In a recent set of keynotes and consulting engagements in the US, UK and Canada, I've had an overwhelming feeling that in very fundamental ways some companies make imprecise choices when it comes to their digital strategy. Not because they don't have enough money or opportunity or people. But, simply because their broader framing of what the problem was, and what their chosen solution would deliver.
The heartbreaking part of these, often innocently made, choices is any lack of meaningful progress in digitizing their companies. It saddens me deeply that they are not being able to take full advantage of all the new product, marketing, customer relationship opportunities in front of them. Because, I'm sure like you, I'm humbled by the immense opportunity digital presents.
This post covers five of these heartbreaking misses in the broader framing. My hope is that 1. You'll understand what's wrong in terms of the strategic choice being made and 2. Get an extremely clear sense for what the right choice is in each case. I've suffered enough bruises on the front-lines from trying to re-imagine the current and revolutionize the future across multiple industry verticals, countries, opportunity sizes. Consider this to be a collection of wisdom from those tough lessons – from wins and losses.
Since in almost every case the imprecise framing is strategic, the true consumer of this post is your boss's boss's boss. Sadly, we can't get to them here. But, at least you and I can get on the same page and perhaps I can convince you to take our message to her/him.
Here are the digital myths that are leading us down a profoundly sub-optimal path:
2. A data-first strategy is a winning formula.
3. All we need is Facebook, forget our website.
4. The web is dead. Mobile web is dead. Apps are the past, present, future.
5. Cookies! Cookies are all we need!
You're welcome to jump to the one that is most pressing for your organization, though I recommend reading them sequentially as I've grafted connective tissue from one story to the next which will help you see how each of the five is a part of a grand story. You'll understand better how it all comes together into one piece at the end.
Ready? Let's go!
Programmatic advertising is all the rage. Per our friends at Wikipedia, Programmatic encompasses an array of technologies that automate the buying, placement and optimization of media inventory. Instead of ads being placed by human-based methods, machines can do it so much better at scale.
Google's Adwords is perhaps the simplest example of programmatic advertising. You input your keywords, text ads, bids and other elements, and the platform intelligently assesses the best fit user intent and delivers your ad.
Today's primary use of the word programmatic refers to the use of ad exchanges, real-time bidding (RTB), Demand-side Platforms (DSPs) etc. to deliver display ads. Yes, the banner kind (in many ad formats, sizes, and dynamism).
I love this programmatic trend, it is undeniably the future. I love it because of the technological coolness and scale it brings. I love it because of the slow death of demographic and psychographic targeting it is delivering. I love the shift to intent-based targeting (I cannot stress how massively important to the future of advertising and marketing).
But, I'm distressed that programmatic is thought about as panacea by CMOs and other CxOs. "Just buy a programmatic stack, and all our problems will be gone! Our advertising will rain down massive revenues! !"
There is one important, hugely important, foundational element they are not accounting for.
Like you, when I went to MBA school I was told my marketing class that the ultimate nirvana state for a Marketer was to be able to deliver the right message (RM) to the right person (RP) at the right time (RT).
While it made a ton of sense, no sane person would say that we could do anything close to that using the media platforms of the time. Can you do RM+RP+RT using TV? How about magazines? Yes, you can get some weak demographic or, a bit better, psychographic signals from surveys TV channels or magazines did. Then you would just spray and pray (a strategy the continues to date and reduces the glory of TV!). The best we could think about RM+RP+RT is what Direct Marketers (people who sent you all those letters in postal mail!). For their existing customers they could mine the CRM/ERP systems and the letter would switch from Dear Sir/Madam to Dear Stephanie Byrd. The content of the letter could be customized to Stephanie's data/behavior.
The internet today is a fundamental paradigm shift. RM+RP+RT is finally possible. In large measure that is because of the rise of programmatic buying. Fewer guesses. More technology. Leveraging consumer behavior and intent signals.
Fly in the ointment?
Programmatic simply solves for the ability to find the right person (RP) at the right time (RT).
It does not solve the RM problem!
You still have to come up with the right message.
If the platform identifies See intent, do you have the capability to deliver a See message? Or, are you counting on your Do message to do the job? What if the platform tells you that this is the right time to deliver a Care message to the right person, have your fed that into your programmatic system so that the right person can be delighted?
