I had a conversation last week with a friend and business acquaintance in which we discussed the directions the online digital marketing industry is moving through. “Online Digital Marketing” has a nice ring to it but it’s an expression I grabbed at random. One could just as easily say “Social Media Marketing”, “Search Engine Marketing”, “Online Public Relations”, and any of a dozen other terms and you’re still talking about a conglomerate of agencies, consultants, freelancers, and permanent full/part-time employees who are all tasked with similar responsibilities.
The business world has discovered that the World Wide Web drives sales. That’s not to say that the WWW increases sales. Rather, the Web has simply become the marketplace of choice for millions of consumers who used to buy products through other channels. But it’s hard to pin down how much actual economic growth that the Web has contributed to because there are no really good measurements for that kind of activity.
For example, in the United States per capita Gross Domestic Product has remained about the same for at least 20 years. That means that if you take all the wealth created by people in this country in one year and divide it by the number of people in the country, you’ll get a number that has remained about steady for the past two decades. Since our population has grown steadily over the past 20 years, however, what that data tells us is that we are creating more wealth but we’re not creating more wealth per person.
The per capita measurement doesn’t look at distribution or share of wealth, but it explains why we feel stagnant in our economic initiatives. No matter how much we try harder the American economy just cannot grow wealth fast enough to outpace population growth. We have lost the efficiencies that helped out economy explode in the second half of the 20th century, or else they simply became less productive as the world changed.
In other words, we are not creating much new wealth on or through the Internet (in the United States — that may not be true of some other countries). We are simply shifting our wealth creation resources from older channels to online channels. And part of the transition has involved shifting some of our marketing communications resources to the Internet as well.
The only really new marketing innovations are Search Engine Optimization and Social Media Outreach, neither of which has proven itself to be economically sustainable. The problem with Search Engine Optimization is that a majority of practitioners rely on short-lived methods of generating revenues. The problem with Social Media Outreach is that it has yet to find a set of metrics that can measure real marketing success.
Meanwhile, traditional journalism (print newspapers and magazines and broadcast news resources) is struggling to find its place on the Internet. The free dissemination of information makes competitive distribution of information less economically viable. News relations has helped to drive a large percentage of business sales and growth for the past 60 years but that return on investment is declining.
Next to journalism the traditional Publicity and Public Relations industry is also challenged by the unexpected freedoms the Internet has created. Old school PR agencies and PR specialists used to hand-craft a “press release” that they then personally conveyed to journalists along with a pitch for a story; the goal was persuade editorial staffs and feature columnists to profile a new company, product, or service. The World Wide Web took the old “press release” and turned it into content that was supposedly being directed at journalists and syndicated writers but which was really just being published on Websites.
As radio and television media moved online they opened up their channels of communication to their readers and viewers, soliciting tips for stories through online contact forms. I once succeeded in getting TV coverage for a local event simply by filling out a form on a TV station Website. Suddenly, the Common Man had media contacts and exposure that had previously been the private venue of the PR specialists.
Advertising agencies leaped onto the Internet with banner ads, promotional pages, advertorials, and everything else you can imagine — and that was all in the 1990s. New digital marketing agencies sprang up as old school advertising agencies struggled to catch up with the technology.
But search engine optimization marketing stole the good ideas from the journalists, the PR specialists, and the advertising agencies and turned all those good ideas into “link building campaigns”. These link building efforts created a nightmare competition to capture “search engine rankings” from Yahoo!, Altavista, Excite, and eventually Google and Bing. The search marketing and social media marketing industries are paralyzed by fear of missing out on some great new linking practice while at the same time dreading the inevitable backlash from search engines and social media networks.
The backlash is devastating in the short term and generally not helpful in the long term because marketers don’t stop to assess the rights and wrongs of what they are doing. They see a new idea and run with it regardless of how appropriate that idea may be for their needs.
We Need a New Manifesto
Digital marketing in all its forms and with all its names has lost focus. We have fallen prey to the foolish idea that we must chase links on Websites rather than build relationships with digital audiences. There is, in fact, nothing in the lexicon about “digital audience relations”. There is no longer a “news media”, no longer an “advertising medium”. There is only the Internet and the World Wide Web. We can share news and promote products and services regardless of whether anyone pays us to do so.
The digital audience is the new information marketplace. The digital audience is the new channel. We must shape our relationships with the digital audience so that we are relevant and meaningful to it.
