Digital Essays: Media matters

Craftspeople whose passionate curiosity drives them to discover what makes a campaign work are the key to effective online media planning.

Ted Nelson, one of the pioneers of information technology, had a nice take on design. He said that the difference between a great design and a bad one is in the "meshing of the thousand details that either fit or don't, and the spirit of the passionate intellect that has tied them together, or tried".

The same goes for online media planning. Done poorly, it's a shotgun approach: blast the same sites time after time and hope something finds its target. But done well, it's a cottage industry-style, hand-crafted, intricate and precise labour of love. It is one that weaves together audience research, qualified campaign data, effective tracking, relationship management, creative and media strategy, technology awareness and more. The result?

Delivering the right message to the right people at precisely the right time. That's what delivers return on investment and builds brands online.

And here's the key. The people responsible for excellent online media activity are spirited, intellectual, meticulous and passionate about their work. They are genuine craftspeople, who operate best in a highly collaborative creative community.

This kind of culture requires much more than simply housing creative and media people under one roof. It calls for structures that encourage certain types of behaviour - information sharing, passionate curiosity, acceptance of change, ingenuity and innovation and a belief that improvement is possible, necessary and urgent. And so on. This kind of culture cherishes "the spirit of the passionate intellect".

Digital marketing technology is constantly changing. And "the art of the possible" is always moving. This means new skills, new people and new ways of thinking need to be brought into this culture and evaluated, assimilated and harnessed constantly. This is what creates a vibrant environment in which real craft happens.

Take behavioural targeting. It's been a hot topic for a while now. It involves serving up "individualised" messaging to website visitors based on their browsing history or on information they have provided directly.

Studying the behaviour of visitors over multiple visits allows you to group those with similar interests into clearly defined segments. Match up your target audience with the right behavioural segment and you know you're talking to the right people.

But this "portal-side" targeting is generally limited to individual sites, whose main objective is to increase their yield. Now, because we're always looking at how we can push technology further for our clients, we're interested in re-targeting customers across a network of sites. Take, for example, someone who's looking at buying a TV online from John Lewis. They pick one out and add it to their shopping cart. But before they check out, they abandon it. We may never know why. But what if we could re-target this person later on, when they're surfing a different site, with a special offer on that same TV? It's a powerful "what if?" - because research states that up to 25 per cent of these "abandoners" will go through with a purchase when they're re-advertised to later on with a relevant offer. But "what if ...?" is one of the things a highly collaborative creative community asks.

There are aspects of marketing practice that apply to digital as well as any other form. For example, research-based audience insight is a foundation stone of all campaigns. And prior campaign results are a goldmine of proprietary primary research into audience behaviours and responses.

But the "spirit of passionate intellect" is never satisfied. Audience research can always be enriched through more qualitative research methods to more deeply understand audience motivations, fears, pain points, and so on.

And ongoing optimisation is really where the loving attentiveness of the craftsperson at work is most visible. While real-time analysis is often touted as one of the key strengths of the medium, measurability alone isn't enough. It's the driven curiosity, if not obsession, of the craftsperson to know what makes a campaign work that makes real optimisation possible. If your people are passionate enough to do it right, then they'll constantly track, analyse and re-analyse data. This gives them a real picture of what's happening from the moment a campaign kicks off, so they can optimise on an ongoing basis based on that data. Optimisation touches every aspect of the campaign - creative tone, calls to action, placement, media format, timing, and so on. The list is endless. In one campaign we ran for British Airways this year, we improved the daily sales yield by 1,245 per cent over a two-week period thanks to diligent, attentive optimisation. That's an average improvement of 90 per cent a day. Again, the "spirit of passionate intellect" is never satisfied.

Staying ahead of the pack also takes the help of trusted allies. Among the most important relationships to manage are those with the media owners themselves. It's only by having the right working relationships with them that the best deals, priority placements, unique placements and media firsts can be secured. Commercial advertising opportunities online run the gamut from basic banners and buttons to integrated placements and full sponsorships. Portals want the opportunity to sell the more valuable, innovative placements because for them, high-profile, "blue-chip" clients running exciting, rich campaigns on their site contributes to their own brand equity. For example, we're about to run a re-skin of the AOL travel homepage - meaning our client has all of the advertising units on the homepage, some of these being completely new, bespoke units. It's a first.

And it would never have been possible if we hadn't proven our trustworthiness and developed the right relationship with the reps at AOL.

But the ultimate relationship is the one with the client. Not because they pay the bills, but because only with the right clients can you make any of this happen. For us, that means partnering with clients who will value, support and be active participants in our craft.

In the end, the best digital media work comes from a creative, collaborative community composed of individuals who combine immense skill in their craft with imagination, an openness to new ideas and fanatical dedication to quality and detail. Good digital media planning is necessarily a cottage industry. And it is indeed possible to detect in the best work, traces of what Nelson called "the spirit of the passionate intellect".

- Alex Wright is the managing director of Agency.com.

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1 Job description: Digital marketing executive

Digital marketing executives oversee the online marketing strategy for their organisation. They plan and execute digital (including email) marketing campaigns and design, maintain and supply content for the organisation's website(s).