It’s junk mail, Jim, but not as we know it

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It’s always been a topic of some debate as to which of the traditional advertising media today’s data-driven content most resembles.

Most opt for outdoor.

For one thing, it’s immediate. Static or moving, simplicity is mandatory. Headers can’t be more than 7 words long. Less, if possible. 

That’s because, like outdoor, time is short. You’ve only got a couple of seconds to grab your audience – about the time it takes to pass an outdoor board in a car.

I’m not buying it.

I think social is essentially direct response advertising.

Take the creative.

It’s almost always built around a call to action and its sole and only purpose is to generate a click-through. 

Much like a tear-off coupon, reply card or 1-800 number.

Its primary directive also informs its tone and manner, which is almost always of a shrill, hectoring, “act now” nature – another sure sign that the tropes of direct response gurgle around in its DNA.

It’s also riddled with rules – prescriptive dos and don’t, imperatives on how to frame a message, generate a response (that word again), what language to use, etc.

A social campaign will “drop,” too.

Finally, and perhaps most significantly, you’re talking to one individual at a time. An individual, moreover, who is, thanks to data, highly targeted, from the who and the why, to the what, when and where.

You’re not broadcasting to everyone.

You’re narrowcasting to a very specific demographic.

There are no shared perceptions, peer agreement or opting in.

Whenever the desired action, it’s an action taken in isolation.

One-on-one.

Just you and the snake oil salesman. 

Like junk mail.

And like junk mail, it’s all incredibly dull.

But that’s a post for another day.

The Delivery System That Fails To Deliver

For the last ten years, data-driven content has been heralded as the universal panacea for all marketing ills.

You can’t throw an iPhone X in New York without hitting at least ten data agencies promising millions of impressions.

They’re in the business of delivering eyeballs. Lots and lots of them.

Propelled by analytics, sales history, viewing preferences, and a truckload of huckster jargon, they’ve sold the ad world on the numbers, the programmatic buys, and the reach.

If you want to target a grumpy, male, ex-pat adman with a wet cappuccino habit and a passion for the kind of football where you actually use your feet to propel the ball around the field, well, these guys and gals know where he lives and precisely how to reach him.

The problem with this perfect delivery scenario is that once it gets its target in its sites and exactly where it wants it, the whole shebang manifestly fails to deliver.

How else to explain the universally acknowledged fact that the average click rate for an online banner ad is about .07% or 7 clicks for every 10,000 ads.

And that’s before we take into account bots, click fraud, the vagaries targeting, and what the hell actually constitutes an impression.

Part of the problem seems to be an assumption that success depends solely on being able to drop the right message in the right place at the right time.

Quite how this fallacy ever gained currency, I’ll never know.

The truth is that delivery is only half the job. 

The real task begins the second the ad is seen, in other words, when it’s transformed from a bunch of 1s and 0s into a communications message. 

It’s here that the purveyors of data-driven content fail to ask themselves the most fundamental of questions:

Why on earth would anyone want to stop what they’re doing to read this?

What’s in it for them? 

Does it in engage, shock, cajole, or seduce?

Does it pique their interest in any way? 

Does it compel them to react, or, the multi-million-dollar question- click?

This new task isn’t about data, it’s about selling and its best practitioners, mostly senior and ergo expensive, have been dumped out of the industry in recent years, the chief victims of our endless mania for mergers and consolidations.

Put out to pasture far too early, they’re now needed more than ever.

True, these folks don’t look the part. They look ancient – many are actually in their 40s and 50s. They like to go to their kids’ soccer games and dance recitals, don’t sport beards or tats, and more than likely don’t have an earthly clue who Childish Gamino is.

But they do know how to put a provocative ad message together, and how to do so with the wit, charm, persuasion, and impact.

Bring them in from the cold, listen to what they have to say, trust that they know what they’re doing and, who knows, you might just get a banner ad that actually works.

Because without impact an online campaign will never be seen.

And a campaign that’s never seen isn’t a campaign.

It’s a waste of money.

The Math vs. The Myth

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Take a look at this sucker.

It’s from a recent report from the Interactive Advertising Bureau, and it pretty much confirms what many of us have known all along.

That TV, far from being dead, is alive and well and kicking digital’s ass.

Really kicking digital’s ass.

It also rather debunks the theory that everyone and anyone is viewing everything and anything on a mobile device.

They patently aren’t. 

So here’s my question:

Why isn’t it a holy-shit topic of debate right now?

Call me crazy – and believe me, many have – but these figures seem to point to a vast misappropriation of focus in three significant markets. Is it too fanciful to suggest that our industry take them just a little seriously?

Maybe rethink an assumption or two? Perhaps take a closer look at the current ROI on digital platforms? Maybe dump the latest media buy and initiate a reallocation of marketing dollars?

At least call a meeting about it.

Yeah, not going to happen.

This report, like those that have come before it, will be avoided like the plague. In a mind-boggling display of counterintuition, brands will continue to pour vast sums of money into digital platforms.

It’s not difficult to see why.

To accept these numbers you’d first have to admit you might have been duped. Or at the least acknowledge that you’d got it very wrong.  

And to act on them, well, that would mean flying in the face of received wisdom, and it’s a brave marketing chief or agency head that’s going to do that.

But someone will eventually.

And when that happens, the game will be up.

The day digital platforms are judged on their numbers will be the day they’re recognized for what they really are: a developing channel that’s currently delivering modest results.

The math will have prevailed over myth.

By the way, the IAB’s study has affected one immediate change:

TV’s last rites have been canceled indefinitely.

