The internet and mobile devices have made it easy to produce cheap media and marketing collateral. The problem is that cheap is almost always bad.
According to the Meaningful Brands survey recently released by the agency group Havas and reported here by The Drum, 60% of the world’s brands create “content” that is absolutely useless. It’s little wonder, then, that the report also found that no one would care if 74% of brands disappeared.
To solve this problem, marketing and creative directors need to view themselves today as editors and gatekeepers who prevent their brands and agencies from producing needless clutter. The entire internet needs a good editor to protect against the cheapness, quick 'hacks', and focus on quantity over quality that have all pervaded the digital world since the beginning.
'Cheap' is the enemy of 'good'
The growth of online marketing in the early 2000s occurred at the same time as the economic recession that followed the burst of the 1990s tech bubble. Just as our personalities are largely formed by the age of five, the culture of digital marketing was fostered in a climate of economic malaise.
As a result, internet marketers have always been focused on getting something cheaply and easily. There are countless how-to guides on getting more website traffic, Twitter followers and Facebook 'likes' for 'free'. Over the years, I have sat in so many meetings, interviews and consulting sessions in which terms such as 'quick wins' and 'immediate ROI' are discussed. The technologies and functionalities of the internet encourage people to focus on direct-response marketing metrics and cheap costs above all else.
It’s a stark contrast to traditional marketing environments, in which people discuss long-term brand strategy. It takes significant time and money to release brand advertising and creative campaigns over print, television, or radio. It takes little time and money to post something – as long as it’s anything – on a company’s blog or social media networks. It’s easy.
The problem is that as the cost of such marketing has declined, so has the quality. Anyone can post random live videos to Facebook or Twitter. Regardless of whatever reach numbers may be reported, does anyone remember the spot the following day or week? Has a brand really been built? When tens of thousands of marketers are flooding the world with cheap collateral, it’s that much more important to spend the money to be creative and stand out among the digital crowd.
But most results today are a far cry from anything approaching “I’d like to buy the world a Coke” and “Think different.” Instagram filters and smartphones will never provide the same production values as professional photographers. The numerous graphic design tools and web browser add-ons that exist will never truly replace professional designers. A person with a smartphone will never deliver the same results as a live video shoot.
Three good modern examples of recent creative brand campaigns that I have seen from small and medium-sized companies are Dollar Shave Club’s famous first advertisement, competitive marketing intelligence platform SEMrush’s Christmas message to its users and community, and Israeli satellite TV provider YES’s Hebrew-English ad featuring an overworked mother.
These spots surely cost money, but they are effective. The problem is that many online marketers rarely think about brand campaigns and instead focus on quick hacks that end up devaluing our work and industry.
'Hacks' devalued marketing
It all began in the wild west days of black-hat SEO in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when tactics such as keyword stuffing, article spinning and link manipulation could propel websites to the top of organic search results and result in a lot of traffic. It was all about finding the quick 'hacks' that worked.
Thanks to Google penalising all of those practices, that world no longer exists. People including Danny Sullivan of Search Engine Land and Rand Fishkin of Moz professionalised the SEO industry and educated the world on the ethical methods that companies could use to increase their natural presence in organic search results. SEO today is largely the by-product of doing the modern best practices in web development and marketing communications – with the difference being that one’s marketing collateral for this specific goal should be based on what people are trying to find in Google search results.
Today, the potential reach of appearing in organic search is so great that I argue that the marketing industry should add SEO as a sixth element of the traditional promotion mix of brand advertising, direct-response marketing, personal selling, sales promotion, and public relations.
Still, the wannabe hackers have not learned their lessons from what happened in the SEO industry. Too many digital marketers do not even think about building brands and instead focus on cheap tricks:
- “25 Tricks to Get More Link Clicks on Your Tweets” – James Parson’s advice includes the use three exclamation points in tweet text – seriously!!!
- “SEO Trek: The Search for Google RankBrain” –Larry Kim advocates that everyone write headlines in the hack format that uses “[number] + [unnecessarily-strong adjective]”
- "5 Quick and Easy Facebook Engagement Hacks” – Aaron Lee suggests that brands talk about trending topics but does not give any thought to whether people want brands interrupting their conversations on personal social media conversations
Most online marketing collateral is small potatoes because 'content' is all too often the poor man’s 'creative'. Too much digital marketing advice focuses on the promotion of marketing collateral and not the creatives themselves. But no added Twitter hashtag or small change in the text of a Facebook post will magically turn a mediocre piece of content into a good one that will result in massive reach.
We need fewer creatives, not more
In high school in the 1990s, the book 'On Writing Well' changed my life and led to my desire to become a writer. One of the core lessons in the book is that every word must count. In the writing process, one exercise is to take a rough draft and then cut the length by 10%. And then another 10%. There must be a reason why every individual word is included.
That principle is important in marketing. In the print days, if I would want to submit a bylined article to a newspaper for publicity purposes, the editor would accept the pitch and assign a word count. If the limit would be 800 words, then I had to use an economy of language to make sure that every word would count and that my point would be communicated as concisely as possible.
The same is true in radio and television advertising. If an ad agency has a 30-second spot, then every single second must count. Every single second must be relevant to the story or communicate the brand message. Limits are important in marketing because they force us to cut the fat. Word counts force us to cut needless words. Time limits force us to cut unnecessary seconds.
Today, the online world has no more limits. Websites and media networks can store an almost infinite amount of information. A company’s blog post can be 200 words or 2,000 words. A YouTube video can be two minutes or 20 minutes. We can tweet three or 30 times every day. Companies can publish one blog post every week or every day.
