Digital marketing campaigns sometimes seem to have drifted too far from the products they exist to promote. 

The best definition of marketing I’ve ever heard (from Tim Ambler) is ‘the generation of future cash flow’. 

From this perspective, it’s clear that marketing is at the heart of what a company does. It’s just as important as functions like design, manufacturing, sales and accounting. 

So it’s surprising that marketing is so often treated as a standalone discipline that’s somehow separate from a company’s ‘real work’. 

Think about it. A sales manager or product developer who’d worked in IT security for 20 years would be unlikely to abruptly switch to soft drinks, or cars. Yet we’d be far less surprised to see a marketing manager move between industries in this way. 

Agencies often point to the diversity of their client base as a strength rather than a weakness. And ‘marketers’ are just ‘marketers’:to describe yourself as a ‘potato marketer’, or whatever, would be seen as quaint and limiting. 

The implication is that marketing is a sort of commercial Swiss Army knife, a ‘one size fits all’ tool that can be used on anything. Rather than being integrated into the process of developing, making and selling specific products, it’s a service firms can buy in and switch around at will. 

Digital vacuum

Within the broad church of marketing, digital marketing is arguably even more separated from the underlying product. 

One reason is that its practitioners tend to be young. So they inevitably lack extensive experience of making and selling products, any products. Instead, their expertise flows from the digital channels and tactics they use in their work (and their lives). So they naturally build their authority on that foundation. 

Another reason is that client firms tend to outsource digital marketing tasks, and even digital agencies themselves look to subcontractors a lot more often than they’d like to admit. That puts a lot of organisational ‘distance’ between products and and digital campaigns. 

Combined with these practical points, we have the intellectual vogue for pursuing branding and social campaigns almost as ends in themselves, rather than with the aim of selling stuff.

In digital, the vast majority of news and discussion focuses on exploiting new tools and tactics in an abstract or general sense, rather than in relation to any specific product. 

The result is marketing in a digital vacuum: activities and initiatives that are too far removed from the products they’re meant to promote. 

Action over ideas

As Ad Contrarian Bob Hoffman notes in his excellent e-book, too many modern ad campaigns focus on influencing attitudes, perceptions and emotions rather than persuading people to take action – aiming to change people’s ideas rather than influence their behaviour. 

Changing what someone thinks is much more difficult than changing what they do. I might never persuade you to support Norwich City, but you might still enjoy a match at Carrow Road if I buy you a ticket. 

Unfortunately, marketers get caught up in cultivating loyalty, engagement and recognition, when what they (and their clients) really want is for people to just try the product. 

Moments of closeness

A recent example is Nivea’s current Million moments of closeness campaign on Facebook. Participants can upload images of ‘moments of closeness’, download a report into the ‘psychology of closeness’, take part in live chat and debate questions like ‘Does music make us closer?’, ‘How socialable [sic] is social media?’ and ‘Do major sporting events unite or divide the nation?’

The user-generated content, to my mind, is as dull as ditchwater, while the discussion of social media surely says more about the preoccupations of the marketers than the priorities of the consumer.

But more to the point, only the thinnest conceptual thread (‘closeness’) links the campaign with the product it’s ostensibly selling. The best Nivea can hope for is some desultory interaction in the general vicinity of their brand, some of it motivated by the promise of free gifts. Beyond ‘engagement’, what’s the benefit of that?

There’s just too much distance between the tactics of the campaign and the desired result, and too many links in the chain of causality.

Will people get involved on Facebook, contribute, feel more positive about Nivea, remember the brand, and make a decision to buy the next time they’re shopping? If not, why not just cut to the chase and give them a more direct reason to buy?

Communicate benefits

The familiar answer is that people won’t tolerate ‘push’ or ‘sell’ messages via social media – they demand sophisticated interaction or entertainment instead.

But that only tells half the story. People will happily tolerate relevant sales messages, all the more so if they’re interactive and entertaining into the bargain. (Think Apple TV spots.) And it’s worth remembering that the people who like all that interaction and entertainment aren’t necessarily the people most likely to buy. 

The key is to hit the right people with the right message about the right product. Marketing can’t improve or transform a bad product – but if the product has something to offer, marketing should focus on communicating it as powerfully as possible. Otherwise it isn’t really marketing.