Marketing technology: When reality betrays the hype

Nothing excites marketing professionals more than the rise of a new technology that will improve the discipline's ability to reach consumers, writes Ben Bold.

Sky's AdSmart initiative took longer than expected to roll out
Sky's AdSmart initiative took longer than expected to roll out

Perhaps unsurprising, therefore, that every year-end is dotted by excited predictions about how the following year will see technology X become the preeminent weapon in marketers’ arsenals.

It’s a trend characterised by the hackneyed phrase "the year of mobile", which is bandied about with aplomb, but which every year is belied by reality.

Moves have been made to boost the profile and effectiveness of mobile as a marketing platform – with advertisers including Morrisons and Nike last year becoming the first brands to launch mobile ad campaigns simultaneously across the Vodafone, EE and O2 networks via a joint-venture platform called Weve.

But even mobile marketers admit that the label hasn’t yet stuck. Spencer McHugh, EE’s director of brand marketing, tacitly acknowledged that 2013 was not the year of mobile in an article he penned in Marketing in December. "We’ve been talking about the year of mobile for a few years now" he wrote, adding that 2014 will be the "year mobile comes first".

Nascent technologies

Hyperbole is not limited to phone tech. Other nascent technologies have been trumpeted, only to fade to silence. So what is it about ad technology that gets tongues wagging excitedly, only for the augurs to end up tongue-tied?

James Connelly, managing director of mobile marketing agency Fetch, is quick to distinguish between technology take-up in the consumer market and its take-up for marketing purposes.

So what is it about ad technology that gets tongues wagging excitedly, only for the augurs to end up tongue-tied?

"People expect technology to take off at a rate of knots because that’s what we’re seeing in the consumer market," he says. "There’s an interesting graph that shows the rate of adoption of technology and how it’s growing exponentially because that technology is innovating and improving the way people live their lives. But marketers are behind the curve. People don’t want to fix what ain’t broke, so there’s a reluctance to move money out of TV."

TV itself gives a pertinent example of a discipline that has spurred lofty predictions.

Back in 2008, BSkyB said it was planning on introducing targeted advertising, replacing standard ad breaks with spots tailored to individual households, and stealing marketing budget from media such as direct mail and digital.

P&G marketer Roisin Donnelly responded at the time that it was her "greatest wish for TV", and Sky pronounced that interactive ads would be on TV by 2011. Cue much fanfare and trumpeting.

2011 came, and, while Sky contacted its customers by letter giving them the option to opt out of targeted ads, that year’s roll out-of the technology did not come to pass.

Since then, Sky has got its act together and last month, news broke that it had signed up more than 40 brands to its live TV ad targeting format, AdSmart, including the likes of Tesco, RBS and Audi. So it got there, eventually.

Expensive journey

Sky acknowledges that AdSmart took longer to develop than anticipated. Jamie West, director of AdSmart at Sky describes it as a "market-leading and defining proposition" but admits that has followed been a "long and expensive journey".

Rather than take the easy route to market and launch across just digital platforms, Sky opted for volume. "We chose instead to go for the hardest first and to launch with scale, immediately launching AdSmart in 6m homes," West says.

"What we set out to prove is the appetite for AdSmart. Of the campaigns activated in the autumn period, half are new to sky and a third and new to TV; so it’s set to grow the TV market and make it more relevant. We’ve verified that there is an appetite and a number of advertisers are coming back."

Lindsey Clay, newly-appointed chief executive of TV promotional body Thinkbox, is unsurprisingly an adherent of AdSmart.

"TV has not always been so competitive for those advertisers that have specific targeting requirements – it might be as niche group that an advertiser to trying to target and the great thing is it’s an additional way of doing that.

"It’s a way of bringing a whole load of new advertisers into TV – those who couldn’t afford to or for whom it was too broad a brush. I don’t want to give the impression that you can’t already target with TV, but AdSmart allows you to be very sophisticated."

Sky plans to continue to evolve AdSmart, West says, extending its targeting to other platforms such as video-on-demand on set-top boxes and on Sky Go on the iPad Mini, "so we can deliver across multiple platforms", West says.

Gain momentum

Targeted TV advertising aside, there are other areas that marketing professionals have predicted would be ripe for marketing innovation but which have failed to come to gain momentum in the marketing arena.

Thinkbox’s Clay cites the first iteration of Google TV as an "absolute classic" example of a tech that has failed to set the world alight. "You might imagine that because you can put a browser on a TV set, people would want that," she says. "But people didn’t want that at all.

While a degree of excitement surrounding a new technology is a necessary to drive its development, marketers could benefit from a dose of reality.

"To a degree, another example is what’s visible on the interface of connected TV. It’s a sea of different apps. Again, they misunderstood that what people primarily want is to watch TV. So the apps that do well are the catch-up apps."

Other examples include visual-recognition systems like Blippar and Aurasma, and QR codes.

"Consumers were supposed to be holding up phones to a TV screen," Clay says. "If it’s too difficult, people can’t be arsed."

But clearly not all technology falls off the marketing agenda. Connelly observes the greater number of consumers watching TV and interacting with a second device, such as a tablet. "You see an ad and every single ad is linked to that device so you can link to it and have a two-way experience using your tablet. I can see that happening in five years," he says.

He also cites Apple’s Bluetooth indoor positioning system iBeacon, that many are predicting will "revolutionise" in-store marketing and shopping.

While a degree of excitement surrounding a new technology is necessary to drive its development, marketers and technologists could sometimes benefit from a dose of reality.

"People get it wrong when the excitement about what technology can do obscures our understanding of human behaviour," says Clay.