Commentary

Man Cannot Live On Databases Alone

Last week I talked about why I think reach & frequency are still going to be important to online advertising in spite of the industry’s past as a direct marketing powerhouse and its inability to lure, en masse, significant branding dollars. By representing to what extent the medium communicates to a selected target audience, and representing it in a familiar way that will also allow it to be viewed in coordination with the rest of the marketing tools being deployed, the digital marketing segment of the industry creeps ever closer to sitting at the adult table when the holiday meal is served.

However, let’s not distract ourselves with how to model a new medium so that it can work with old media at the expense of just what it is the new media is capable of. It is important to realize that the key to any marketing is to maximize how many experiences a company can initiate with its most valuable prospects. Reach is irrelevant to that project if you can actually identify who those prospects are and touch them regularly. In the long run, powerful database-driven marketing is going to be what works best.

That said, does it apply to all forms of product and service?

Yes, meaningful experiences with the most valuable prospects are desirable to anyone with something to sell, and there are technologies ready-to-hand that can help facilitate the project of figuring out just who those people are.

Yet, there must be balance between a business reality and media purity. The fact of the matter is that unless you are a direct marketer, for whom impulse reaction to an advertising message is paramount to a successful business, something that resembles what we call "reach," as proxy for less tangible qualities of audience, will be necessary.

One of the things that reach also implies is a volumetric necessity to realize a numerical business objective. Multiple experiences created with the use of cookie data, etc. may not yield the kind of volume required to make the kinds of goals some businesses require to stay in business.

K-Tel and Ronco are not in the business of building branded relationships with consumers that create influence on purchase behavior over time. They need a hit-and-run to operate efficiently and make their money. Yes, there are numbers that this requires, but these are calculated with data resultant from relatively singular touch-points that demonstrate causal relationship with advertising event and action. But Coke and advertisers of their ilk rely on something more sublime. And the relationships between advertising event and actions are correlative and a lot more tenuous. There simply aren’t going to be databases powerful enough, any time soon, to tell me which guy’s thirst is going to be best quenched with a feeling rather than a cents-off coupon.

The kinds of things we imagine powerful database marketing is going to be capable of sometimes finds itself in the realm of the fantastic, and we need to be cautious about how the industry moves forward with the technologies being developed to deliver on promises made that have yet to be kept. Remember, it was over-promising and under-delivering that got the interactive medium in such conceptual dire straights with general market advertisers.

Sometimes the overt enthusiasms for the possibilities of technology need to be tempered by the realities of market places, qua societies. The kind of "one-to-one"-ness folks get excited about because of the promises of technologies is truly a very long way off, if even possible at all. I sometimes feel like the conversations had about them are the same as those that start, "Interactive TV is right around the corner..." or "By 1999, we'll all be driving in hover cars..." A delicate balance of desire, need, luck, and fiscal viability is what’s going to yield the future.

I believe that the objective should be to ultimately work at fleshing out the value of causally connected marketing events and the actions they elicit, and this is only going to be possible with serious and powerful databases. But I think that we also need to not throw out bath and baby with the new tub of water. Early heavy reliance on brittle technologies will sink this industry just as much as waiting until the last minute to adopt them. Being too far ahead of the curve will only get you a place in history; remember Van Gough? Genius painter... WAY ahead of his time... ended up destitute, crazy, less one ear, and committing suicide. He was on the right track, but his "industry" was years away.

Businesses should prepare for the future but not at the expense of the present.

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