The Shadow of Digital’s Tactic-Heavy Origins Still Looms Large

Dennis Ryan, Advertising, OlsonYesterday, I served as a judge for the Effies. It’s an interesting awards show, one favored by many clients for it’s focus on outcomes and rewarding the combination of smart strategy and effective work to build businesses.

While I am honor-bound not to discuss specifics about the work we reviewed, our afternoon category proved as contentious as it was fascinating: Brand Experience.

The Brand Experience label applies to an admittedly broad swath of work, none of which can have traditional media like TV, radio or print central to their efforts. Instead, “It is to showcase how you can create a brand experience beyond traditional advertising.” And so we judged viral films and digital events and social media programs.

After reviewing five or six finalists and then discussing our impressions of them, it became painfully clear that the much-desired metrics on this medium are far from established.

Is it Facebook likes? Does anyone even care about those, or any other engagement scores? Is it sales, and can you isolate one experience from the rest of a marketing plan and calculate its impact?

Listening to the various judges debate, I wondered if this emerging category even has a place in something as Key Performance Index-focused as the Effies. And I couldn’t help but notice that the tactic heavy bulk of so much digital marketing creates an intrinsic bias against anything less linear than simple cause and effect. From the debates I heard, any digital brand experience that’s not entirely outcome based becomes almost indefensible as a media investment. Which is strange since brands flourished on softer,opinion-enhancing TV brand advertising for decades.

Does this mean there’s no room for suggestion in digital marketing? No place online for simple inspiration? As mature as digital advertising has finally become to most advertisers, its sad to realize that many cannot see beyond the most cudgel-like focus on raw metrics. And lacking those, cannot see the value of true brand experiences simply for experience sake.

Of course logic has its place. Metrics provide valuable feedback in a world driven by ROI. And yet I can’t help thinking the biggest decisions we make as human beings—who to marry, where to live, whether or not to go to war—are driven by emotion, not reason.

No matter how trackable we like to believe the digital medium is, digital advertisers cannot afford to ignore that.


By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Olson

Building Brands With Small Talk

Back in the day, brand building fell under the province of big television production. You cast some people whose face held light particularly well, spent a few weeks shooting the golden hours of dawn and dusk, then set them all into motion around an inspirational, major-chord track that built to a stirring conclusion. The client beamed, viewers nodded and everyone felt good.

The only issue around that kind of branding was ROI. Did it really work? Did positive feelings really mean that much to brand health, especially given the cost?

Often, the answer was yes. Big companies with global issues need people to feel positively about their presence and initiatives. Public opinion sways policy and markets.

But those kinds of messages rarely translated to say, a stick of gum or a box of cereal. That’s where today’s social media can step in: modern PR that starts online conversations and dialogue is the logical evolution of old-style brand building. Today’s social creates positive opinions around brands through direct engagement and charm.

In many ways, it is closely akin to cocktail party chatter. It’s always nice to meet someone who is easy to talk to, who has interesting things to say and draws you into the conversation.

Dennis Ryan, Olson, Advertising

Those same principles apply to social brand building: it’s less about getting you to try a yogurt right now and more about building positive inclinations to the brand that will drive sales and insure good feelings down the road. The party ends and you walk away with a favorable impression.

Of course, not everyone is skilled at this kind of thing, at keeping things light and airy and shared. Too often, immediate brand needs supercede respecting the proper tenor of the forum. That leads to, well, social awkwardness. Which is pretty much the opposite of social brand building.


By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Olson

Record Television Viewership Numbers and the Struggle Between Active and Passive

It happened again…

Another Nielsen Report came out Tuesday claiming that Americans watch more TV today than ever before: a staggering average of four hours and forty-nine minutes a day.  If that number doesn’t smack you upside your metaphoric head, it should at least mildly unsettle you.  If nothing else, it can’t be very good for the GDP.  Or our national struggle with obesity.

1 of 12,305 Creative Commons "TV Watching" Images on Flickr

1 of 12,305 Creative Commons "TV Watching" Images on Flickr

Advertisers won’t be thrilled by this revelation either.  Over the last four years, major marketers have migrated away from television and into new media for a wide variety of reasons (cost) that help them get around the engagement issue (and cost) because really, how can anyone pay attention to TV for that length of time (and how about those costs?).

The Nielsen numbers raise a few unsettled industry issues: the confusion about our splintered media environment, the difficulty in assessing ROI across various platforms, and even the kneejerk CMO dismissal of television as a dated medium.  The fact is television is not dated so much as confusing.  Prime-time viewing remains basically flat, but it’s still at it’s highest levels since the pre-net days of 1991.  Unfortunately for that once-dominant medium, the programming options are endless and the cost of production and placement dwarf the cost of digital options.

And what about engagement?  How receptive to your thirty-second spot (or god forbid, fifteen second blipvert) is the mind of someone vegging out in front of the tube for nearly five hours a day?  Besides, with that TV-watching schedule, when would they ever have time for shopping?

As opposed to the passive TV audience, the online audience actively seeks information.  Digital engagement levels are exponentially higher than television.  But then again, with all the distractions available across hundreds of billions of web pages, why should they engage with you and your message?

In the end, whether you seek passive or active audiences, the only true engagement technique at any marketer’s disposal is a powerful idea.  You can study those, analyze those, and even run the numbers on them–but so far, you can’t write a program to generate them.

