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Digital Marketing is Like Baseball; Why it's not working for you

Baseball is a great analogy for digital marketing. Many marketers were still thinking of “traditional” versus “digital.” This made sense because traditional advertising — TV, print, radio — was based around the size of the audience; while the key metrics in digital were centered around the actions of the users — what are their buying habits, did they search for something; did they click on the ads, etc. But “digital” should be thought of as transactional or performance based, while “traditional” can be thought of more as branding. Traditional advertising was one-way, and very good at getting one message out to a lot of people — “pitching.” Digital advertising is two-way, and very good at harvesting demand when users come online to do some research and increasingly to make the purchase too — “catching.” We can’t play the game of baseball without both pitching and catching. The point here is that we need to find the right balance between pitching and catching. Right now there’s far too much “pitching” going on in digital, by way of the half-a-quadrillion display ads, and not enough “catching.”

If you think about your own habits as a consumer, when you see an ad, you’re probably not just going to go out and buy the product right away. Most humans now go online to do a bit more research into the product that they are interested in, before they buy it. Of course, humans spend more time researching big ticket and higher complexity products — like cars and computers; they don’t spend much time on low-cost, low-complexity products like soup or soda. 

The ad that you saw reminded you that you were looking for something, and may have even turned you on to a brand that you were not aware of before. For example, I was looking for a bike, and the Priority Bicycle ad turned me on to a new brand of bicycles that I was not aware of before. But note the subtle but important difference between ads generating awareness versus ads generating demand. In most cases, like the milk example above, ads don’t and can’t generate more demand from the user (5 quarts of milk per week, instead of 4); the ads generate awareness of the products that can fulfill the demand that was already there — Horizon organic milk vs Happy Cow grass-fed organic milk. I realize some ads generate both awareness and demand at the same time — best illustrated by the success of DTC (direct-to-consumer) brands that launched entirely using digital marketing (no offline media). 

I’ve used the above framework to help put the various marketing tactics into perspective. I took the marketing funnel - awareness, consideration, choice, purchase, and loyalty — and turned it on its side, with the top of the funnel on the left side. The left side of the chart is “branding” while the right side is “performance.” When we array the various marketing tactics from both offline and online, we see TV ads on the left and all of digital on the right. This is because TV advertising is more branding-like and digital is more performance-like. When you expand “digital” (to the blue row below) there are certain forms of digital ads that are more branding like - video and display ads (those are on the left side); while other tactics like search ads, cost per lead, and cost per action are definitely more performance (those are to the right-side). 

Search ads sit squarely in the mid-funnel — people search for things when they are in the consideration and choice phases, and that’s when it’s optimal to show them paid search ads. You don’t even have to guess who they are, what they like, and when is best to show them an ad. They literally tell you what they are looking for (search keyword) and when they are looking for it. Their age, gender, demographics, etc. are all irrelevant, since they told you what they are looking for. This is where I usually use the example of a grandma with a Harley. It broke down, and she needed a specialty part for it. She goes online to search for the part and buy it. Obviously a grandma is not in the typical demographics of Harley’s customers so they wouldn’t target ads to her. But since she needs the specialty part and is searching for information, Harley needs to ensure she can find the information she needs so she can get to the purchase as quickly as possible.

To Play Baseball, You Need Both Pitching and Catching

Often, advertisers have spent all their ad budgets on the quadrillions of display ads and have nothing left for search ads and content creation. Why is this important? All of the budget was spent on awareness driving tactics (display ads); but when the user comes online to look for the product, there is little to no information that helps the advertiser “harvest the demand.” Note that users typically type something like “digital camera” into search, not branded terms like “Sony digital camera, Kodak digital camera, or Canon digital camera.” They search for the thing they want - digital camera - and will decide what brand and model to buy after research. What if Kodak did advertising (”pitching”), but did not rank highly enough in search results, didn’t have much useful content, or didn’t have many reviews about their cameras? Who would win that sale of the digital camera? Right. The camera manufacturer that had the best documentation about the product and numerous reviews (good and bad) on Amazon so the user could judge for themselves. The user ended up buying the Canon camera, even though they were inspired to look further due to the Kodak ad they saw. Canon did the “catching” and harvested most of the ROI from Kodak’s advertising.  

This is a classic case of too much “pitching” and not enough “catching.” Too many advertisers spend far too much of their digital budgets buying larger quantities of display and video ads, without even a thought about search ads and content. A better balance needs to be achieved. By having search ads that appear when someone is searching for a product you sell, and by having content on your site and reviews on Amazon that assist the user in making the decision which product to buy, the advertiser dramatically increases their chances of winning the sale, and driving incremental business outcomes. Traditional channels and tactics like TV, print, and radio are ideal at generating awareness - pitching; while digital is ideally suited to help advertisers harvest the demand - catching. Digital is a two-way channel so you have the feedback loops to know what is working well too. And did I mention you only pay when you get the click on search ads, and product reviews are free (if you ask nicely).

Be Sure To Do Enough Catching, Not Just Pitching

To wrap this up, it is important for more marketers to review their mix of tactics they are currently spending budgets on. If they are too heavily invested in “pitching” only tactics - like display ads and video ads — and not investing anything in “catching” tactics - like search ads, content, reviews, etc. they are missing out on harvesting demand. Worse, someone ELSE may be harvesting the demand, driven by YOUR awareness ads. To play baseball, you need both pitching and catching.

If you’re a large enough marketer, that’s already doing a substantial amount of pitching using traditional channels like TV ads, print ads, outdoor billboards, etc. then your digital budgets should be more heavily allocated to “demand harvesting” activities, rather than even more “pitching” via billions of display ads and video ads. That’s what I am seeing right now. Smaller brands like DTC brands should still use awareness generating tactics in digital, but be sure to have enough budget and resources allocated to demand harvesting tactics.

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