How planners can fight back against the tide of digital data
The digital tide is turning. We’re beginning to see the first signs of consumers looking for ‘real’ brand experiences again.
For the past 10 years digital technology has been driving marketing and while that’s been great for building brands based on convenience and integration, it hasn’t been great for building brands based on an emotional connection.
So if marketers and the brands they manage want to get back to creating meaningful relationships that generate loyalty and goodwill, they need to start finding ways to blend real-world, ‘analogue’ insights into the vast amounts of digital data their online activities produce.
I’m interested in working with brands and agencies who champion that process and want to embrace the ‘analogue’ world again.
Planning under pressure:
Over the past 10 years, our opportunity to write powerful strategies has been slowly eroded, first by digital agencies, with their access to vast amounts of data, but also by clients who expect the same quality of insights they get from traditional planning, yet on a digital budget.
There’s plenty of debate in the marketing press — most of it bemoaning the rise of digital strategy. Yet critics tend to be good at ranting but short on providing any answers. So here’s my take.
I’ll keep it short because, thanks to increasingly digital media, most of us now have the attention span of a gnat.
So what’s causing the pressure?
Traditional ‘analogue’ planners are being muscled out of the decision-making process by less expensive, more immediate digital influencers
I’ve explored why this might be and come up with four key factors:
- ‘What Gets Measured Gets Managed’
- The Numbers Game
- The Analogue Alien
- The Strategy Scrum
Most of us assume the management guru Peter Drucker came up with the phrase ‘What gets measured gets managed’, but, in fact, the more likely source was Lord Kelvin who, in 1887, said:
“When you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it; but when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind; it may be the beginning of knowledge, but you have scarcely…advanced to the stage of science, whatever the matter may be.”
I prefer Kelvin’s version because he’s saying we don’t just manage the stuff we measure, we also assume the stuff we can’t measure is somehow less important. Kelvin was discussing electricity in the 19th Century but he could just as easily be describing digital marketing in the 21st.
In some ways, that’s fine. Digital inputs means brand managers get marketing they can measure and they save a lot of money on focus groups. Unfortunately, the outputs from this approach also tend to result in insights based on observable behaviour (rather than beliefs and emotions) and, in the long run, this tends to leave consumers feeling cold.
In our rush to digital solutions it’s easy to forget that consumers remain, essentially, analogue in their behaviour. Digital metrics massively underestimate this. Yet there’s tendency to overlook this fact because, as Lord Kelvin noted, non-rational motivations are so much harder to measure than clicks and eyeballs and it’s therefore tempting to just ignore them.
I’m not saying all digitally driven strategies are bad. Digital technology is obviously so fused into our daily lives how could I? But I do argue that it’s vital to ensure digital metrics are always balanced with less tangible analogue inputs if marketing is to remain human and relevant.
2. The Numbers Game:
It’s easy to be seduced by the clean simplicity of digital data. But there’s danger here, because the ease with which we gather data creates a false expectation that consumers are easy to understand.
There’s an assumption that modern consumers just sit around looking at their phones and that good marketing, therefore, boils down to giving them something interesting to look at. Feed them good advertising and content at the right time, with the right message and it stands to reason that, before long, they’ll be buying whatever it is you’re selling.
What’s more, getting consumers to buy stuff through these digital channels costs less than traditional marketing, the ROI is easier to measure and the whole process is ‘tweak-able’ as we go. So what we now have is a fast, effective marketing process that we can measure in real-time, resulting in a digital campaign so polished it perfectly reflects whatever it is we want to see.
Given these benefits who can blame clients for assuming digital media gives us all the insights and tools we need?
But of course, it isn’t that easy. While online data provides incredibly detailed information about HOW consumer behave, it actually offers very little insight into WHY consumers behave that way. And this is a big problem for traditional strategic planning.
While access to digital inputs is part of any good planner’s toolkit, all that information can actually prevent planners from conducting more traditional, analogue research that’s far better at identifying opportunities.
In fact, the lack of genuine ‘analogue’ insight can often leave planners exposed. They may have all the numbers they need to make the client feel comfortable, but too often they don’t have the underlying understanding of the consumer’s world to propose something truly new. So they go into strategy meetings knowing their decks are rich on tactics, but poor on big-picture thinking.
3. The Analogue Alien
A more subtle factor putting planners under pressure is something I call Analogue Alienation.
As Lord Kelvin said, we pay more attention to the things we can measure, so brand managers will generally put more store in a graph with millions of data-points than feedback from qualitative research.
This preference to all things ‘digital’ can largely be put down to the fact that the people running many brands these days grew up in a digital environment and are, themselves, part of the ‘Digital Generation’.
When people talk about the ‘Digital Generation’ we tend to think of 14-year-old kids playing on an Xbox in their bedroom. But let’s be clear, this description applies just as much to the next generation of marketers, clients and planners.
Many marketers now in their 30’s were playing Fifa ’18, when it was still Fifa ’98. That’s a whole cohort of marketers who grew up in the virtual world.
They are also more predisposed to digital solutions and less familiar with the subtle charms of ‘softer,’ analogue information. A lot of them simply don’t trust qualitative inputs. In effect, they’re ‘Analogue Aliens’.
Again, I’m not saying that a knowledge of the digital landscape is a bad thing per se. It obviously helps to know how the technology works and how it affects consumer behaviour. But it does mean clients and brand managers tend to be less familiar or interested in traditional brand values and emotional triggers.
As such, they’ll often not build ‘soft metrics’ into the marketing plan and tend to overlook them when drawing up the strategy.