Programmatic platforms are (sadly) sold by vendors with nary a word about RM. Programmatic platforms are bought with nary a thought given by companies to the RM challenge.
Do you know then what happens when these platforms are implemented?
Today you suck at delivering relevant messages to your desirable audiences with our current platform. Tomorrow your programmatic platform's technical savvy just helps you suck at scale, faster.
And, make no mistake. You, your boss's boss, and the boss's boss's boss will blame the platform. But, of course it was not the platform. It was your oversight of the importance of the RM all along.
So, if you want to win with programmatic (and, you SHOULD want to!)… Figure out how to also re-imagine your RM strategy.
Here's a head-start with the questions you'll have to answer to create a fabulous RM strategy: Who is going to create all the See-Think-Do-Care content for your desktop website, mobile website and mobile apps and deliver it on your owned and rented platforms (more on this below)? Is it going to be in-house or out-sourced? [In the long run it has to be all in-house.] Who is going to be responsible for all the creative assets that need to go into your programmatic platform to power your advertising to bring people to all this magnificent See-Think-Do-Care content? How often is it going to be refreshed? Who is going to ensure that the company moves away from years and years of legacy demographic and psychographic limited thinking and move to using your programmatic platform to leverage the hundreds of intent signals thrown off by your See-Think-Do-Care audiences? Who is then going to ensure that S-T-D-C thinking drives content, which drives ads, which are delivered to audiences who, because now you don't stink, deliver brand love and company revenue?
These are non-trivial questions to answer. But, answering them with immense thought and care is absolutely critical.
Programmatic comes down to RM. All that technology and real-time bidding and trading desks and brilliant algorithms and ad exchanges, everything comes down to… right message.
If you don't believe me, go to www.yahoo.com right now. Look at the ads and their massive irrelevance to you right now. This despite the fact that Yahoo! (even if you've never visited the site) has access to tons of intent signals from you right now, tons of third-party cookies that litter your browser right now, and immense Big Data and algorithms. Does Yahoo! suck? A little bit, yes. Most of the blame rests on the advertiser whose ad you are seeing right now. [Scratchers lottery for me. For someone who has never played lottery, has no intention of doing so, and has never visited any site that could remotely signal any interest in partaking in something even slight math savvy would warn against! :)]
Go visit any major website right now (and, please turn off Ad-Block if you are using it). You'll see the same irrelevance and shouting. [Farming tractor on foxnews.com! Cisco UCS Servers on theguardian.com!!]
The RM problem.
Don't let this be you. But programmatic. Create an awesome S-T-D-C RM strategy first.
This has to be bizarre coming from an author who's only minor claim to fame is data. Look at the right nav on this blog, two best selling books in 13 languages! As all of my proceeds from the books go to charity, this passion for data has allowed me to donate $350,000 to charity since the first book was published.
All of that to simply say that I think data is really important, and I'm a passionate believer in a data-driven product development, marketing, employee hiring, stocking the pantry at your office, and so much more.
Data. Is. Magnificent.
Yet, I believe that if your company has a "data-first" strategy you are likely doomed. I was heart broken at the number of companies I've met recently that are executing this strategy.
A data-first strategy is defined as data before everything else.
It is the quest to implement systems (usually massive) to collect data of all shapes and manner before all else. It is an investment in numerous report writers or data (puking) automation or hiring a small army in India or Philippines to do that, before investing in any smart Analyst. It is being hyper-conservative when it comes to creativity and experimentation because of quant-issues. It is represented by 90% of the data budget invested in Agencies and Consultants driving implementation and re-implementation and hyper-customization of the code. It is represented by the act of creating crazy data thresholds for any initiative to get off the ground. As in, "You have to prove store sales from a See or a Think strategy before we invest in smart marketing." Put another way, it is the constant judging of fish by their ability to climb trees!
Data is important. I believe it can help drive your business strategy smartly. But, a data-first strategy, defined as above, is nuts. It will only slow down your progress and allow your competitors to crush you like a bug (even if you are a top player in your market today!).
You should reject data-first.
You should accept data-with strategies.
Assuming you have a great product and/or service first, in our context the most important thing to do is to focus on content next. That will quickly be followed by amazing, incredible marketing (owned first, earned next and paid as the final piece of the puzzle). Along the way, rather than over-indexing on a data obsession before everything, use data as an aid to keep getting smarter. For how to go about this, use the wonderful Analytics Ladder of Awesomeness .