Read more on the IAB study here https://bit.ly/2DYNjC9

​Real Advertising: The Comeback

I sometimes wonder if our industry hasn’t wandered off the reservation.

How else to explain the banality of thinking that informs much of what passes for advertising today?

It seems to me that we are obsessed with targeting.

By targeting, I mean our destructive preoccupation with analysis, tracking, habits, preferences, and trends.

Targeting is not the same as relevance.

Relevant work isn’t binary.

It can’t be computed.

It’s not predicated on what website we visited yesterday or might tomorrow.

And you can’t run an algorithm to create it (though I’m pretty sure many have tried).

Relevant advertising, let’s call it real advertising, is founded on the wants and desires of real people with real blood running through their veins.

It posits a well thought out argument persuasively.

Moreover, it does so with a fundamental understanding of the larger world outside it.

The target-them-and-they-will-buy approach has none of these virtues.

The data-driven content that clogs up our web pages and social feeds has little or no connection with real life. No grasp of what ordinary people are facing every day –  bills, rent, health, love, marriage, work.

For real advertising, all this is backstory, the context within which a brand, product or service must be seen to exist if its to add value in some meaningful way.

Here are two examples, picked entirely at random, of what I’m talking about – both are nearly 50 years old.

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What these pieces have is a degree of humanity.

They’re confident, but they don’t brag.

They are reasoned but not unreasonable.

And because of that, they resonate.

More than that, they stand out.

It’s not easy to create work like this – part of the craft is that it looks so simple, so logical – but, hey, that’s why we have creative departments. Or, at least, used to.

A degree of empathy can help frame a brand in the hearts and minds of its audience. Better yet, it can give it a direction and a sense of purpose – something everyone from the brand manager and agency creatives to the employees and customers, can get behind.

If social media marketing really is the future, we might want to invest it with a little old school nous and wisdom.

Time to bring real advertising in from out of the wilderness.

The Monday Conundrum​​

Let’s kick the week off with a conundrum.

Every day we are told of the protean capacity of social media marketing to reach hundreds upon thousands of highly targeted, ready to buy consumers.

Yet at the same time, we are also reliably informed that the average click rate for an online banner ad is 0.07

That’s 7 clicks per 10,000 ads.

How does that work, I wonder?

Fantastic Reach vs. Laughable Conversion.

Discuss.

In the two-cents saloon of social opinion, I’ve got a dollar to spend, so here goes.

Let’s suppose for a minute that the reach numbers touted by data-driven media really are all they’re cracked up to be – I have my doubts, but I’ll let that pass for now – how is it that so many eyeballs can be delivered to so little effect?

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say it’s because THE WORK IS CRAP.

In our rush to embrace this shiny new channel as the solution to everything, we’ve forgotten that delivery is only half the task at hand and that the real job begins the moment the ad is served up.

That’s when Data Delivery switches to Message Delivery.

Message Delivery requires a powerfully crafted message that communicates a single strategic thought persuasively and with impact. It will engage, intrigue, provoke, compel, seduce and, dare I say it, sell.

Dumping a bland message in the general vicinity of the viewer isn’t going to cut it.

Message Delivery is a whole different skill set from Data Delivery. 

The knack for grabbing people’s attention is a learned discipline, and it’s one that the new generation of digital natives just don’t have.

The irony is that the folks who do – the seasoned ad pros who’ve seen it, done it a hundred times – are being laid off in vast swathes right now.

Replace the people who can with people that can’t.

Beats me why anyone would think that’s a good idea.

But that’s a conundrum for another day.

March of the Lemmings

Social media was supposed to change everything.

Especially in marketing.

TV, radio, print, and posters were dead.

All your shiny new campaign needed to succeed was a boatload of data-driven content: posts, tweets, feeds, blasts, banners, Likes, Impressions and Shares.

The customer, we were reliably informed, was in control and, henceforth, all commerce would now revolve around the twin whizz-bang-magic-dust precepts of “conversations” and “relationships.”

Naturally, the smart thing to do was to move a hefty proportion of your budget online.

And, like lemmings, that’s pretty much what everyone did.

Without hesitation.

Without comment.

Without analysis.

A healthy dose of skepticism was sorely needed and, as luck would have it, duly sounded.

Bob Hoffman began to challenge some of the more outrageous claims made on behalf of social media marketing on his blog Ad Contrarian.

The first red flag was the effectiveness of clicks.

It transpired that the average click rate for an online banner ad was about .07%. 

Or 7 clicks per 10,000 ads. 

Yeah, pretty miserable.

The more he dug, the worse it got. 

Thanks to Bob, we now know that: 

95% of content generates next to zero engagement. 

E-commerce accounts for less than 7% of retail sales in the U.S. 

Fewer than 2% of retail transactions happen on a smartphone. 

And the whole damn thing is riddled with fraud. 

It’s quite the shit show.

You can read the motherlode of his findings here: https://www.bobhoffmanswebsite.com/newsletters

However, here’s the best bit: 

88% of marketers believe online advertising has no measurable impact on their business, yet we continue to pour millions into it.

Why? 

I’ll take a wild guess and say fear.

Fear of looking foolish.

Fear of appearing out of touch.

Fear of going against received opinion. 

Fear of not being part of the latest trend.

It’s created a blind spot where it’s easier to believe the fantasy than face up to the facts.

But one day the penny will drop.

Questions will be asked.

Numbers demanded.

Accountability called for.

The lemmings will revolt, and upon reaching the cliff edge, one of them will turn to its peers and say:

“I’m sorry, but I’m going to have to call bullshit on this one.”