So how do qualitative, analogue insights get to be understood or considered if no-one is looking for them?
4. The Strategy Scrum
The fourth reason traditional planning is being squeezed I’m calling the Strategy Scrum.
Clients these days feel less inclined to follow a strategic process lead by a communication agency and why should they?
In the modern world, a digital strategy must be hard-wired into all the brand’s activity and a digital perspective must be one of its cornerstones. So the digital agency is obviously going to be involved in developing the strategy alongside the other players. As such, the creative agency does not necessarily take the lead.
Furthermore, with the definition of ‘brand’ expanding, you can throw into this scrum the views of the branding agency, the design agency, the PR agency, the social media agency and even the UX guys. All of whom have a legitimate say in influencing the direction of the brand.
From the brand managers POV this makes sense yet what often results is just a list of tactics rather than a coherent plan.
So consultancies are increasingly brought in to oversee the chaos.
What’s the Answer?
Technology is changing the way consumers behave and this must be reflected in the way we market to them. But we mustn’t let the way we measure our customers lead us to focus too much on digital to the detriment of less tangible analogue inputs.
Just because a consumer connects with our brand via a phone, doesn’t mean they’ve connected emotionally and all the ‘impressions’ and ‘engagement’ metrics in the world won’t tell us how to do that.
So it’s important to build ‘analogue’ into the strategy process from the start. This kind of ‘data’ may be harder to find and more difficult to measure, but understanding it will drive sales far more effectively than simple digital engagement.
Understand the problem before you try to solve it
“If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on it, I’d use the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask” Einstein
The first job of the planner is to frame the problem so that the strategy addresses the right issues. Only after that can the appropriate metrics (both analogue and digital) be blended to shape the overall direction of travel.
Building a strategic position always starts with ‘why’, rather than ‘how’, but if you look at the numbers first, all you’re going to see is where the consumers’ have been — not where they’re going.
Conversely, if you begin the process by exploring the pictures in the consumers’ head you’ll find a completely different way of interpreting the numbers thrown up by your digital interactions.
Starting with the consumer gives the brand a narrative and an emotional handle from which to hang the data.
Start with ‘Why’ not ‘How’
Analogue insights hold the key to powerful and distinctive strategies your competition will not be able to see if they simply look at the data.
Nor should the fact that analogue inputs are more expensive to obtain or harder to measure put you off looking at the analogue inputs first. Focusing too much on cheap and easily sourced data, and basing the strategy on that, risks throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
Gathering consumer insights at the outset makes the rest of the work more effective, even if you have to fight with the client for the resources to do the job properly. The fact clients now routinely expect their agencies to define the strategy as part of the pitch is a huge mistake and must be challenged whenever possible.
As marketing provocateur Mark Ritson suggested at the Festival of Marketing in Oct 2017:
“5 or 10 years ago we were better at strategy than we are now. Most companies don’t have any strategy. The advice I’d give now that wasn’t necessary 10 years ago is to stop messing around with the tactical stuff, pull back, think about strategy. If you talk to agencies about the pitches they’re getting in the UK now, they’ll tell you they’re terrible. There’s no strategy in them, just a bunch of tactical requests… My advice would be — try and get strategy first before you start talking about TV, Facebook or anything.”
Planners need a couple of things to help them fend off this creeping digital reductionism.
First, they need to win the argument that ‘analogue’ inputs are just as valuable as digital when shaping the strategy.
Second, they need to offer the client the chance to see the value of an analogue perspective without making it an expensive, time-consuming exercise.
Finally, planners need to be able to do this at the start of the project, so that all subsequent metrics are built into the narrative from the beginning.
But this approach requires more time for the planner to do their work and for a budget to be put aside for initial exploratory qualitative research.
So, in response, I’m proposing a cut-down qualitative process called 5–2–1 that provides a strategic map at the start of a project.
5–2–1 — What is it?
5–2–1 is stripped-back qualitative research designed to give planners a short-cut to insights.
It consists of:
5 x 60 minute face-to-face interviews with handpicked respondents — conducted in-home — with video. 5 hours of intimate, deep and personal interviews that explore the consumers’ emotional landscape.
2 x weeks’ turn-around — from brief to debrief. It needs to be quick so the findings can be built into your thinking before the metrics kick in.
1 x on-site debrief with your team including key video quotes. A fast, open, workshop-type feedback session, that enables planners to build their argument on the most powerful and relevant insights.
Here are a few examples where the first 5 interviews shaped great strategy:
TRUTH is one of the most successful pieces of marketing communication in US history, winning more than 400 awards, including Emmys, Addy’s, Clios and a Grand Effie.
Originally, this teen anti-smoking campaign was called Rage. Based on a handful of interviews, I argued that the name and approach was wrong and that kids need to make up their own minds. From this, Truth was born. http://bit.ly/2zmiQYS
ROLAND PIANOS The Japanese instrument maker needed a fresh plan that would differentiate it from Yamaha. As with many tech businesses, they had all the metrics but few real insights. 5 x face-to-face interviews convinced them they needed a new approach, which lead to a global repositioning.
CHRISTOPHER WARD WATCHES Luxury watch owners walk a thin line between vanity, status and a genuine love of mechanics. Being an on-line brand, there were plenty of metrics, but not a lot of understanding ‘why?’ We started with 5 x face-to-face interviews, carefully peeling away the layers of meaning until we got to the true drivers of choice that lay underneath.
From there we developed a new campaign that defines Christopher Ward’s ethos for both new and loyal supporters.
“The kind of work Graham does and the knowledge he has is hard to find anywhere else”. Sir John Hegarty