From a tools/data collection strategy perspective, you'll invest in a free tool first (and there is a free tool for pretty much everything, and free data is everywhere – for example you don't need any tool to tell you that Esurance's Facebook strategy is a dud, just scroll through their public posts, the average amplification rate is a tiny 20, two and a zero!). Exhaust the free tool, take the initial steps in the ladder of awesomeness, make the organization smarter. Then, move to a paid one as you deal with more complex challenges. Make sure this comes with a commensurate 10/90 investment in smart, really smart analysts (and not report writers). Climb up the ladder some more. Rinse. Repeat.
You are going to drive your organization to use data to make smart quantitative and qualitative decisions along the way. You'll execute a data-with strategy. Perhaps it is best to think of it as a data-with business success first strategy.
Please don't have a data-first strategy. It is the kiss of death. And innovation. And people. And anything amazing.
Oh, and before I forget. Definitely buy my data books! :)
[Bonus: If you want to know the three phases that help you create a great digital strategy: The Complete Digital Analytics Ecosystem: How To Win Big .]
Of all of the things on this list, this one is the hardest to understand. It is so wrong, on such a colossal scale, it is hard to believe that it could be real. But, it is.
There are, broadly speaking, two types of digital existences. Those that you own, and those that you rent.
Own existences are usually your desktop and mobile websites and your mobile apps. You own everything about them. You own the domains. You own the content and you can present it exactly the way you want (you can be as weird as you want). You own the relationships with the customers (or, just the visitors to your sites/apps). You own the macro-outcome, you can have as many micro-outcomes as you want. You own the data. You own privacy. You own everything!
Rent existences are usually your Facebook page, your YouTube brand channel, your Twitter presence. You own very little about them. You own the content – you are limited in the creativity you can express, it has to be in the bounds set by the platform. You don't really own the relationships with the customers. You have lots of freedom with Subscribers to your YouTube channels, on Facebook you are limited to what Edgerank determines it will expose to your Like'ers, on Twitter everything's in the timeline – you just have to make sure you are still there when your followers read their timeline. You own very little, if any, of the data about your customers. You don't control the privacy (it is up to each platform). And, you are dependent on the strategy executed at the moment by the companies who own these rented channels – if they zig and you've always zagged, tough beans.
The best digital strategy in the world is an Own + Rent strategy. Own because it is the best destination for Do and Think audiences (it would be silly to dump them on rented channels). Rent because it is where your See, and often Care, audiences already are (YouTube and Facebook each have over a billion active humans on them!). It is very smart to use each, own and rent, for what they are respectively good at.
If you only have money for one, do own.
Scroll back up slowly. Read the paragraph that starts with "Own existences are usually…"
Convinced about how bizarre it is to invest in rent rather than own?
You have no freedom on creativity, content, data, privacy, relationships, post-platform engagement (email!), ability to execute Think and Do strategies that actually make you money (!), and so much more.
There are companies actually executing just rent. They have no own strategy. In fact if you search for the brand by name on Google.com or Bing.com, you'll see links to their site in the first couple organic search results, and if you click on them you get to their site and auto-redirected to their Facebook page!
Where, for these big companies, the average Amplification Rate is under 25. They are taking thousands and thousands of people looking for their brand (easy to check with Google Trends/Keyword Tool) and dumping them on a See channel where on average 25 human beings engage with their limited outcome existence!
Many, many companies are doing this. In the last few weeks for me it has been a massive beverages company, it has been a couple of consumer goods companies, it has been an entertainment company, and it has even been a non-profit. I had to cry myself to sleep every single time.
I implore you. Own first. Then rent. Rock both. If you can only do one. Do own. For the sake of your business, your employees and the almighty (/Jesus/Krishna/Allah/Sun God/your favourite).