We are no longer forced to cut the fat to make creative as perfect as possible. It’s why we see inane discussions such as “the ideal length for all online content” as though all creative marketing collateral should fit into scientific algorithms.
A lot of the fat that we see online stems from the flawed inbound marketing mentality of digital marketing that is essentially pushing as much content as possible into the ether of the internet to get as much website traffic as possible in return. The goal of marketing collateral and marketing activity is not always to attract website traffic that results in direct-response conversions, leads, and sales.
Just look at inbound marketing software Hubspot’s 'Blog Topic Generator', which spews out a list of garbage in response to a search for “marketing, advertising, and communications”:
Sadly, such marketing collateral hacks are popular because it’s cheaper to write countless blog posts of arguable utility than to create integrated, creative campaigns that build brands, generate publicity, result in actual reach, and naturally obtain backlinks for the SEO value.
The best results usually stem from producing a smaller number of great creative rather than a greater number of mediocre creative.
Marketing needs good editors
In January 2016, Mark Higginson published a provocative column at Econsultancy arguing that the idea of "brands as publishers is utter nonsense". Specifically, he stated the following:
"Reviewing any major brand publishing effort reveals that, barring a few outliers, the majority of content published to these sites receives next to no links and goes nowhere, receiving few shares."
Most content marketing is ineffective because it’s actually an attempt to do marketing communications but without any underlying strategy. Content is not a strategy; content is produced within the framework of an overall strategy. Most content marketers have never heard of the promotion mix because they have never learned the principles that underlie all marketing communications.
From high-tech startups to small businesses to enterprises to brands, marketing needs people who can effectively serve as editors who will cut the cheapness, the hacks and the useless collateral and force the industry to do marketing that is good, strategic and integrated. The best marketing needs to occur over offline and online channels because digital marketing is simply doing marketing communications over digital channels.
In the end, it all comes down to what Ad Contrarian Bob Hoffman wrote in his book '101 Contrarian Ideas About Advertising':
"The truly sad part is that there really is an advertising miracle. It’s called an idea – a great creative idea. Unfortunately, this miracle is hard to come by and there are very few who can perform it."
Marketers who immediately jump to thinking about what blog posts to publish or what to put on social media channels miss the point. The first and most important parts are the ideas and the strategic promotion mix. Think first about the strategy before randomly thinking about content – marketing collateral has value only if it fulfills one of the goals of the promotion mix.
How to approach an integrated strategy
First, go through each element of the Promotion Mix and determine the actions, goals, and online and offline channels to use. Then, create campaigns and pieces of marketing collateral that each specifically aim to support one or more of these elements:
Brand advertising. Based on one’s desired media mix, what brand messages and resulting subconscious associations do you want to communicate over print, radio, television, and the web? As Ian Leslie notes in the Financial Times, brand advertising “injects a brand into the cultural bloodstream and, by doing so, books a spot in the most important media of all: people’s brains”. Growing a brand through all relevant mass media channels will help all other marketing activities – even if the connection cannot be measured directly.
Direct-response marketing. Brand advertising may build a brand, but direct marketers are often the ones who make the sales – despite the fact that they often have less creative room in which to work such as in two-sentence PPC ad or landing page copy rather than in an 800-word opinion column. But what direct marketers who use sales catalogues or email or Google AdWords often forget is that brand advertising is what makes people more likely to click or buy in the first place. Both are needed – after all, David Ogilvy himself said that this direct-response campaign was the most successful ad of his career.
Public relations. Like brand advertising, the goal of public relations is not immediate ROI. Media relations can generate publicity in online and offline publications to get a brand or idea in front of as many relevant 'eyeballs' as possible. Community relations can build followings offline in local communities or online on networks such as Facebook or Twitter. Effective influencer relations can grow one’s credibility with their audiences. Corporate communications can put a company in a desired light that might not always be directly related to growing sales immediately.
SEO. People search Google for insights into what interests them. To increase online awareness and attract organic search traffic, brands need to do technical SEO to ensure that search engines can crawl, parse and index their websites and then publish specialised collateral that is accurate, neutral and comprehensive on those subjects. Essentially, it comes down to being the most authoritative website on the issue at hand. SEO is a complex topic that would take countless columns to explain, so I will refer readers to this introductory guide.
Personal selling. Every good salesperson needs support collateral. Such material can be created in both online and offline contexts. People who staff sponsor booths at conferences need brochures and one-pagers to take with them. Some might want to watch online videos and webinars. A company’s blog posts can highlight new products and product features. Businesses can announce new releases on social media. Sales promotions can be done over channels including direct mail, email, social media and mobile devices.
Of course, different types of companies will prioritise different parts of this promotion mix for different purposes and reasons. But why do I say this? Simple. If a piece of marketing collateral is not meant specifically to fulfill a brand advertising, direct marketing, public relations, SEO or personal selling goal, then do not produce or post it. Most likely, it will be publishing something just to publish 'something' – and that is a waste of time.
For far too long, traditional marketing and digital marketing have lived in separate houses and departments. It’s time to fix the promotion mix and integrate them so that both focus on quality over quantity in marketing communications:
How would you market yourself if the Internet didn't exist? Answer that, and it'll help your online marketing too.
— Samuel Scott (@samueljscott) August 25, 2015
Marketing and creative directors – do not settle for less. Be good editors and put out only the best over both traditional and digital channels.
For my overall thoughts on what digital marketing needs to do differently, see my first column for The Drum on the 71 ways that online marketing will NOT change in 2017.
The Promotion Fix is a new, exclusive biweekly column for The Drum contributed by Samuel Scott, director of marketing and communications for AI-powered log analysis software platform Logz.io and a global marketing speaker on integrated traditional and digital marketing. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Scott is based out of Tel Aviv, Israel.