It's Digital, Jim - Just Not As We Knew It

An off-the-cuff remark the other day made to me by a senior digital marketer from one of the massive agency groups made me stop and think -- digital is not turning out to be what it was sold as in many respects.

The channel in question was native -- or advertorial, as it's known in the print world. To me, it is today what it always was. Or rather, as in print, it should always have been a transparent process where content labelled as promotional is inserted into the editorial flow. Make it eye-catching, ensure the content is informative, useful or humorous (even all three) and a brand has a great means of getting long-form content in front of its desired audience. 

Trouble is, the impromptu remark caused me to think again. While the IAB's move to provide transparency guidelines on native was welcomed, it did make at least this one very senior digital marketer lament the way native was initially sold in as a way of getting into editorial feeds in a more subtle way. If all three of the IAB's guidelines were applied, articles would instead have been labelled as promotional, feature the company's logo with a headline and accompanying text put into a different font and with changed shading behind it. While transparency would be most definitely observed, on all three fronts, it felt to her the whole move was a little like putting adverts in to the editorial stream.

And so it dawns. The digital channels marketers use today are rarely what they thought they were doing to be, or at least are rarely how they were sold in.

The classic here is social media, or at least Facebook. The channel that was going to offer a free conversation with audiences has migrated in to a massive advertising network where there is a bit of a conversation going on in the background but, ultimately, if you want to reach customers and leads in any great number, you have to advertise.

Search is a little similar. You can keep on playing the original SEO guessing game and try to outwit rivals -- or even the Google police -- to get a top natural slot, or you can simply stump up the necessary budget to jump the queue and get to the top of the pile in the PPC slots.

Display is another great example. The channel that was sold in on the fact users could click on adverts has had to change it pitch considering only about one in a thousand actually do so. Although the adverts are interactive -- unlike those old 'dinosaurs' of tv, print and outdoor -- nobody actually wants to interact with them. So while the original pitch was around click-throughs, we've since moved on to talking about share of voice and brand awareness which couldn't be further from the original direct response message.

So, just as it dawned on digital marketers last week that native wasn't quite the channel offering a convenient way of 'photo-bombing' an editorial feed, we've all had to become used to digital routes to market not being what we were told they would be or, at least, changing to fit in with user wants, behaviours and needs. 

Adapting to these changes in directions lead to the ultimate conclusion. We're dealing with digital and it's not as far away from the old ways as we'd like to think. We're measuring display in brand metric terms, we're advertising to be part of a social 'conversation', we're paying to have more noticeable search results (a little like a plumber paying to have bold type in a box in the telephone book) and we're having to make advertorial, or rather native, look distinct from the surround material.

As digital marketers get used to these changes in direction, it's probably likely most will realise an inescapable truth. After years of having digital sold in as something completely new and totally unlike anything that has come before, it's beginning to at least follow traits of what marketers were traditionally used to. The changes in each digital discipline only serve to show that while the channels are evolving, that's exactly what they are, channels, just like any other analogue or digital route to getting in front of consumers.

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