First Bonus Recommendation: Your New Facebook Strategy: Facebook's organic reach for brands is now broadly under 5%. If you actually stink, as is the case for most brands because they are executing a Do strategy on a See media channel, it is even lower. You don't have to believe me, just look at the little number at the bottom of your Facebook posts. It is a profound waste of opportunity give your Agency gobs and gobs of money to create non-engaging, not-being-viewed content. Save that money immediately. Facebook does have a massive audience, and you should want it. But, it is important to realize that you'll need to have a paid strategy and not an organic one. That is where Facebook shifted when it comes to brands a year ago, you should just catch up. Invest money first in a See right messages strategy for Facebook, because it is a See channel. Then, pay Facebook money, lots of it, to deliver that content, via their advertising options, to audiences in the See intent-cluster. Oh, and don't be silly and replicate your offline demographic and psychographic targeting on Facebook.. If you do that you'll still lose, even with a paid strategy. Use the intent signals Facebook's ad platform provides. The opportunity is there, you get to decide if you want to win big or keep wasting time and money on Facebook.
Second Bonus Recommendation: Thomas Baekdal is my friend. He inspires me. I learn so much from him about digital and marketing. Hence, I'm a paid subscriber to Baekdal Plus. For $9 per month, you get knowledge that will increase your salary by 100x of that every month. It has done that for me. For just one example, pay and read his recent Is it time to rethink social post. If you think the above is eye-opening, just wait until you read Thomas' pov. Go, subscribe!
This will definitely get me on the wrong side of many thought leaders in the mobile space, indeed even in the digital space. But, by now I have lots of practice with making career limiting moves so what the heck!
It is an undeniable fact of life that mobile phones have become the platform we use the most when it comes to digital. If you look over the last five years, the change is astounding. Here's a slide from one of my recent presentations where I created a visual to represent data that came from eMarketer…
Amazing, is it not? In such a short time mobile platforms represent greater than 50% of the time we spend with digital. Desktop is shrinking slightly. Other is going up (wearables FTW!). My surprise was that orange box, Video, but that's a story for another day.
A big chunk of the time on mobile is spent on mobile applications. It is also increasing with each year. Hence, the hypothesis goes, that you should only invest in/develop mobile applications. That is where the present and the future is, you should pause all investment in mobile sites or desktop sites.
I buy the first part of it, mobile apps are important. In fact, smart mobile application are a strategic imperative.
But. It is an act of ill-advised bravado to say that mobile apps are all there is to digital, simply because of what people are doing when they are using mobile apps and what intent clusters they are in.
When people use mobile apps they are in two of four intent clusters. See and Care.
People are spending time on social apps, sharing parts of their lives (or their entire lives!), they are playing lots of games, and they are consuming other types of info-snacky content. All, See. You can, as a Marketer, identify your Largest Addressable Q ualified Audience and then engage with them in this See stage. But, that is all.
People are also spending time on individual apps of companies they frequently do business with. For example, for me, the United Airlines, Chase Bank, Amazon apps along with my Toyota EV app. I already know these companies. They already know me. They already have my business. I'm deeply loyal to them. I'm in the Care audience cluster. They have simplified the environment in their apps so that I can do repetitive things easily. If you are a Marketer at these companies, I'm in your Largest Addressable Qualified Audience in the Care cluster. You can do amazing things with me, deepen brand loyalty for example.
But, the thing you'll notice from all of the above mobile behavior is that the all important Think and Do audience clusters don't really exist on mobile apps. If you want to actually grow your business, actually acquire new customers, engage with audiences who are not already deeply loyal, you are going to have to use Think and Do marketing channels (Search, YouTube, Email, Affiliates, Display) and Think and Do audience platforms (desktop sites, mobile sites).
If you abandon the latter, desktop sites, mobile sites, you are deciding to bet your business on See and Care, that is an extremely regretful choice (as you'll discover soon enough when sales and business growth are harmed).
I'm sure you noticed I also mentioned Amazon app above. I'm in the Care audience cluster for Amazon but using the app, I'm most definitely engaging in Do behavior as I buy like crazy from Amazon. I find it extremely convenient to be able to order on the go. This behavior complements my family's purchase behavior with Amazon, which is still primarily desktop based. For an entire segment of your audiences in the Care stage, there will be a lot of Do behavior. But, even the simplest report you run, using any analytics platform you have access to, will show you that the mobile app Do behavior is an AND for your deeply loyal customers, along with you rocking your mobile site and desktop site.
Mobile apps will continue to grow in usage. See audience intent will power most of this growth. You should absolutely take advantage of it. At a smaller pace, Care audience intent will power some of this growth. You should invest *a lot* in creating apps that take advantage of this opportunity (after all, they are the people that love you the most).
