Going full-circle: The Future of Digital Marketing
The year was probably around 1996, and although we didn’t know it yet, the first instance of digital marketing was born - albeit it was living in the shadows of corporate IT departments.
You see, the Dotcom revolution had just begun, and all businesses - big, and small - needed a website, and developing it required a technology solution. It was a conversation that the CEO would first hold with the company IT department. How do we do this? Can we make it ourselves? Or do we pay an exorbitant sum of money to one of these ‘web design’ agencies that keep leaving flyers in the letterbox? With sales and marketing teams unfamiliar with this new thing called the internet, the IT team took the lead and began owning the digital solution.
Digital Marketing: Origins in IT
For IT departments, this was a truly different game. Prior to the turn of the millennium, their time was largely spent coordinating internal infrastructure - setting up the local area network, hooking up desk phones for employees and managing the customer database. They were nonetheless important and specialised tasks, but hardly adequate preparation for creating something audience facing, like a website. But as history shows us, we made do, we developed our very first corporate websites. Web 1.0 they called it - we placed information online. It wasn’t a marketing device, but it was the first stepping stone in the digital journey that enabled brands to connect their products to their audiences.
Similarly, email marketing came along, and with the major email clients of the time - Outlook, Lotus Notes and Eudora - being a skeleton of what email marketing software is today, IT was again involved in setting up mail merges and distribution lists - they held the digital solution together.
Ironically, email marketing at one stage was a richer medium than web. Unlike these information-heavy websites, email marketing teased the concept of content. But admittedly, marketers were still a little lost. We didn’t really know what to put in these emails - what do we want to send people? In reality, we sent anything and everything we could. And open rates were frighteningly good (More than 65% of emails were opened in 2003, compared to 6% today). But like they always do, marketers - specifically, Groupon - ruined this for all of us.
As time passed, we rightfully figured out that websites needed to be more than a dumping ground of information (“Ben, why can’t we upload the annual report to the homepage?”), and our email marketing had to be more than attaching a PDF of our latest product catalogue. The format demanded a bespoke approach.
Accidentally, we began to think about content. But of course we never called it that - it was just ‘writing’. I remember the water cooler conversations vividly. “Does anybody know a journalist with some spare time?”. It was a statement which usually attracted responses such as “Well, my daughter studies creative writing - we’ll get her to write the company emails”.
More than a decade passed, and although web 2.0 kicked in and we started making our marketing look better, we didn’t really get better. We moved into more expensive digital marketing activities, like banner advertising, where some overpaid buffoon on the phone convinced us that placing our brand’s logo on a bunch of random websites would increase sales. Maybe it did. But we never really tracked it. We just deployed our ads and hoped for the best.
Fresh out of school: The modern digital marketer
As we embarked on the first decade of the new century, a shift occurred where young marketers entered the industry with native competencies to handle the company’s digital infrastructure. There was always a bright, starry-eyed young kid in the office. This kid was going to start managing your website, and years later, the next wave of kids would go on to manage your first ever Facebook Page. But again, you didn’t know it yet.
As simple as that, the handover was compete. The digital infrastructure (and its countless dashboards and backends) has become user-friendly enough - thanks Wordpress - that we didn’t need IT to hold hands with the marketers. The marketing graduates, the kids in the office, the ones who grew up taking apart computers and downloading songs on Napster could do it. It was a better arrangement, we thought. The graduates understood communications, and although they were fresh out of university, they had a vague idea of what a target audience was, and they weren’t completely hopeless when it came to crafting a key message. The rest, well, the traditionalists in the office could teach them.
The departure from IT was unceremonious. We left them with the web hosting arrangements and the domain management. “That’s still tech,” we said.
The social era
2010 onwards was almost entirely about social media marketing, as it shifted from a personal product to a powerful tool that offered brands unprecedented reach, and a utilitarian broadcast platform. And even though our bosses told us to upload that PDF brochure to Facebook, we knew better than that by now.
New job titles were born. Social Media Managers, Community Managers, and later, when we realised we actually needed a strategy behind this, and that the occasional Tweet or Facebook post wasn’t really making an impact, we brought in Paid Social Specialists, connected the dots with our media buying agencies, and more recently, drove the creation of muscular Performance Marketing teams.
