4 lessons learnt from 4 years writing about digital marketing

After almost four years writing about the UK digital marketing sector for Marketing Week, I’m off to pastures new. Here’s what I’ve learnt along the way.

Forget “content marketing” and “native advertising”, just concentrate on what you do best

Without a doubt, two of the top three (the last one later) biggest buzzwords over recent years in digital marketing have been “content marketing” and “native advertising”. Conferences have been dedicated to them, trade bodies have set up working groups devoted to them yet, still, we haven’t yet decided on a firm definition for either.

I took a fair bit of stick from readers in April when I wrote that content marketing was a “meaningless buzzword that needs to buzz off”. Don’t worry, it didn’t bother me, and I’d still be prepared to step into the ring over the debate again now.

The “tl;dr” version, to summarise: content marketing is marketing, not a separate discipline unto itself, and native advertising is about publisher/advertiser partnerships – not just buying up ads that fit pre-defined spaces. Stick that on your next working group agenda.

Let’s not waste our time arguing the toss on definitions and rearranging entire strategies around something apparently new that’s actually been around for ages. To re-tread another marketing road that’s been walked down many times before: start with the customer and your brand truth and everything else – the articles with Buzzfeed, your 10-minute brand concept video or your brand ambassador waving your phone around during the Oscars – will follow.

Chief digital officers, watch your back

I’ve seen some ridiculous job titles pass through the pages of Marketing Week over the years. Digital prophet, word spreader, chief envisioning officer, digital black belt and social media ninja were among my favourites.

The rise of a new discipline that those in the upper echelons of management haven’t got their head around yet has inevitably led to an increase in new job titles and an addition to the list of tiresome debates: the role of chief digital officers (or similar-sounding job titles) within the business.

For me, isolating digital leadership to one individual or department risks wandering into another dangerous red herring of marketing categorisation. The CMO should own digital within a business, because digital is increasingly powered into every communication a company has with a customer.

Within marketing departments, there is of course still the requirement for specialists, but businesses do not require another c-suite executive to make the case for digital with other members of senior management. The CMO is the CDO…or the CPO or the CAO or the C<O or whatever crazy job title they come up with next.

Social media buzz only lasts as long as a legal high (hint: not very long) (I’ve heard)

I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve seen marketers and agencies attempt to demonstrate the success of their social media campaigns by how many likes and retweets they received. This was barely acceptable in 2010 when hardly anybody had got their heads around how to link social media activity to sales or other brand metric upticks, but it’s plain embarrassing to see the same kind of case studies in 2014.

I cringed so hard I felt something click in my neck when I saw the first branded efforts pour in as social war rooms across the land tried to sledgehammer their brands into the news that Apple’s new iPhone might be a bit bendy this week.

That’s not to say newsjacking isn’t an important marketing skill. Brands should always be looking at ways in which they can tap into popular culture to have relevant conversations with their audiences, but the deluge of brands still trying to create their own Oreo “you can still dunk in the dark” moment is embarrassing to watch. Those responsible are doing it for themselves, not for their companies or clients.

Real-time marketing and “going viral” can serve as fantastic opportunities to reinforce a brand’s voice and extend its reach to new audiences. But one popular meme won’t suddenly propel a struggling brand out of the red. Actual engagement – not just notoriety – happens over a far longer period of time. It’s something you have to invest in and hire the right people for. And ultimately, it’s brands that go beyond engagement to enchantment that will emerge as the real social media victors.  Kudos to brands like Cadbury and Heinz who are not only entertaining to follow on Twitter and Facebook, but have been able to demonstrate a return.

Don’t kid yourself into thinking you can ignore ad tech

Advertising technology has obviously been around for far longer than the four years I’ve been working at Marketing Week but it’s only really been in the last 12 months that I’ve seen it rise up the chief marketer’s agenda. Ad tech sessions at conferences once dominated by suppliers and agency specialists are now seeing the spotlight fall on brand-side marketers.

“Programmatic”, of course, was the third of my top three buzzwords. And in recent years we have seen programmatic evolve from being a mechanism for publishers and networks to get rid of unsold inventory and a “race to the bottom” world of making digital media buying a cheaper process, to a highly efficient and sophisticated weapon in the marketing arsenal.

In the UK alone, the share of digital ads bought via programmatic technologies is estimated to grow 28 per cent to 2013 to almost half (47 per cent) in 2014, according to research from strategy consultancy MTM, commissioned by the Internet Advertising Bureau. MTM also predicts the proportion of programmatically traded digital ads could reach up to 75 per cent of all the digital display ads bought in 2017 – and with other media owners currently exploring how they can also automate ad sales, programmatic is most certainly an area that marketers should be keeping their eyes on.

The world of programmatic is surrounded by hype, risk, confusion, intrigue, reward and it has already had a huge impact on the marketing industry. Let’s not get carried away, programmatic is merely another way to buy media and it shouldn’t distract from the overarching marketing tasks at hand. But marketers can’t kid themselves into thinking it’s just a job of their agencies or specialists. If they are to truly unlock the opportunity programmatic and other forms of ad tech offer for their brands, they can’t be forgiven for not having the knowledge themselves.

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Four years really is a hell of a long time in digital and it’s been a privilege to write about some of the most exciting stories in the sector, from the Facebook and Twitter IPOs through to some inspirational marketing campaigns and the emergence of some groundbreaking technologies that will change the sector forever. So long, and on to the next adventure. And save your “good riddance” messages for Twitter: @larakiara

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