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8 golden rules for advertising in the digital age

Alan H. Gerson
8 golden rules for advertising in the digital age Alan H. Gerson
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The emergence of digital media has created some very fundamental and important changes in the goals for advertising today. Digital technologies have empowered advertising in unique ways and provided a wide range of new possibilities for two-way communication and measurement. These changes should fundamentally redefine expectations for advertising in the digital age.

In this article, I will discuss the goals and expectations that every marketer should have for their advertising campaigns, and how digital media and technology has re-shaped and transformed those goals.

1. Capture interest and attention
Advertising is, of course, a specific communication strategy designed to shape consumer action towards, or opinions about, particular products or services. Advertising, like every other communication strategy, will not and cannot work unless it finds an audience and actually delivers its message. We live in an increasingly crowded media environment. The average consumer is exposed to thousands of different advertising messages every week. Many of those messages are repeated with a frequency that deadens the senses. Even finding the right potential customer and placing the advertising message in front of him or her does not guarantee interest or focus on what the ad message is trying to communicate.

The new media consumers have been taught that they are in charge of what, where, when, and why they will pay attention to an ad message. Nevertheless, capturing interest and focusing attention remains the prerequisite for a successful advertisement. 

Reaching the customer where they are, where they spend their time, and where their attention is already focused requires advertising to consider many more simultaneous channel and platform executions than ever before.

Mobile, advergaming, social networks, and interactive sweepstakes are all gaining new currency as ad channels. These channels have increased appeal where the target market is a younger demographic, generally more web-savvy, more web connected, and more prone to multi-tasking. However, they are also more aware of their prerogatives to control the when, where, what, how and why they will consent to view an advertisement.

Intrusion, lack of express or implied "permission," and violation of online "etiquette" are all new or heightened sensitivities of the digital media user that have to be carefully observed when using these new channels to deliver ads.

Integrated advertising strategies and cross-promotional concepts that focus on placing advertising messages in multiple channels are increasingly being recognized as essential for success. Also, advertisers are learning to pool their resources to interest and capture the attention of a consumer with combination messages that build on the brand equity and interest in two or more products or services. 

The power of promotions to cut through clutter and capture interest and attention is also beginning to blur the line between advertising and promotional marketing strategies. Increasingly, these two separate budgets are being considered as part of one single integrated strategy, with digital technologies and media being used more and more in concert with more traditional media approaches and media channels. 

This trend will undoubtedly continue to increase as the battle for interest and attention is waged by competitive brands through new media channels and promotional concepts, since consumers -- brought up online -- do not necessarily consider advertisements a mandatory part of their media experience.

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2. Extend engagement
Engagement is a new hot metric. In the battle for the attention of the consumer, "time spent" is a valuable indication of whether the advertising communication has been successful, and delivering an ad impression does not necessarily equate to consumer attention and interest. There are all levels of impressions, but do they communicate in a world where consumers have the ability to scan, fast forward, jump, and abandon content with the touch of a button on myriad of different devices?

Therefore, truly engaging and focusing a consumer on the advertising message is increasingly valuable and effective. Engagement for a significant period of time, especially if that engagement is interactive, clearly indicates that the message has been delivered to a consumer who has -- by the investment of their time and actions -- demonstrated interest and attentiveness.

For a significant portion of the online audience, interactive promotions or messages that provide an opportunity for a consumer to learn more about the product or service being advertised has proven to be extremely effective. Consumers pay attention to such interactive promotions, and they remember them.

3. Activate toward client goals
Today, even if branding is the main objective, some sort of measurable action by the consumer that can be translated into a concrete return on the advertising investment is almost always a parallel goal.

Every marketer of every brand, product, or service has a hierarchy of real-world results they would like to see from their advertising. This goes beyond metrics and measurement. Ultimately, they want to see sales increase, or product sampling, or store visits, or a consumer database developed from information requests, or promotional registrations. 

Advertising, even brand advertising, needs to be able to multi-task and create real-world results in terms of sales or the establishment of a relationship with/or communication path to a potential consumer. Digital media, messages, and promotions are increasingly being bundled into an integrated marketing, advertising, and promotional strategy that activates a consumer toward specific goals or creates a communication path to a potential consumer for just that reason.

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4. Branding and brand building
All advertising can and should reinforce brand values or brand positioning, even if its primary goal is more directly sales oriented. 

In the digital age, the ability to use websites, microsites, and online promotions -- not only to create sales but to convey information about the company behind the product or service -- makes this a required part of any advertising strategy.

Never before in history have marketers had the tools that can so readily facilitate the ability to provide information in various levels of detail to consumers about their products and services, what they stand for and what they mean for their customers.

Ubiquitous broadband connectivity, and the primacy of online search as the research tool of choice among consumers, makes it easier than ever before to use digital media to communicate and reinforce a brand identity, create a secondary meaning in the mind of the consumer when they are exposed to the brand name, and reinforce other "brand values" as part of their advertising. 

