Modern Marketing at a Crossroads: The Rise of Online Audience

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Right now, we appear to be at something of a crossroads in marketing. While people are spending more time consuming new media, like social media and internet-originated content, many advertisers and marketers are still sticking to their traditional approaches. This was highlighted in the recent Mary Meeker Internet Trends Report for 2015, which showed that despite more people spending more time on the internet and on mobile devices, overall ad spend hasn’t caught up with this trend.

Modern Marketing at a Crossroads: The Rise of Online Audience | Social Media TodayWhy would this be? Why is the marketing industry still so reliant on press, even though audience attention is clearly shifting? Is it because the print industry keeps telling us that the stats are wrong, that readers are still buying papers? Surely we know that’s not right – you can look around you in any public place and see where people’s attention is at. And yet, the figures show that we’re clearly not seeing this, we’re not paying attention to evolving consumer behaviour. So is it just habit? Is it simply sticking with what we know and what’s worked for years?

A Question of Focus

As noted in a recent Facebook IQ post, right now we are in the midst of arguably the most significant medium shift in marketing since the introduction of television.

“Mobile has delivered us from a mass media world to a personally relevant one – from a world in which marketers would buy TV, magazine and radio ads as a way to reach people based purely on context to a world in which marketers can reach individuals based not just on demographics but also on passions, behaviors, interests and so on. It’s driven the shift from a world of appointment-driven media, ruled by rigid 15-, 30- and 60-second frameworks, to a world of anytime/anywhere media.”

This statement is part of a larger post on marketing based on ‘moments’, how moments are being shared every day via social networks, and it’s through those moments that marketers can truly connect. Social media data shows us what people do, how people respond to different situations, what people are looking for at any given time. When gathered together and analysed, these moments form trends and patterns, pointing to specific peaks in time, focus points where marketing messages will be best received.

Such insight is beyond anything we’ve ever had before in history, knowing when your specific audience is more likely to be online, the life moments that lead people to looking for new products and services, the patterns. We’ve never had this, we’ve never had a way of tracking large-scale trends and pinpointing the exact moments when marketing messages will be most effective – a gym might’ve been able to predict that memberships are going skyrocket after New Year’s Eve, so best to push their marketing in the weeks before and after. But imagine if you could do the same everyday, if you could utilise social data to maximise your campaigns and reach your audience at the most relevant times in their purchase cycle, all the time.

 With social media data this can be done. There are 936 million active Facebook users every day, posting status updates about everything from their breakfast to the stock market, from their dog to their mortgage. Half a billion tweets are sent, every day. In isolation, each of these single posts means nothing – knowing that your neighbour watched Game of Thrones last night doesn’t really tell you much about who he or she is. But on a broader scale, across all this data, patterns emerge, correlations between people who like certain things and who post certain types of updates, the data transforms into clear personas and audience brackets. One of those brackets is your ideal target customer. You just need to find the data.

A Marketing Dilemma

Over time, we’re evolving beyond what’s traditionally been a broadcast focus. Your aim, as a marketer, has always been to reach the largest possible audience. Reaching more people increases your chances of being seen by the right people, which enhances your conversion potential as a result. So you put an ad in the newspaper. You buy and ad on TV. You buy a billboard on the busiest freeway. Because broadcast equals reach, and reach equals maximum potential. And of course, those methods still work, but we’re moving beyond this, moving to a more focussed, more refined marketing process where we can reach people based on their personal interests and behaviours, where we can target very specific groups based on very specific details. We’re moving to a stage where the biggest audience isn’t necessarily the best anymore – the more focussed message wins. And that’s a better outcome, right? It would be better, cheaper and more effective for us to hone-in on our most relevant audience, as opposed to blasting as far and wide as we can. Or maybe it wouldn’t.

This is where the modern marketing dilemma comes into effect – while it all seems clever and modern to be able to target people based on their online behaviours and traits, it’s not as easy as just jumping online and pulling out data. Using data providers can be expensive too, and not everyone’s on social media yet. Maybe we’d be best to just stick with what we know – “print advertising has worked for years, and our audience isn’t a group of kids with selfie sticks”. Maybe that approach will work and you’ll continue to see good results from such outreach efforts. But the rising tide of consumer data suggests that the landscape is changing.

The Internet Is Gradually Replacing Traditional Media | Statista

via Statista Charts

Standing at a Crossroads

So this is where we’re at, a marketing industry in the middle of what may be the biggest shift in its history. And many are unsure which way to go, which way will be best for them and their business. Sure, generalised data suggests that more people, overall, are getting more content online and moving away from traditional sources, but that’s not everyone. That’s not every audience. Maybe your audience is different, maybe your target clients are older, are not as interested in social media and online sources. And maybe, you should stick with what’s always worked.

Or maybe it’s time to take a look at what’s out there, expand your view point on social media and social media data and see what’s possible, confirm, for yourself, whether there might be a better way. It’s clear from the statistics that there are still a great many businesses that haven’t done this, who are still holding firm to what they know while their audience behaviours shift.

Maybe it’s time to ask the question – is it the past or the present that’s dictating your marketing decisions? 

Thumbnail image via Shutterstock

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Friday Commentary: A Crossroads for Marketing – The Ethics of Neuromarketing

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Friday Commentary: A Crossroads for Marketing – The Ethics of Neuromarketing

Welcome to the second instalment of our Friday Commentary. In this series every Friday experts will shine a light on the digital industry. Where are we heading, what is going on and how should we approach this as decision makers? This Friday it’s the turn of Barry Adams, digital director at Pierce Communications.

