The Direct Approach: Digital bias

Direct campaigns must make use of new digital channels as the notion of 'media neutrality' is debunked by their advance, Jed Murphy argues.

For years I wondered about the line. Some people were above it, others below it. Latterly, agencies decided that they were through it. More recently the line was sent to Coventry. Banished. Erased. Media neutrality ushered in a new era of "idea first, channel of execution second" - a new dawn for integration.

But I think even this approach is becoming outdated. Although we talk about media neutrality, one medium is quickly becoming the de facto choice for any piece of marketing activity: digital. It is revolutionising the market, the consumer and brand dynamics faster than any previous technology. When was the last time a brand strategy or piece of marketing activity that was in any way complete, recommended by client or agency without an element of digital media?

The digital channel is a default presence in the marketing mix. This means we can no longer talk about complete media neutrality - media-neutral marketing is dead. If the idea is going to work well, it needs to work in the digital world. It needs to work in an interactive world. This calls for a fundamental shift in the process of developing ideas, so I want to introduce a new concept - con.cen.trici.ty (knsn-trs-t): having a common centre.

This means creating integrated campaigns that drive inwards towards a digital core. I can hear the sceptics shouting already: "Digital is just a channel." But it's so much more than that. Every aspect of our customers' lives is being transformed far more quickly than we realise. Think about your own life. When is the last time you got a camera film developed, recorded on a video or used a floppy disc? As our lives become increasingly dependent upon digital formats, digital devices are taking more prominent positions in our day-to-day existence.

Yesterday, the home computer was the beige-coloured box that sat in the corner of a bedroom. Today it is increasingly the media centre of the home both physically (its place in the living room below the flat-screen TV) and emotionally (more time is now spent on the web than on TV viewing).

Even on the train to work, you'll find everything from mobile phones with MP3 players and the mobile internet to BlackBerrys, laptops, iPods and iPAQs. Digital media are available 24 hours a day, delivered when and how customers want it.

That's the critical point. Digital media have changed consumers' media habits. People are more in control of how they consume media. Ten years ago, they had little choice but to accept what the media pushed to them through the five terrestrial channels. Now they can pull digital content however they see fit.

A recent Independent/Spectrum survey estimated that by 2012 only 50 per cent of people would catch TV programmes when they are first broadcast - the rest will "timeslip" their viewing either through the use of personal video recorders or video on demand services.

A shift has occurred from messages being pushed to the consumer, towards consumers pulling the content they need - interacting with brands and services when and how they want.

Even the most traditional channels are embracing digital technology. Take billboards - in a current piece of test activity, posters are being replaced by digital billboards where messaging can be changed by time of day in relation to a changing audience.

And that's another aspect of concentricity: the need to embrace one-to-one marketing techniques. With digital at its core, all marketing disciplines will increasingly need to adopt personalisation and the skills honed by the direct and relationship marketing world. Consider the current approach to TV advertising - big filmic narratives delivered to mass audiences. The advent of internet protocol television over broadband and digital TV means that advertisers will have the ability to know more about individual consumers and the capacity to create and send bespoke advertisements to individuals. Even though I may watch Desperate Housewives, it does not mean that I want to be told about Herbal Essences shampoo. So data becomes critical to every element in the marketing mix.

The purpose of concentricity is to use interactive media to create a customer dialogue, and then use that dialogue to learn more and more about that customer. In turn, this helps brand owners to provide more relevant products, services and information.

But what does this mean today? It means maximising the call to action across all media and funnelling customers to websites or using SMS sort codes to start that customer dialogue. Any direct communication that ultimately doesn't end up at web or mobile is losing a significant opportunity to enhance the customer relationship.

After engaging customers at the website and learning more about their needs and preferences, the customer has provided guidance and authorisation on how to direct future campaigns to them. At this point it is possible to either stay within digital-based campaigns or move out to other channels based on the customers' permission. Even if future interactions include a combination of online and offline, the engagement via the web enables offline communications to be much more relevant. However, with integrated campaigns the web should remain the core component that the other elements feed into.

Although many full-service marketing agencies highlight their digital capabilities and note the rise of digital as a key part of integrated marketing, few see it at the centre of all interactions. My view is, the best way to build relationships, be they with customers, channel partners or employees, is with digital as the hub.

As digital technologies continue to emerge and converge, marketing agencies and client organisations need to transform their thinking. Concentric thinking is about putting digital at the centre of the marketing strategy.

The "line"? What "line"?

- Jed Murphy is the digital director at Carlson Marketing.

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