Advertising in the Digital Age

Courting clients in the online era requires tact, tech savvy, and patience

One of the finest marketing books ever written is Scientific Advertising by Claude C. Hopkins. In fact, the late David Ogilvy, head of the advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather—and himself no slouch when it came to writing about effective marketing—insisted every new employee read it seven times before being let loose on a client.

Ogilvy’s comments were made during the 1960s, some 40 years after the book was written, proving that effective marketing had changed very little in half a century. While Hopkins would have trouble recognizing the media through which his lessons are disseminated, they continue to ring true.

So what’s new? A lot! Here’s a rundown of the key changes impacting retail marketing in the years to come:

1. Inbound versus outbound. ­Traditional media such as newspapers, radio, and television have largely been “interruption-based,” focusing on reaching consumers who may or may not be interested in your offering (often termed “cold prospects”). Inbound marketing, on the other hand, targets consumers who choose to interact with manufacturers via Facebook, email opt-ins, and website searches. This has helped to cultivate warmer prospects that have expressed an interest in the business, and are therefore much easier to convert into paying customers.

But just because someone has opted in or likes you doesn’t mean you should bombard them with your latest deals. Unlike newspaper or radio, where you get another crack at them next week, once someone opts out or unlikes you on Facebook, you don’t get a second chance. Treat the process like a courtship—not a one-night stand!

2. Faceless selling. Once, you could build your business on reputation, service, and good old-fashioned congeniality; now it comes down to your price and the ability to execute quickly and accurately. In this age, it’s not just about the sale. When buyers and sellers don’t interact face to face, trust may take longer to build. Don’t be afraid to take your time nurturing the relationship. And remember: People love to voice their opinions, so ask questions and give them a chance to speak their minds.

Dimitri Vervitsiotis/Getty Images
Online marketing targets those who’ve expressed interest in your products.

3. Anywhere/anytime ­selling. With the exception of billboards or window displays, you never used to have the opportunity to reach consumers at point of purchase. Thanks to mobile apps, shoppers can now be exposed to marketing in store environments. We believe cellphones will one day be “Googlefied”—that is, core services and monthly coverage will be completely free, as long as users accept targeted location-based advertising on their phones. In a mall at lunchtime? Expect to see a menu from a local restaurant on-screen—and not just any menu, but one targeted to your favorite foods.

The secret to capitalizing on such a fast-changing arena is to be aware of the developments. That way, when something new (like Google+, which has drawn some 25 million users since its debut in June) is introduced, you’re up on it. Spending just five to 10 minutes a day scanning a few relevant blogs and articles can be worthwhile.

4. Narrowing attention spans. More messages are bombarding our senses than ever before. The initial contact has become even more critical, as customers will now give you only a matter of seconds before they decide to read on or switch off. Here’s where Hopkins’ theories in Scientific Advertising come in handy: “We pick out what we wish to read by headlines, and we don’t want those headlines misleading.” That is especially true for social media and websites. Get the important words into the headline and be prepared to measure their effectiveness.

5. Widening circles of influence. Word of mouth has always been the best endorsement and the biggest fear for a business when things go wrong. Now, thanks to the Internet, it’s turbo-charged. Get things right, and word will travel quickly; get it wrong, and the ­fallout will be bigger than ever. Tread carefully! And take heart: The very factors that make these developments scary also level the playing field.

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