2012: When online marketing becomes marketing

[First published as an UpFronts column in Figaro Magazine on 3/01/12]

This year opened with the predictable news that online marketing budgets were on the increase once again (72% of companies said they were increasing by 35% on average) and much has been made of the increasing budget allocated to online channels, mainly at the expense of brands’ investment in their offline presence in terms of both marketing and retail space. In fact the first half of this year was marked by the closure of branches by high street retailers such as HMV, Waterstones, the Post Office and La Senza all of them looking to offline for serious cost reductions in the face of brutal trading conditions.

But this undeniable shift in emphasis should not be interpreted as the simple decline and fall of the old and new. Video may have killed the radio star but, as the even older cliché goes, no new medium has ever managed to kill another: in the age of twitter-fuelled user-generated news, we still read newspapers, listen to the radio, watch television and read books. Granted that many of these have developed digital versions (the Times iPad app, the podcast, iPlayer and kindle) but while the value of these activities remains high to consumers so will their appeal to marketers.

However, developments this year in three key areas are creating the perfect environment for marketers to exploit the divergence of online and offline consumer habits: Social Media, Mobile and Attribution tracking.

Having set up their Social Media stalls in the available platforms (facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and most recently Google+) brands have spent this year taking their first tentative steps in building their own communities and learning how to (and how not to) promote their products to them. Convenient community management devices such as Google+ Circles lend themselves to customer segmentation proving that one aspect of Social Media is really just an extension to Brands’ existing Customer Relationship Marketing strategy.

Enhanced by the second of this year’s defining features, the ubiquity of smartphones, Social Media’s newly mobile usership is showing how effortlessly consumers’ offline experiences of brands can find their way online with every shared moment of product pain and desire. And finally, the maturing tracking market has begun to help marketers recognise the contribution of all media channels that are influential throughout the user’s path to purchase. Google’s free Analytics product announced multi-channel funnels in August and then full purchase path attribution modelling and customer segmentation in its Premium incarnation launched in September. These (and other) attribution tools allow brands to see the full value of their marketing activity as well as the interdependency of each channel. This permits marketers to think bigger and dare to develop strategies that follow people’s actual media usage patterns which is now simultaneously multi-channel and multi-platform.

The increasing use of tactics such as click-to-call and click-to-collect are further illustrations of the strengthening ties between on and offline marketing which has to eventually lead to the allocation of cross-channel and cross-platform marketing budgets. This will finally allow marketers to create marketing strategies that exploit the best of on and offline marketing effectively together and at that point we might be able to drop the distinction altogether and just call it marketing!