Today, who you are and what you stand for is something consumers can and will readily find out, and that type of awareness needs to be part of any advertising strategy.

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5. Reinforce recall and retention
The multiplicity of channels, messages, and media can make it harder to make advertising messages stand out enough to be remembered or acted upon. Nevertheless, fostering message recall and retention remains a central goal of any advertising campaign.

Digital media and certain technologies provide new and powerful ways to accomplish this goal through their ability to reach consumers where they are, on a variety of platforms, and with messages of different lengths and complexities. Flexibility of approach, use of integrated strategies -- which include traditional media as well as digital platforms -- and creation of different messages that may communicate different pieces of information can all enhance recall and retention. Whether the message is price, value, brand or feature-based, nothing is more important today than the power of communities and the impact of promotions. Today's consumer wants validation and reinforcement from other consumers, and the opinions and testimonials of their peers are more important and impactful than the same words from a company spokesperson or message.

Sweepstakes and other promotions can also reach consumers in a differentiated way, and if the promotion is brand or product-centric, rather than prize-centric, it can become a very powerful and memorable advertisement.

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6. Promote intention to purchase
The marketing chain for most products and services today is complex and multi-channel. Products are offered for sale through retail stores, through networks of distributors, through online stores, and in a variety of both online and offline direct messaging to former or potential customers. Advertising messages, wherever and however they are made or delivered, need to support the communication of product benefits, features, advantages, and uses. Especially in today's economy, they need to support the communication of specific price and value messages and incentive offers.

Discounting, couponing, free samples, low-cost financing options, "risk free" trials, and limited time "sale" pricing are all techniques commonly used to promote an intention to purchase in the consumer. Such incentive-based sales promotions are used to overcome a consumer's internal objections and resistance to purchase and to complete a sale. These objections, in a sales environment where there is often no "voice" at the point of purchase, leads to "shopping cart abandonment" and lost opportunity.

Overcoming these internal objections and leading to the completion of a sale should be a goal of advertising in today's digital world. The ability to create a shopping cart as part of a website or a micro site, send a mobile shortcode from a cellphone, or even use a remote control to make a purchase through a digital distribution system is being made easier and more immediate all the time.

Banner ads touting discounts or incentives as well as coupons that are redeemable in retail locations or online can be delivered via email, included as a part of a digital sweepstakes, picked up at point of purchase, delivered via print media, or even "snail mailed" -- it's all big business because of the primacy of the sale in the marketing chain. 

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7. Build an opt-in and viral database
One key difference between traditional media and digital media is the ability of digital media to readily identify its audience members and establish a two-way communication with willing individuals in that audience. Building a customer database that has fully opted in creates a valuable resource for all companies that can and should be used to inform, reward, thank and re-sell customers, increasing the lifetime value of that customer. Permission-based marketing was one of the first breakthrough concepts in digital marketing, and it remains a very valuable goal of advertising today.

Not only can advertising be used to drive potential customers to registration pages connected to sweepstakes or contest entries or purchase opportunities, but it can also be used to incentivize those customers to "refer a friend," thus building and extending the potential list to persons who might not otherwise have seen or responded to the advertisement.

Incentivizing people to become evangelists for the product, service, offer or opportunity can be accomplished through the extension of incentives to those friends, and rewards for the original customer. Extra entry in a sweepstakes, additional discounts if the referred friend completes a sale, or other targeted and shared incentives are very effective in accomplishing "virility" around an offer or message. Of course, media is often the message, and a particularly clever brand or product-centric rich media message can often achieve spectacular and relatively unassisted distribution to friends of the original recipient.

The ease of communication today based on email, text, and MMS messaging provides the ability to deliver an ancillary and very effective advertising message, which can include anything from rich media components to a referral with the added benefit that it comes with a built-in testimonial from a peer. 

Of course, there are concerns raised by CAN-SPAM and other regulations; but, properly limited, incenting viral communications should be an ongoing goal of advertising today.

8. Create differentiation in the marketplace
Ultimately, the last goal of advertising I want to discuss is differentiation in the marketplace, which is an umbrella principle closely related to No. 1: Capturing interest and attention. 

The importance of sound creative executions, different media channels, and integrated strategies that allow an advertising message or campaign to reach its target audience and capture interest and attention cannot be overemphasized. These elements should be coupled with integrated advertising and marketing approaches that include strong promotional elements and that powerfully position the features, advantages, benefits, and uses of the product or service being advertised.

Whatever makes the product or service unique or more valuable than the myriad other potentially competitive products deserves special emphasis in the messages and marketing channels in which they can stand out.

In a world where the consumer is in control, incentives, value propositions, rewards, and special opportunities also achieve increased importance. The power of promotions to present and elevate the impact of an interactive advertising message and engage an audience cannot be overestimated as a way to accomplish differentiation and powerfully present all of the other goals of advertising in the digital age.


Alan H. Gerson is president and CEO of Enteractive Solutions Group.

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