A recent conversation with Dakota Sullivan at BlueLithium started me thinking about the changes online marketing, and behavioral targeting in particular, have brought to the broader marketing world. The last decade or so has ushered in not only groundbreaking technology innovations and new channels and modes of consumer communications but has also fundamentally changed the way consumers interact with and respond to choice in the marketplace. Marketers may have a new toolset, but so do consumers. How does this affect the traditional marketing model? Should it? Is it even a meaningful model anymore?
Marketing is an old industry. Long before the advent of online marketing, the traditional marketing funnel was drawn on whiteboards or projected on a million screens in a million boardrooms. It may even be represented in some cave drawings. The funnel-shaped model begins at its widest end with large-scale brand awareness: getting a message broadcast to as many people as possible. As new tactics are employed, the funnel narrows to a pool of progressively more qualified prospective customers. Broad-end tactics address branding objectives, while narrow-end approaches focus on direct results. Of course, the funnel can be drawn in many ways, but marketing has become less linear and less controlled by marketers.
Traditionally, brand advertisers spent massive amounts of time and money simply establishing a recognizable name and associating it with certain messages, such as quality, dependability, and style. This was done primarily through audio and visual advertising in print, radio, outdoor, theaters, and especially TV. These same graphic and video ads are now moving online. In the end, the same thing is accomplished through a different medium.
While awareness is still a prerequisite for choice, there are many more avenues to awareness these days, including those not resulting from traditional branding activities. Consumers now often choose a seller or brand they’ve never heard of, based on reviews from other consumers, price in consumer shopping engines, or a host of other influences from the wide Internet community. That’s not to say traditional brand advertising, both online and off-, doesn’t influence behaviors; it’s pretty clear that it does. But other influential factors are also at play.
As the old-style funnel narrows, marketing becomes more strategic as marketers focus on those with spending power, those who have a want or need for a particular product or service, and those willing to purchase a particular brand. Online marketing has seen search take a firm foothold at the funnel’s narrowest end. But Sullivan hypothesizes behavioral targeting may be establishing its own niche at the funnel’s narrow end, just above search. In essence, you could describe the marketing focus on observed behaviors as more information-rich than other kinds of targeting used in branding efforts but less rich then the declared interest of specific search activity.
A model is only as good as its ability to describe an effective approach and provide meaningful, actionable guidance for those who use it. If I were to advocate a new model for marketers, it might require many new dimensions to handle both the new opportunities and the new environment in which consumers make choices. Updating the funnel approach could start by defining broad and narrow areas not by the scale of the consumer pool represented, but by the focus of consumer intent. Thus, the top of the funnel might contain consumers who fit certain broad targeting characteristics but aren’t really goal oriented, other than having certain content preferences. The middle and narrow sections would describe progressively more direct consumer actions.
Scale, of course, will still heavily influence investment decisions because overtargeting can remove the financial incentive for any outgoing marketing efforts. More important, it can limit a marketer’s future potential by ignoring the need to build markets.
Search is often described as self-limiting. If you’re targeting people who search for Brand X cars, you can be limited to consumer interest expressed as brand searches in the search engines. You can expand your horizons a bit by including product and category, even feature keywords in your lists, but you’re still capturing demand that exists in the number of available searches.
The same is somewhat true of behavioral targeting. In the car example, you could reach those who have shopped online for cars or frequented car-related content. However, you’re limiting interest to those who exhibit desirable, observable behaviors. It’s the classic marketing dilemma, updated for new marketing challenges. Do you push out your message to a broad marketplace of those you think may find it relevant at the top of the funnel, or do you define relevancy by declared or observed interest and focus attention on the narrow end?
Perhaps the funnel approach is best abandoned altogether in recognition of the fact push marketing is taking an increasingly smaller and smaller part of the online pie while the online slice gets bigger. No matter where you start the discussion, it seems to circle back to consumer control. Until we get that concept ingrained in our thinking, we won’t successfully create a more relevant marketing model. That model probably won’t look anything like a funnel.
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