Digital marketing had become as broad as it was sophisticated, and soon enough it had become the most desirable career path for anybody whose skill set vaguely intersected with marketing, advertising, public relations or communications.
Although your mother didn’t quite understand it, by 2012, it was much cooler to be a digital or social media marketer than a traditional one. Running out of channels, the traditional marketer transitioned to the role of product manager, driven hastily by the rise of ecommerce and the impending death of brick and mortar shopping experiences.
Singe handedly, the remarkable boom in social media and content syndication continued to evolve the role. Facebook and Twitter reintroduced the art of short-form storytelling, and the evolution of content-rich services like Outbrain and owned infrastructure such as content hubs forced businesses to re-evaluate the type of people they placed In digital marketing roles. Digital marketers now needed to be a combination of tech and communications - an insatiable mix that remains difficult to recruit, even now.
In many businesses, the digital marketer had to do it all - update the website, manage the social media presence, update Google AdWords copy, cut together video footage, and write long-form blog posts. It was all-encompassing, 360, and extraordinarily diverse. I had a blast cutting my teeth across all of the above, while recognising that it was probably an unsustainable business model. The Digital Marketer couldn’t possibly do all of these things well - we had reintroduced specialisations.
By 2015, Content Marketing had well and truly joined the party. We recognised that in an era with so much digital competition, our content had to be astonishing if we wanted to cut through the noise. We employed content specialists to take charge of the company’s storytelling function, and we handed over anything with words, video or photos to them - even metadata made it into the palms of the contemporary content marketer.
And just as the Nordic winter slowly shifts from winter to spring, the marketing industry has rotated once more. Content marketing has become the next big thing.
The revival of content caused us to rethink earlier decisions that seemed oh, so right. For example, we had these enormous, heavy and expensive social media teams, but now we had to reconsider - are they here to produce content, or do they simply manage a community, and push the ‘publish’ button and drive distribution? The industry still needs to sort this out, but what is now clear is that content marketing teams (and of course, content marketing agencies) are better positioned than ever to muscle into an organisations strategic plan, business objectives and overall marketing strategy. It cannot be ignored - we now live in a content marketing world.
The future of digital marketing - going full circle.
The obvious question, with content marketing functions moving away from digital marketers, what will happen to their roles? Plenty, I suggest.
Digital marketing is right back where it started, although bigger, better and stronger. And while these teams now have an opportunity to drive digital infrastructure again, they are now expected to lead much more than channel strategies.
Programmatic marketing has changed the game, and as we move to always-on environments, it is the digital team that will continue to drive this. The birth of Performance Marketing teams is more than a fad, it is the embryo of something much bigger - driving a performance and optimisation culture. The content team might give you great content, but without the performance team, you don’t realistically have the ability to A/B test it, optimise it and measure it on the go. They remain drastically different skills. An abrupt example is this - the person who writes your website copy, is not going to be the person to set up multiple iterations of your homepage, and serve it to different audiences concurrently.
Digital insights, analytics and data science specialists are still not as prevalent as they ought to be. With enormous volumes of data being produced, and digital media spend being higher than ever, digital needs to get its act together and build a conversion culture. An article I wrote some years ago, ‘Social Media Marketers: Why Are You Still Counting Likes’ is just as relevant today as it was when it was written. If you are a social media marketer, you absolutely must be able to demonstrate how your conversion pixels are implemented, and you need to be able to produce reports the customer conversion funnel. This is how you demonstrate your value to the business. If this is you - go away, right now, involve the right people in the business and figure it out.
And arguably, your customer experience team should also sit within digital, because for most businesses, the digital experience now outweighs the physical one. Having customer centric specialists who understand the wide assortment of customer touch points (social, web, applications, television, physical, in store etc) is the only way we get better, and shift away from a digital gimmick culture, to one that delivers long-standing, rich and loyal customer experiences.
Digital has changed again. We truly have gone full circle. With the support of our friends in IT, we kick started a world that brands now cannot live without. We boarded the content train, rode it for a few exhilarating stops, and now we are heading back to our natural habitat - infrastructure, tech, performance and insights. This is a brilliant time to be digital, and if brands continue to invest, support and grow the function, it’s only going to get better.