Every Marketer Needs to See this Napkin

Recently, I had a cup of coffee and a macaroon with a guy named Christopher Skinner. Christopher has spent the last dozen years or so running a company called MakeBuzz after selling his old company, Performics, to Doubleclick. Lately, he has been keynoting some of Google’s “Think” conferences. Google likes what his company does for them—after using his software, marketers start to spend a lot more money on branded display. In other words, instead of just loading up on keywords and obvious AdSense display inventory, marketers are leveraging data that says digital display works to build a brand’s customer base. Without getting too specific, the software offers geo-targeted media recommendations that aim to optimize profits in specific areas—helping a company go from selling 100 widgets a month in Poughkeepsie to 150.

When I asked what the secret sauce was, I was surprised at the answer. Christopher drew me something on a napkin that looked like this:

Napkin

The problem, he told me was that marketers weren’t striking the right balance between branding and direct response, and focusing too much on capturing customers they already had. In other words, if your business was like a lawn, and the profits were grass clippings, most folks were spending too much time cutting and not enough time fertilizing. To get the grass to grow, you want to fertilize it (branding) and get plenty of new blades to pop up as often as possible. When you cut it (direct response), you want to do so in a way that ensures it won’t get burnt, and lose its ability to sustain itself. It’s a delicate balance between growing demand through branding, and harvesting those efforts through direct response.

Looking at his crudely drawn chart, the line represents reach, going from a single user to the entire population. Most marketers stop 20% of the way through, and put all of their focus on their customer base through search and programmatic RTB display efforts—using data to ensure they are reaching the right “intenders,” but missing the opportunity to create new ones through branding. On the far right (dotted line), you have all the potential customers that are addressable; these users are still “targeted,” but so widely that hitting them with messaging is fraught with waste. This is the digital equivalent of advertising to “the demo” on television. Sure, it creates demand for BMWs, but only a certain portion of the audience has enough dough to afford a 5-series.

The simple message that many marketers continue to miss—either by focusing way too much on DR, or over indexing on untargeted branded efforts—is that a balance is critically important in the digital marketing mix. While it sounds simple to find the right balance, it actually requires a strong base of knowledge to execute properly. This is what I mean:

  • Measure Differently:  Before you can understand the mix you need to achieve between branding and DR, you need to agree on a meaningful metric. Far too many digital campaigns are judged by three-letter performance acronyms that are proxies for success. Great CTR and CPA are positive signs—that you are doing all the right things to reach the audience you have already earned. They are poor indicators of your success in building new customers. Thinking holistically about your marketing efforts yields new benchmarks: If your company typically sell 200 widgets in the Upper West Side of Manhattan, why shouldn’t you be able to sell the same amount in San Francisco’s Nob Hill? In other words, how about using “profit optimization” as the primary metric? This requires a relationship with the advertiser that goes beyond the agency, and plenty of first-party data, which is why such simple yet effective metrics are not used frequently.
  • Spend More on Branding: Sometimes, what holds good marketing back is a reliance on known metrics. In another year, the banner ad with be 20 years old. While the banner ad ushered in an era of “measurability,” it also took marketers on a path to thinking that anything and everything could have its own success metric, and we went from a dependence on soft, panel-based, attitudinal metrics to today’s puzzling array of digital KPIs. Did Absolut vodka worry about CTR on its way to becoming the dominant liquor brand of the last quarter century? Or did they just design great packaging and put big beautiful ads on every magazine back cover they could find? At the end of the day, TBWA made a decent vodka into a great brand, and the only metric anyone ever worried about was case sales. They did it by spending LOTS of money on branding.
  • Find the Sweet Spot: Spending more on branding is obviously important for “growing the grass,” but not every product is one everyone can afford. While it made sense for Absolut to advertise to the broader population of adults in magazine, most marketers have a more limited audience and budget. Finding the sweet spot between branding and DR has a lot to do with knowing your potential customer and how they make purchase decisions. If you believe (as I do) that word-of-mouth is the most powerful medium, then it makes sense to apply as much granular targeting to a campaign—without restricting it with too much targeting data. Neighbors talk to and influence each other—and the Smiths and Joneses tend to chat on the soccer field about cars, vacations, and even the latest medical procedures. Your sweet spot is where you can faithfully blanket ads in a neighborhood or larger area that has a built-in predilection to purchase. It’s not a broad as city targeting, which wastes messaging on customers that can’t afford your products, and not so targeted as “intender” targeting, which limits your addressable audience to people who already love your brand.

Today, it seems like digital marketers are limiting their reach to their existing customers—spending lots of lower-funnel effort dragging “intenders” across the finish line, so they can attribute lower acquisition costs to their campaigns. Although the real customer growth is grown through branding efforts, most marketers are scared to open up the spigot and deliver large amount of impressions, and especially hesitant to migrate marketing to cookie-less mobile devices and tablets which are harder to target. But to grow customers, you need to introduce them to your brand—and find them where they live. When you water the lawn religiously, there is always plenty to cut.

[This post originally appeared in AdExchanger on 10/7/2013]

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