Mobile sites and desktop sites, will continue to grow in usage, and they will solve for a complex set of Think and Do type intent. It is where almost all of your new customers and lightly-connected current customers growth will come from. They will have a very diverse set of needs and wants. And, their instinct won't be to download your mobile app as the thing number one to do – without knowing what you can solve for! You will continue to find them on desktop and mobile site platforms. Invest in those platforms for marketing and invest in those channels to create amazing experiences.
This AND strategy will drive a global maxima for your business.
At the very minimum if you listen to someone (your boss!) who is driving you down a mobile apps only path, realize that it is simply solving for See and Care. Knowingly abandon most of Think (Largest Addressable Qualified Audiences with some commercial intent) and most of Do (Largest Addressable Qualified Audiences with lots of commercial intent). It is always better to be consciously wrong, than to be unconsciously wrong. Simply because when things most likely go south, the organization will learn important lessons.
Desktop Site + Mobile Site + Mobile Apps = See + Think + Do + Care = #winning #tigerblood
If you think about items one through four above, the one thing you'll overwhelmingly realize is that they are driving a deep emphasis on two things: A. People. B. Their intent.
You can't have B without A.
Yet, every single day in almost 99.9999% of analytics implementations are cookie based. This is even worse when we shift away from website analytics tools, which, except in flawed implementations, use first-party cookies, to analytics tools that come from advertising vendors (Facebook, DoubleClick, Microsoft Et. Al.). These vendors use the more fragile third-party cookies.
The net result of this cookie business is that data from ad networks does not allow us reliably track a human across multiple digital interactions over time, even if they use the same browser on the same computer for all those interactions. Additionally, even with first-party cookies, which last a bit longer and are more persistent, we can't track the human across multiple devices, across intent clusters.
This is a big problem today, and it is going to become worse with every passing day as the devices humans use multiply, and human behavior on those devices – old behavior, and lots of new behavior – becomes ever more fragmented.
If we rely on just cookies, we are going to make poorer and poorer decisions about our products and our marketing with every single day. Even when we work very hard, and move away from absolutely silly things like last-click attribution modeling , our insights will be harmed and won't be reflective of what is actually happening in the real world with your real customers.
I'm a bit freaked that not enough people are worrying about this problem, and all of us in the space are not making enough of a ruckus about it.
My slogan for you is simple: Pivot On People!
POP your site and ad platforms analytics implementations. Today.
The good news is that you don't have to wait for the technology to be invented. With, to use the technical name, User-ID Override in Universal Analytics from Google, and similar features from other platforms, you can execute a pivot on people strategy today!
The challenge you'll have is entirely marketing/business based. What can you do to do to incentivize people to self-identify, and keep doing it across platforms and digital engagements (and for the very best amongst you, across online and offline!)? We have never thought of a fair exchange where you can ask me to raise my hand and self identify. We never had to, the problem was not that bad. Every disrupted myth in this post suggests that the problem is big, and getting bigger.
So, what content or value exchange can you deliver to your users? Are you solving for just the macro-outcome, that you want? Or, have you also built micro-outcomes tied to See-Think-Care so that you meet user needs, and create an excitement in them to self identify? Higher order bit… Have you invested in understanding each audience intent cluster across See-Think-Do-Care ?
These are important questions you'll have to answer from a business and marketing perspective in order to follow my passionate recommendation that you pivot on people. The technology to actually do this exists already, has for the last couple of years. Perhaps there was a smaller sense of urgency in the past, it is a burning platform now. Obsess about solving the business problem.
Once you do… You'll be so beautifully placed to understand one human's behavior across devices and real-digital world existences. You'll be able to understand their intent a million times better. You'll be able to create right messages for them which you can deliver at the right time to the right person.
And, that my dear reader, as they say in the business, is golden!
Please be more aware of these five digital myths, and do your very best, with the alternative solutions outlined above, to spread the light of wisdom.
As always, it is your turn now.
Do you agree that these are the top five myths when it comes to digital? Are there others that you bump into more often? What is your experience implementing your company's programmatic strategy? Has a Do or an organic only strategy worked for your company/clients on Facebook? Is your company executing a data-first or a data-with digital strategy? Do you agree that apps are going to dominate and everything else needs to get de-prioritized? Are you, in every way possible, pivoting on people?
Please share your feedback, critique, wisdom and war stories via comments below.