifies the marketing spend that supports the ecosystem. Picture a ledge balanced on a razor-sharp point. On the one side, you have happy digital consumers weighed down with some ad exposures and information sharing. On the other side, you have marketers stacking up their conversions and spend. It’s far too easy to tip that precarious balance, and once you find just the right balance, it’s gone in an instant as new circumstances or sensitivities rock your consumers and your carefully constructed plan.

We need a few rules if we are to achieve a productive, lasting balance.

  1. Protect your customers. Within your own microcosmic world of your customers, err on the cautious side. Factor in all of your consumer touch points in a conservative approach that limits contacts and treats consumers differently based on the relationship you have with them. Some consumers may have a higher tolerance for multiple contacts or contacts of a more personal nature depending on who they are, what you’re offering, and whether you have earned a deeper level of trust.

    Remember that it’s not just online ads. It’s also the emails you send and the catalogs they receive, and the time they spend in your social communities and all the traditional ad exposures they have every day. If you’re seeing email open rates decrease or opt-out rates increase, pay attention. If you see decreasing engagement rates in social communities or click or conversion rates decreasing in ad spend, consider frequency as an important variable that deserves scrutiny among the other obvious candidates.

  2. Accept responsibility for your role in the broader consumer experience online. “Your” ideal target segment has a bunch of other targets on their backs as well. And even if your small budget is a drop in the ocean of online spending, the cumulative impact of all the marketing exposure/noise needs to be factored into your approach. You have no control over the discipline, or lack thereof, exhibited by your fellow marketers or competitors in their approach, but it does impact you directly. If more marketers exhibited good citizenship in the online marketplace we share, both consumers and marketers would benefit.
  3. Be judicious in using collected information. You can selectively use collected information for targeting without exposing the information in messaging. The “skeeve” factor for some consumers is high when they receive specific, retargeting information in ad messaging or personalized addresses in other communications, even email. This will vary by group, but tread lightly with older consumers or those with whom you have no relationship or only a casual relationship.
  4. Be transparent and offer choice. Social media has heralded a new dynamic between advertiser and consumer built on expectations far different from the old school of manipulative advertising techniques. This thinking needs to be extended into non-social areas of interaction. Allow consumers to choose their level of participation and relationship with you wherever that is possible; for instance, through an email preference center or using ad choice ad units.
  5. Give more than you get. Content is often the perfect way to get in front of your audience without creating fatigue. When devised and delivered strategically, content is naturally weighted in favor of the consumer as you are offering relevant, valued experiences or information. As the hunger for online content increases, your content strategy becomes an increasingly critical factor in your digital success. Make sure it’s part of your marketing strategy and is balanced against the more straightforward ad spend.
  6. Think long term. Building any relationship takes time. Consumers need to be wooed along the way and will have different messaging and contact needs depending on where the relationship stands. You might be able to affect a short-term spike in results by dramatically increasing volume and frequency of contacts in a short period, but at what long-term cost? And what happens to the consumer experience when marketers decide to concurrently ad bomb?

Consumers are reacting to the sometimes overwhelming volume of messaging online and both overly aggressive online marketers as well as careful marketers are sharing the pain of the consumer response. Truly, customer-centric marketing places a priority on protecting the customer experience online. This is not only the responsible way to market, but the smart way that maximizes the impact of your efforts and builds toward long-term success.

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