Ideas can come from anywhere, and that’s a very good thing.  Because in an increasingly confusing world battered by cost and fragmentation, we will need more and better ones.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

Hey Mobile, Are We There Yet?

Anyone who’s paid even the most cursory attention these past few years has heard the rising chorus touting the mobile platform. And with good reason: cell phones enjoy both incredible ubiquity and total devotion. As of July, the US market had continued it’s remarkable growth to reach 57 million users. People with cell phone feel naked without them, using them dozens of times a day. All of which makes mobile an exciting new platform for marketers.

The only hitch is that despite the hype, the number of truly successful mobile platform programs remains relatively insignificant.

People use mobile either for information or connection, neither of which tolerate an interruptive message very well. This forces marketers to find new ways to position their messages in helpful, assistive ways–something that presents a novel creative challenge and uncertain metrics for ROI.

But the challenge of reinvention doesn’t just exist for marketers—it seems consumers have little interest in reinventing either. According to a thousand person study by Gomez Inc., a web application testing firm, mobile Web users are frustrated by the experience. Between slow load times, site crashes and awkward formatting, the smart phone web experience is already madding, even before it slows further to deliver marketing messages.

Still Working Out Web Optimization Issues...

Still Working Out Web Optimization Issues...

The real issue springs from the direct comparison between mobile web and broadband work and home connections. The load times are simply night and day. And then there’s the obvious but undeniable issue of radically diminished screen size. My cell screen is less than 6% the size of my laptop’s. As someone who has requited himself to the fact that as a phone, my iPhone makes a great iPod, reliability remains a major issue. Downtown Chicago doesn’t have consistent 3G coverage? You’ve got to be kidding. Thank goodness for Cricket‘s reliable, extensive and ever-expanding network of 3G towers…

It only gets worse for mobile advocates, since half of all users report that they will only wait six to ten seconds before giving up on a site.

The upshot of these negative experiences is that they actually hurt brand perceptions. Frustrate a user once and they are highly-unlikely to give you a second chance.

For those committed to mobile—and there are many in our business—the good news is that 80% claim they would access mobile web sites more often if the experience mirrored their PC for speed and reliability. And true believers will no doubt glom onto the fact that Gomez did not differentiate between regular cell phone and smartphone users—particularly given that another study byQuestus, AOL, and Universal McCann found 80% of smartphone users were satisfied with their mobile web experiences.

The limits of our present technology create conflict for users, but still, the mobile promise remains tantalizing out on the horizon. We’re just not there yet.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

The Advertising Industry Lighthouse: Enthusiasm

As part of a new business pitch this morning, we’ve been reviewing the Lighthouse philosophy of challenger brands as espoused by Adam Morgan and the big brains at “Eat Big Fish.”  At the most simplistic level, a Lighthouse Identity helps a brand define what it stands for, both out in the marketplace and inside the company hallways.eatbigfish_logo

It’s a well-reasoned, very pragmatic approach to positioning and shaping brand considerations and perceptions.  And last night, over omelets and coffee at a roadside Perkins, it got a few of us thinking about what we would consider our own agency identity, what one thing galvanizes us and represents the best of this advertising business.  We quickly arrived at one thing: enthusiasm.

Enthusiasm for the process, but far more importantly, enthusiasm for our product: ideas.  In the marketing business, ROI really boils down to Return on Ideas.  Ideas create perceptions, differentiation, empathy and engagement.  Ideas separate and celebrate.  Ideas are our ultimate product.

And anyone who touches them, influences them or sells them does that better when alight with the energy and group-lifting zeal of enthusiasm.  YEAH!

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

Skewing Online Data: Why Marketers Should Think “Convergence” Not “Transference”

Studies show that if a brand wants to drive significant online impressions, they should advertise on TV.  Similarly, if a TV ad aspires to live longer than thirty seconds, it should continue the experience online.  Cross platform convergence makes today’s advertising media world far more complicated but also far more engaging,  The trick boils down to innovative, creative and effective platform coordination.

Unfortunately, in a tough economy with escalating TV media costs, many advertisers look to the web as simply a cheaper medium.  They don’t really understand the metrics but the siren call of lowcost of entry makes far too many forget any sense of basic strategic responsibility and ROI discipline.

Hopefully, that shortsightedness will change if enough marketers read about this study from Mpire, an online ad optimization company in Seattle.  MPire developed a new technology called AdXpose which recently determined that 95% of clicks and 50% of online ad impressions were fraudulent.

AdXpose: “95% of Clicks, Half of Online Ad Impressions are Fraudulent

If these numbers don’t knock you back, re-read that sentence again.  This fraud is nothing short of Madoff-esque.  For a medium with as much data-mining and measurability as the web, this kind of blatant gaming of the system threatens to destroy it’s incredible promise.  And if that seems like too big an exaggeration, like something confined to the small space bargain bins of discount web banners, watch the click counts on YouTube for the Super Bowl ads this coming February.  Some will legitimately spike as people relive or catch up on this cultural event.  But others, quite obviously, will be blatantly played.  It’s been happening the past few years by some of the biggest names: names that don’t have the track record of performance of say a Budweiser.  With this big a high-profile gamble, a little off-shore insurance can protect your career and so clicks skyrocket for spots that hardly bear watching once.  In some cases, this can even happen without the clients’ knowledge; insurance works for production companies and young directors as well.

Television skeptics have enjoyed quite a run these past few years, particularly over dated and dubious metrics like Nielsen.  Given these findings however, perhaps skepticism deserves its day.  And equal time.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79