Friday Commentary: A Crossroads for Marketing - The Ethics of NeuromarketingThe marketing and advertising profession has always been one to embrace change. However, I feel the marketing industry is approaching an existential crossroads, where the path the industry chooses to follow will have profound implications for our society.

This crossroads is the result of the ever-growing body of research findings emerging from one of the most controversial, and most impactful, of scientific disciplines: neuroscience.

Neuroscience is an incredibly exciting field of study, where new discoveries are made regularly about the nature of the human brain and the processes that govern our thoughts and actions. As a result we’re learning more and more about how humans think and act, and how we make decisions in our daily lives.

One of the more uncomfortable conclusions that emerge from neuroscience is the potency of our subconscious mind and the fairly limited impact our conscious thoughts are deemed to have on our actions.

Summarised, neuroscientific discoveries increasingly point towards a model of the human brain where nearly all decisions we make are governed by the subconscious aspects of our mind, which take up the bulk of our brain’s processes, with the conscious mind playing only a very small part in the grand sceme of things.

Neuroscientist Ap Dijksterhuis descibes the totality of the human mind as an iceberg, with the vast subconscious mass hidden beneath the surface and only a tiny conscious part visible. Similarly, Jonathan Haidt uses the elephant and rider metaphor, where the elephant embodies our subconscious mind and the rider, our conscious mind, is only able to influence the elephant’s general direction in small ways.

As neuroscience progresses its discovery of exactly how the human brain works – and, especially, how the subconscious parts of our mind can be influenced, manipulated, and coerced in ways our conscious mind is unaware of – increasingly we see the marketing industry embrace this research and utilise it towards more effective marketing and advertising.

Take for example the concept of ‘priming‘ – influencing your customers’ behaviour by exposing them to specific triggers designed to encourage a desirable course of action. One example is how many fast food restaurants are designed [PDF] to have uncomfortable seats, bright lighting and abundant noise, so that fast food customers are encouraged to consume their meals quickly and vacate their seats for the next customers.

Another well-known example is how supermarkets use the smell of freshly baked bread to encourage more bread sales, pricing strategies to make shoppers think they’re getting a bargain, and how flowers are positioned near the supermarket’s entrance to prime shoppers to think about freshness.

These sorts of practical applications of neuroscience have been common in retail for decades, and increasingly we see similar techniques applied to digital marketing. There is a field of study devoted to practical application of neuroscience to the consumer marketplace, and it’s called neuromarketing  (part of the wider behavioural economics discipline). Everything from conversion-encouraging colour schemes to the placement and size of ‘buy now’ buttons, to headlines that encourage clicks and shares and banner images that prime us for a specific mode of thought, these are all neuromarketing in action.

However, as our familiarity with and skill in neuromarketing grows, we are also beginning to discover certain ethical issues we as an industry will have to come to grips with. Imagine being able to prime consumers wearing Google Glass with specific visual triggers to get them in to the right buying mood for your products, or using precisely the right phrasings in your website’s header image to prime the site’s visitors for what you want them to do next. For some advertisers, this sounds like a commercial utopia. I hope that for others it raises some concerns.

For centuries economists have hidden behind the concept of a ‘rational consumer‘, an idealistic view of consumers making rational decisions about their spending patterns. With the rational consumer as the foundation of economic theory, the capitalist free market is undoubtedly the most effective way to organise economies and ensure the best products from the best companies survive and thrive.

However, neuroscience and behavioural economics is proving this idealistic model to be entirely false. We as consumers are not rational, we do not buy the best products from the best companies, and we generally spend our money when we are triggered to do so – nearly always subconsciously – by marketing and advertising messages.

And when you think about that, about how we as marketers are becoming increasingly adept at influencing our customers’ subconscious mind in order to manipulate them in to buying our stuff, it leads us in to genuinely uncomfortable territory. We as marketers have a decision to make about how comfortable we are with influencing our target audience without that audience’s conscious knowledge or awareness.

The easy choice is to do what marketers on the whole have done for decades: ignore any and all ethical implications, and just use whatever works to sell more stuff. I hope, however, that many marketers will not be entirely comfortable with that self-imposed ignorance, and will instead – by virtue of being consumers themselves – conduct some soul-searching to decide where they want to draw the line.

Wholesale spontaneous acquisition of a conscience is, unfortunately, an exceptionally unlikely event in the marketing and advertising industry. Just as governments have had to impose strict regulation on false and misleading statements in advertising, so too do I expect the need for similar regulation for the application of neuroscience in marketing and advertising.

The real challenge of course is whether or not there exists political will to regulate neuromarketing in such a fashion. These same neuroscientific ideas that can make the people buy more stuff can, after all, also easily be employed to make people vote in a certain way and keep society’s behaviour within the constraints of what the political elite deem to be ‘acceptable’.

And contrary to the ease with which false and misleading advertising can be uncovered, subconscious priming is something the general public will be nearly entirely unaware of, which makes the risk of a public backlash entirely manageable.

So that puts the burden of ethical considerations squarely back on us, the marketing professionals who will be rolling out these new tactics. All of us have a decision to make for ourselves about what kind of industry we want to work in, and how we want to apply our skills and expertise. It’s something each of us will have to come to grips with.

I have no answers to give, only questions to ask. What you as a neuroscientifically empowered marketer choose to do is entirely up to you. Or, at least, you’ll think it is. ;)

Further Reading:

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Barry Adams is one of the editors of State of Digital and is the Digital Services Director at Pierce Communications in Belfast, where he leads an expert team providing web development and digital marketing services for a wide range of clients across Ireland and the UK.

State of Digital

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