Why is Digital Marketing Success So Elusive?

I’ve been a digital marketer for 20 years – roughly half my life. That means I started in the early nineties. Here’s a nice digital marketing timeline if you want to see what was happening then – for example, the World Wide Web arrived in 1995. Hmmmm. I built websites with Flash when it was called “FutureSplash“, a tool that was PowerPoint on a timeline. Disney was our client and they wanted something that had never been done before. They certainly got that. Ah, the bad ole days.

I’ve been incredibly lucky in my career to have worked on many sides of digital marketing and with and for some of the largest and most innovative brands and agencies around.

I spent some time last week looking through the latest Forrester reports, which I do occasionally and I highly recommend. There’s so much amazing and insightful stuff in there, but in some ways it feels like a hot tub time machine (great movie) – they’ve been sharing the same general ideas for a long time now.

On Monday, I read the first of what will undoubtedly be a great series of blog posts by Mitch Joel about modern CMOs and what keeps them up at night. I was struck — once again – by how digital marketing has become so much more complex. There are niches of niches out here; have you looked at the latest – and immediately obsolete – LUMAscapes across the digital marketing ecosystem? It’s insane that all of these companies exist and have customers. I work for one, I know all about it.

So, here’s the question – with decades of experience, thousands of campaigns completed and terabytes of information and insights at our fingertips – why is digital marketing success so elusive?

I’m not saying that we’re not doing great work. Many of us are. It just doesn’t feel like it. I’ve never managed a full-scale traditional marketing campaign, a TV spot or print or OOH home or radio. When I read AdWeek or look through the pages of CommArts it seems like they know what success feels like. Success is emotional, breathtaking, provocative, inspiring or funny. Digital is all of these things, isn’t it? Can’t it be? What’s different about our work?

Maybe I’m on a lonely island here. But when I look at all the resources we have around us from ClickZ to “big data” to Forrester and beyond, I would hope we would be all be amazing marketers by now. When I wander around my digital day, (and in talking to other digital marketers) it doesn’t feel like we’re there yet.

Is it simply hard to feel and define success when you are in an industry that is ever-changing? After all, today’s success (e.g. the Disney Web site) may be laughable tomorrow.

I spend my days deep in a niche of a niche–social media advertising–and since social is now mostly mobile, social mobile advertising. As has been true of my meandering career, I’ve been lucky to work with some of the smartest and most innovative people in marketing and as we’ve launched campaigns, analyzed the data and crafted flexible and scalable software to work with the ever-changing social mobile platforms. I’ve discovered – one again – that the fundamentals of marketing are the key to success.

As I wrote in a recent whitepaper, the recipe, on its surface, is simple:

Buy in-stream advertising to reach your most important customer segments – drive them to social mobile experiences that present rich interactive content that both engages and converts and use the data to optimize both the media and the experiences.

But as we know, each of these elements is a marketing discipline in and of itself. Luckily, and at long last, this recipe for social success looks very similar to what we’ve been using for ages in display, search and email marketing.

The next time you’re sitting with a digital marketing colleague not doing work, maybe having a drink or watching one get made by an ugly “robot”, ask them to tell you about a successful campaign they ran. I do it regularly and it’s always fun and interesting. For most digital marketers it’s hard to think of a project that exceeded goals or felt like a real marketing success.

So, when you do your social drinking anthropology, listen for these key elements:

  • What did success feel like?
  • Did they reach the right people with compelling content and
  • Did they look at the data to understand and maybe even optimize the campaign?

I’m sure many of the stories you hear will be some version of this recipe.

As marketers, we all strive for repeatable tactics that seem to drive our success. We know once we meet goals we will be expected to exceed the next campaign. Fundamentals and iteration are the keys to success in our insanely dynamic, complex and technical marketplace.

Lastly, push yourself and your teams to feel success. Maybe it’s a big excel doc filled with new email addresses, maybe it’s 500 positive comments on a Facebook post, maybe it’s an article or blog post about how your work made someone feel. Whatever it is, wallow in it. There’s no Cannes Lion for you, no pat on the back from a guy in a black turtleneck, but you’re still crushing it, and you have stories to tell.

Related reading