Digital marketing – From naïve to native
This article appeared in the PM Forum Magazine in April 2019.
It has now been over 20 years since ‘digital marketing’ became a serious part of a marketer’s repertoire. Since the mid-1990s much has changed of course – who would have the patience now for the speed at which internet connections worked then for example! But getting on top of digital marketing in all its infinite variety is one thing, staying on top of it over the course of a 30-plus year career is something else.
There can be a lot of reasons why it can be challenging to preserve your expertise and/or confidence in the face of rapid change and an increasingly fragmented digital landscape.
For example, in large firms the roles have become much more compartmentalised as marketing and BD departments have grown, and practice area marketing and BD people are frequently required to source digital marketing services from a central team. Organisational pressures often mean this doesn’t always happen as collaboratively as it might. Alternatively, senior marketers might be spending more time than they would like managing external digital marketing agencies and/or internal stakeholders leaving too little time to keep their own technical knowledge and ‘hands-on’ skills up-to-speed. Career returners or changers may also fear they are at a disadvantage – even if this is just their or others’ perceptions rather than the reality.
Perceptions and confidence are a real hurdle to overcome. For example, why is it that digital marketing is something people seem to assume you get worse at as you get older? For everyone who argues that millennials are different because they have been digital all their lives, I argue that I have been digital all their lives too!
But indignation apart, how can marketers ensure that if they aren’t digitally native, that they can avoid being digitally naïve?
Get hands-on experience
Good statistics and client insight and feedback is helpful but decisions on what works, what’s not working and why, and how resources should be allocated is much easier when your own hands-on skills and confidence is high – not just to be confident in your decision-making but also to effectively get to the bottom of what isn’t working.
One way to do this which has worked for many marketers over the years as you move in and out of large firms occasionally losing direct responsibility for, or hands-on engagement with, some or all digital channels, is to find other ways to keep those skills lively.
Volunteering is one way. Be a charity trustee or a school governor for example (I have done both). Often as not they will need and value your marketing help. I once had to update a charity’s ancient website by downloading an open source HTML editor. Great learning curve but I rebuilt the site in WordPress as soon as I could.
It’s less common now to use email marketing in our personal life as WhatsApp seems to have taken over for a lot of non-work group and association communications but finding an opportunity to get to grips with email marketing and, post May last year, the do’s and don’ts of GDPR, is well worth it.
Building and managing your own website is always worth a go. Most employers have no problem with you running your own blog or website as long as you aren’t parading your own views loudly and in their marketplace – although it’s as well to check and be prepared to unpublish it if that is what your employer would prefer. Don’t forget to set up your Google Analytics account – you may not have the opportunity to tinker with your firm’s account in the same way.
Being responsible for a not-for-profit organisation’s website and/or email marketing campaign usually drives you at some stage to learn the basics of HTML code to solve a technical hitch. Even if you never learned to code at school getting some exposure to HTML provides a valuable insight to how things really work underneath the bonnet.
Engage with all the channels yourself
You may find Twitter too much of an echo chamber, you may have unfriended all your university friends from Facebook and you may not see the point in Instagram’s visual perfectionism but some or all your audience will feel differently. Periodic oversight is no substitute for hands-on involvement. Even if you don’t think a channel is relevant for your business it’s much easier to say so with authority and confidence if you really know how it works (and what it can’t do).
Time spent on social media can be an investment – just avoid getting side-tracked by the cat videos.
Don’t let things pass unexplained
Best to ask if you don’t know. If you think what’s being said is vague, evasive, not right or irrelevant – don’t let it go – have the nerve to interrogate it as everyone else round the table will usually be terrifically relieved you did. That’s why the above will help. If you’ve got a reasonable amount of recent hands-on experience it’s much easier to identify how to unpick any problems that arise and to interrogate the ‘experts’ effectively to get to the right solution.
Don’t overplay the role of digital even in 2019
In prepping for writing this article I Googled “what is digital marketing” to see what was out there. One of the first items that came up quoted some US research numbers about the growth in “constant” internet usage among adults which the author claimed supported the view that “offline marketing isn’t as effective as it used to be”. The article argued that connecting with an audience required you to “meet them where they are already spending time: on the internet” but if you looked at the original research you could have equally argued that the majority of us are not on the internet all the time and therefore you have plenty of time to catch your audience offline as well as on!
In B2B marketing particularly, engaging with prospects and clients face-to-face, on paper, etc is still effective and a frequent tendency to default to digital channels should always be scrutinised. The rising volume of content delivered via email and social media is forcing most people into an extremely ruthless triaging that doesn’t affect other channels to the same extent.
I would also flag traditional media relations here. Even in 2019, the authority and kudos of media editorial can still be very strong – and coverage that (also) appears online, as much of it does now, can be great for your firm’s search engine results pages.
Keep your eye on the analytics that matter
It might not be relevant if a campaign has delivered x% above the benchmark click-through-rate if the aim was to generate 20 good new leads that might have been better rustled up via desk research and some targeted telephone calls. Don’t lose sight of the business objective.
Learn about online offline
A plethora of channels, marketing technology, trend data, etc means few can be an expert in everything. Counter intuitively offline learning can be more useful than googling it. What comes top of an online search isn’t always the best advice. Colleagues within your firm will generally be flattered if you ask them to talk about what they do. So will your peer group or senior industry practitioners elsewhere. If you can’t contrive to bump into them at PM Forum events or similar, and stalking them on social media doesn’t do the trick, try putting your hand up to write an article for a trade magazine or talk at a conference – asking others for their insights and views is a good excuse to get in touch with people you might not necessarily know that well but who’s work you have admired from afar.
And, of course, always take every opportunity to talk to the people that really matter about your digital marketing – your clients and prospects.