Digital Audience Relations are in force today. We simply don’t call these practices by that name. But neither do we measure digital audience relations nor do we seek to build or shape those relations. The key performance indicators and metrics for success are drawn from older concepts and used to measure things that don’t fit the digital audience.
Digital Audience Relations Defined
Digital Audience Relations is the practice of creating and extending a message tailored to a specific segment of the digital audience that is relevant and meaningful to that segment. The segment is defined by the product, service, or brand that needs to communicate with the digital audience.
Digital Audience Relations embraces Passive Content Co-branding (what we used to call “content marketing”, but that term has been coopted by naive search marketers). In Passive Content Co-branding the content is created for a specific audience and only incidentally promotes a product, service, or entity. This is the classic “John Deere Magazine” model and it is one used by many so-called “passive income specialists” from news Websites to made-for-advertising sites that simply publish random content.
Digital Audience Relations also embraces Informational Outreach. This is most often denoted by the creation of a dedicated Website about a specific product, service, or concept. Think of a specialist blog that only publishes articles about raising parrots, or a movie studio’s latest Website promoting a $100-million blockbuster film. Informational Outreach is the World Wide Web’s equivalent of the television Infomercial. The message is very narrow and focused and the Website is constantly available, even if nothing changes there.
Digital Audience Relations also embraces traditional advertising, where specific Websites or URLs are promoted through targeted advertising. The advertiser knows the demographic of the targeted audience and shapes the advertising very specifically to that audience.
But the World Wide Web has created new value-sharing opportunities for Digital Audience Relations. For example, taking a cue from search marketers, Digital Audience Relations seeks to create high-profile links that attract attention, drive visitors to Websites, and create brand value.
And Digital Audience Relations is experimenting with social media engagement, where the brand reaches out to consumers directly through dedicated social media accounts. The message delivered through social media may be more tempered and less direct than pure advertising messages. One example is how many companies provide customer support through their social media accounts.
In Digital Audience Relations, the Consumer Is A Marketing Partner
You’re not just reaching out to consumers. You’re also asking them to help you reach out to other consumers. Yes, you can still call upon your friends in the news media to see if they’ll pick up a story but you can also call upon your friends in the blogosphere and on social communities to see if they will pick up the story as well. You may get hits in news, blogs, and social or you may only get hits in 1 or 2 channels.
Measuring shares is an inadequate metric because there are automated shares, purchased shares, and random shares. You want to measure intentional or thoughtful shares, to be sure, but you may need to classify other types of shares by the impact they have on consumer activity.
In fact, Digital Audience Relations calls for a whole new standard in metrics. They begin with the simple metric of Scope of Audience, which defines who your message is trying to reach. The Saturation Depth measures how much of that audience scope the measure has reached (and this can be plotted in timelines to show growth and life expectancy for message saturation).
You will want to define and measure as many distinct channels as possible by assigning to each a Scope of Audience value paired with a Predicted Conversions value. How many conversions should you expect from exposing your message to 10,000,000 news readers, or to 1,000,000 blog readers, or to 1,000 social community members, or to 500 mailing list subscribers? If you exceed the predicted conversions you have a positive Audience Engagement. If you fail to match the predicted conversions you have a negative Audience Engagement.
One can never hope for 100% message saturation but it may happen on very rare occasions. More often you should be measuring Core Saturation — how much of your core audience in a given segment receive the message? Core Segment Engagement measures how much response your core audience in each segment generates.
How to Deliver a Message in Digital Audience Relations
Although you still have the option of publishing information through an intermediary, direct publication is the main ingredient for Digital Audience Relations. You publish through a variety of resources:
- A dedicated Website, which is required for branding
- A partner distribution channel (blog, news site, mailing list)
- Relay through social outreach (soliciting or encouraging responding content on other sites)
- Random self-publication
Random self-publication entails the usual practices of publishing press releases, articles on blogs, etc. but without all the cloak-and-dagger fakery. You’re not trying to obtain links for search engine rankings, you want consumers to land on and react to that content. I call this “laying an information minefield”, where if you pack it right consumers cannot go far without encountering your message (written by your team, placed by your team).
This last type of content distribution may be limited based on the number of resources you have to work with. It’s not that you can just publish articles on 100 blogs; you want to publish articles on 100 blogs that reach real people and whose visitors may come to your Website.
Random self-publication is the most easily performed task in the queue and therefore it is the most often abused. For that reason alone this method should used only with great caution and foresight and with absolutely no hope of compensation or proven return on investment, at least until you can be realistically sure of having escaped the stigma of self-promotional marketing.
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