Digital Marketing Is Broken, So How Do We Fix It?

Digital Marketing Is Broken, So How Do We Fix It?

Digital marketing was supposed to be simple. The internet, online search, social media and smartphones were expected to revolutionize the way businesses engaged with customers, with a new generation of campaigns and targeting set to reach people in new and exciting ways. And it has—to an extent. But over the last 20 years, digital marketing has become less targeted, less creative and generally more annoying. That’s down to a few factors, including faulty targeting methods, meaningless reporting metrics, and a creepy attachment to people’s data. Now the marketing industry is mistrusted by regulators, CEOs and consumers alike.

To work out how we got here—and what to do about it—I recently met several of the world’s biggest marketing brains to discuss the future of our profession. After several hours of debate, we distilled the group’s findings into a manifesto for better, more ethical and more effective digital marketing—a manifesto which I’ve summarized here.

Don’t be a data glutton.

Digital marketing has gained a reputation for its obsession with customer data. The prevalence of invasive tracking methods and data brokers means consumers regard advertising as a kind of surveillance network, where every scrap of their data gets appropriated for campaigns.

Rather than harvesting data for its own sake, marketers need to think about what actually works. According to our company’s 2021 study, 35% of search ads never reach their intended audience, and 26% reach those with no interest in buying. This amounts to $60 billion in wasted ad spend.

Rather than focusing on gathering data of various shapes and sizes, marketers need to consider what they actually need. In other words, they need to collect data that’s relevant to what customers want to buy. Anything else is irrelevant.

So, instead of acquiring consumer search data, marketers should look to purchase data. It’s the most reliable indicator of what a consumer is willing to buy, as it’s entirely based on what consumers have purchased previously. This information is already available for use through major advertising platforms like Facebook, Google, Amazon and Shopify. What’s more, it frees marketers from targeted advertising grounded in irrelevant data, such as a consumer’s age, gender or another individual characteristic.

Stereotypes are worthless.

Making generalizations about your audience is among the worst things you can do as a digital marketer. That’s why assumptions based on demographic information are largely worthless, whether it’s gender, race, age or anything else.

Rather than segmenting audiences based on who they are, marketers need to think more about what they do. That is how they demonstrate their interests—through the products and services they purchase. This type of behavioral targeting will be core to advertising strategies in the year ahead and is a healthier alternative to stereotypical demographic assumptions.

Focus on quality, not quantity.

Cookie-cutter ads have become far too common online. This stands in contrast to the creativity of old, where marketers would compete to develop the most engaging promotions.

Marketers need to imbue digital ads with the same creativity and storytelling found in award-winning campaigns and traditional advertising. Churning out lackluster ads and expecting your click-through and conversion rates to increase is sheer fantasy. Instead, we need to run fewer ads but with standout creativity and proper targeting in mind.

Don’t be creepy.

Advertisers need to stop treating consumers like data resources and more like people. Currently, audiences have an acute sense they’re being watched and harvested for all the personal info they’re worth. Rather than seeking out new ways to be more invasive, marketers need to move toward anonymized data and consumer consent.

Dump meaningless metrics.

The shortcomings of today’s marketing efforts aren’t lost on boards or other stakeholders expecting results. Businesses are now inundated with meaningless digital marketing metrics such as impressions, likes and retweets—none of which provide insight into the bottom line. To highlight this, we found that 62% of CEOs think their marketing budgets are wasted on activities that don’t deliver meaningful results.

Despite widespread attachment to these sorts of metrics, I think it’s about time we treated them as a comfort blanket rather than a source of insight.

Treat digital marketing as a discipline.

Digital marketing is a difficult business. The industry is evolving rapidly, while stakeholder expectations can keep marketers busy and unable to keep up with the pace of change.

Organizations need to be more forward-thinking about the professional needs of their employees. That means a renewed focus on education and training to skill up staff and an improvement of the ethics and effectiveness of campaigns.

Fixing digital marketing is our job.

The digital aspect of contemporary marketing means we risk becoming lazier as an industry. Various platforms allow us to perform tasks faster and easier, but it doesn’t mean we’re promoting products and services the right way. Continuing in this vein means we’ll only stagnate further.

We can gather large corpuses of consumer data, but raising privacy concerns and targeting the wrong people with irrelevant info denotes how ineffective this is.

Rather than focusing on acquiring more technology and data, marketers need to adopt the principle of “less is more.” In doing so, they’ll steer clear of untested platforms that might not be consumer-friendly, while focusing on relevant data providing real insight into what drives conversions.

While digital marketing is broken, it’s not beyond repair. By adhering to these principles, I’m optimistic we can fix it.

Forbes Communications Council is an invitation-only community for executives in successful public relations, media strategy, creative and advertising agencies.

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