Big Data, Analytics and Programmatic Buying Are No Panacea
Harvard Business Review recently devoted much of their March 2013 print issue, including the cover, to digital advertising and the way big data and analytics are transforming the field. You can read an intro to the piece here, but will have to subscribe to get the full article.
The Promise of Smart Advertising
The article discusses how today’s data-centric marketing is not only able to precisely target ad placements based on demographic, psychographic, behavioral, and a host of other data, but can then also reliably track and attribute subsequent consumer behavior to exactly the advertising that triggered it. This insight is then used to further tune campaigns, optimize media spend, targeting, and placement on an ongoing basis.
Usually, all of this is automated. Media is bought via programmatic platforms and campaigns are optimized in real time based on results achieved, driven by powerful algorithms and without human intervention. According to the HBR article – and countless ad-tech vendors’ marketing claims – this approach promises the equivalent of laser-guided precision ad units that hit the mark each time, at precisely the right place and time for maximum effect and minimal cost. HBR describes this new advertising landscape similar to the precision-guided munitions employed by our military. Perhaps an apt comparison, as they seem to share a common flaw: both require a change in approach and neither seems to work quite as promised in less than ideal settings. Allow me to elaborate.
Measuring is no Substitute for Managing
Digital advertising has always claimed to be more measurable than its traditional, offline brethren. While billboards, print, and broadcast media were forced to rely on crude (and often manipulated) metrics like circulation, Nielsen ratings, GRPs, traffic counts and the like, digital media could always point to its inherently interactive nature. And this claim could be substantiated by “hard” data, including click-through rates and paths, engagement, time-on-site and more.
Even better, when a product was purchased online or a lead generated, this action would commonly be credited to the media that drove the consumer to the conversion point, a process commonly referred to as last-click attribution. It seemed the only blind spot for digital media was the inability to clearly attribute offline purchase decisions to media consumed (and ads viewed) online, where both traditional and digital media appeared to be on equal footing. And, given that consumers were increasingly consuming media online and in digital formats, yet brands were still disproportionately allocating spend to traditional, all that remained was for marketers to shift spend so that online media got its fair share and all would be right. Wrong.
For one, it turns out that not everyone peddling eyeballs online is totally honest and a lot of those clicks and views are not by actual consumers but, instead, automated bots that generate phantom traffic. As a result, much of what brands spend on digital ads is wasted on non-existent views and fraudulent clicks. And it’s not just amateurs getting taken here. Even large, presumably sophisticated advertisers like AT&T, BMW, and McDonalds, running what I assume to be sophisticated (and expensive) campaigns, are falling victim to this and, at times, losing up to 80% of their spend to fraud according to one report.
But, click-fraud and bot-traffic aside, there remain other issues with today’s state of digital advertising and it is still far from the perfect, well-oiled machine portrayed in the HBR. For one, online display ads are notoriously weak in building brand awareness and show weakness even for direct-response advertising. A recent study illustrates this and data shows that consumers are statistically more likely to survive a plane crash than click on a banner ad. Of course, campaigns vary greatly in terms of effectiveness, but you get the gist. Beyond display advertising (banners and such), similar issues surface in paid search, social media, and the latest trend to emerge, so-called “native” advertising.
My Reality Belies Market Claims
At the heart of these issues seem to lay poor segmentation and targeting, along with the crude, heavy-handed execution of many of the campaigns. For all the much-vaunted data that Google and Facebook have on consumer behavior and the supposed sophistication of today’s marketers, I continue to be perplexed by the ads I am (mis-)served on a daily basis. Any parent who has had their teenage daughter borrow their computer for 30 minutes and then paid for this with countless ads for One Direction’s new tour or the spring sale at Forever 21 knows what I’m talking about. These re-targeted ads – which occur when you visit a site but then fail to buy (or even when you DO buy, ‘cause, y’know, you might have missed something, right?) – are becoming increasingly popular with marketers, despite a growing backlash by Internet users.
Marketing Still Requires Marketers
This is not to say that digital advertising isn’t the way forward. Nor that smart, targeted ads guided by data-intensive insight don’t hold great promise, for both are clearly true.
It’s just that, for now, they are not yet delivering on their promise of identifying the right consumers and serving them the most relevant ads at the most appropriate time. Big data, analytics and ad-technology will clearly play a key role in getting us to there. But, technology alone will not do the trick. While it is clearly necessary, it is simply not sufficient on its own. As programmatic buying and RTB (Real-Time Bidding) platforms gain traction and big data becomes an even a bigger deal in guiding marketing (hard to imagine in the current hype-cycle, right?), advertisers, their agencies, and consultants will need to ensure that the human component is given equal consideration. Business processes, marketing departments, campaign design, and media spend all need to be adapted to the new reality. Some even claim that the rise of technology-centric marketing calls for an entirely new member of the C-suite, the Chief Digital Officer or CDO. While this is a debate for another time, this much is clear: investments in hiring, training, and consulting services must accompany those made in systems and technology if they are to be effective. Technology, no matter how refined and sophisticated, is never the panacea promised by vendors. We saw this with ERP systems, EAI/BPM, and a host of other initiatives that all required several years and multiple investment cycles in both IT and human capital, along with structural changes to organizations and processes, to deliver on their promise.
Solid marketing fundamentals, effective strategy, strong creative, and execution still matter, and I fear there’s just no app for that. New techniques and tools will require marketing teams and brands to change their thinking, acquire new skills, and develop effective approaches. Same as it ever was, one might quote one of my favorite 80s bands.