The ability to measure consumer behaviour online has made the process of marketing more important than the actual campaign.
The history of the internet is one of unintended consequences. The “network of networks” was never intended for commercial use, but has its roots in academics sharing information and the military’s desire to build a robust communications platform.
Applied to the world of commerce, one of the great unexpected consequences has been an ability to measure consumer behaviour that has changed the face of advertising. Now that same ability to track and measure consumer behaviour is being applied to marketing strategy. Increasingly, where you start from becomes less important than how you respond to how your audience’s behaviour.
The idea of “light touch strategy” has its roots in software development. A few years ago, people started talking about Google’s idea of perpetual beta. The search giant became famous for the way that it made many of the new products and services that it had in development available to anyone who wanted to use them. It used the feedback gained not just to make them better but to decide which to proceed with and which to bin.
Forward-thinking designers in other areas adopted this approach. Some, such as Lego, tapped into existing customer communities to help design new products. Others, such as New Look, recruited their own communities and used them to provide feedback about planned product ranges. The idea started to take hold that design, rather than being something that happened in the most secret part of the company, was something done at least in part-view of customers.
At the same time, the optimisation of ad campaigns has become the norm in digital marketing. The ability to measure audience response in real time via click-throughs allows marketers to see what’s working and what isn’t, and tweak creative, placement and frequency, among other parameters, to improve results.
Beyond this, the recent introduction of the facility to “like” ads in social networks or in certain ad networks has brought the same approach to the world of branding. Marketers can now see instantly whether or not their ads are winning the approval of their target audience.
And in the past year or so, marketers have started to look at their communications strategy in a similar light. Last year at Marketing Week Live, Britvic gave a presentation of a light touch strategy approach to a site for its Fruit Shoot sub-brand. Ready For Ten is aimed at the parents of children approaching ten years old. Rather than spending ages developing a strategy for the site, Britvic and its agency Made By Many built it as a platform through which it could bring useful information to busy parents. It monitored what people were responding to and tailored the content to meet user needs. Once the audience was established, Britvic launched its Parents For Playgrounds campaign on it, which invited parents to nominate a playground for the chance of winning a £15,000 renovation.
There are significant advantages to this approach. It fits with the idea that marketing is less and less about a six-week campaign twice a year, and more about constant communication with customers. It means you can get something into the market quickly. It allows you to test your assumptions. It reduces the risk of a brand spending months developing a digital campaign only for the online landscape to change before it launches. And it encourages people into a dialogue with brands, which can help with the longer-term design issues I mentioned before.
There are, of course, problems too. It requires a different way of thinking about how campaigns are paid for and how their success is measured. Many brands have found campaigns that involve audience participation require a more flexible approach to funding rather than a simple one-off payment, as elements have to be expanded to meet unexpected customer enthusiasm. And it should not be seen as a way of saving money by cutting the cost of developing strategy.
It asks big questions about the ways advertising has historically been done and how agencies themselves are structured. It’s also often misunderstood, with people thinking that a repetitive approach means the first thing you put up won’t be any good and won’t work properly, rather than simply being a way to solicit audience involvement.
In many ways it feels like the sort of change music fans of a certain age have struggled with in recent years. In the old days, a band made a record and that was that. Indeed much of the appraisal of a band’s gigs was based on how closely the live performance resembled the record. But sampling and remixing changed all that. There is less and less a single, definitive version of a track, rather a proliferation of different versions of variable status and of varying merit.
Likewise for the marketing community, in future the artefacts will become less important than the process itself.