Robert Passikoff – Occupying Digital

Robert Passikoff, Founder & President, Brand Keys, Inc.
Amy Shea, Global Director of Brand Development, Brand Keys, Inc.

Long ago, in a world far, far away, brands made ads and put them on television. People watched these ads. Not because they really wanted to, but because they lacked a device called a remote and were no more willing to give up that warm spot on the couch then we are today.

Brands had hoped that the Internet would be the answer to recapturing those golden days of consumer attention once again, this time, not because of the lack of technology but actually because of it. The increasing sophistication of filters that can send brand-love messages exactly to that special consumer-someone in the mood for a little bonding promised a land of sales and money on the other side. Technology has enabled the ability to form ever-more sophisticated profiles built from our searches, social pages, and scans, selling this to brands as a way in. But a little scratching on the gold-plate of this ideal reveals it for what it is: a modern targeting technique, albeit a big step up from zip-codes, but no answer to what consumers expect in the digital space.

Awareness has for a very long time been a vital and necessary doorway that is far too often viewed as a destination by brands. In the pre-remote dynasty, brands could simply reach the largest number of folks a certain number of times, and connect using simple math. It would be great to say that brands have graduated from calculator-media buying, but many haven’t. Because along with the ability to target on the web came the ability to count really high. And that got really intoxicating.

Suddenly, brands had an exact number of all the people that had seen their message. And, understandably, that left them a little dizzy, until they realized that all that awareness might have bought them some curiosity, and maybe mild interest, depending on how cool the come-on was. But that awareness was often not strongly correlated to sales. Awareness, not being an end unto itself, continued to be a poor measure of whether it engaged the person on the other end.

As if that wasn’t insult enough, into this new wild-west web, came the upstarts, staking a claim on the same prairie as brands with their own parking lots and pension plans. This was one of the promises of the web actually coming true: access for all. Banner ads for new brands could flash right next to the big names. Thus was born the democratization of awareness.

Democracy can be painful. Citizens can voice in a public way what they actually want from a brand; what they see as a brand’s place in their virtual social world; and how they themselves are different than the only-a decade-back-pre-digital generation. But that means you have to be able to actually ask those questions in the right way, getting at the emotion roiling beneath. And, of critical importance, connect those things together.

The hard-working smart folks at brands have been busy trying to solve these problems, usually being forced to piece together research that has never met, never mind have terms of agreement. There are so many syndicated studies of digital usage now it’s the new basic black t-shirt of research companies. There are a lot of ways of counting, but studies of what digital platforms rise to the top in terms of visits tells you nothing about a brand’s place on any of them. Again, the awareness catch: going where the fish are doesn’t mean you’ve the right bait.

So, digital studies started including demographic data. Who are these people anyway using these platforms? Maybe the brand can match the digital platform demographics to their own customer demographics and then, Zowwie Batman! we can find our kind of people easier than ever.

Okay, says the brand, so knowing things like age and gender, that’s insufficient. We need to know what attitudes they have, and how they match up with what we know from that three-quarter of a million dollar study we did this year that gave us those cool profile names like “Cautious Wanderer” and “Conservative Rebel.” Surely, now, we can make this work!

And that’s as close as most brands have come to-date to being able to link the emotional component to the digital usage. Problem is, it’s an emotional pulse taken completely outside the category environment. A brand may understand very well who its peeps are, and watch where they wander in the digital world, then match those things up, while not understand at all how all that emotion projects itself into the category decision-making journey.

Just ask yourself this: do you buy a toaster oven the same way you buy a computer? Okay, so price matters, brand trust, things like that. All true. And then there is the rational stuff. It’s obvious the details of these products are very different. You may want a toaster oven to get really hot and a computer to be really cool. But there is more, much more. A toaster oven evokes an entirely different set of emotional responses than does a personal computer–the word “personal” being the first clue in the emotional landscape at work beneath the surface.

This matters. A lot. Because unless a brand connects the emotional and rational that are in play in the category decision-process to the digital platforms consumers are using, it does not have a strategic plan for digital involvement. It has a sophisticated approach to targeting.

The clarity of this problem is no surprise to all the brands that are on Facebook by default, because everyone else is. In brand back rooms however the question of what it’s actually doing is shared in soft whispers. Brands now have “social media specialists” and chiefs of “internet insights” trying hard to figure this out. Not just for Facebook, of course, but for all the major digital platforms out there.

So, the moral of this story is this: if you are a brand conducting yet another digital platform study, stop and ask the hard questions about how the study will actually illuminate what you should be doing there, and what really matters to the consumers in your category as they engage with your category in the digital space. Because you already know who you are talking to and how to reach them. Not being especially fond of perfectly-worded useless questions, we advocate for an end to that sort of data.

If you can’t get Yoda-worthy insights, grab that remote and change the channel. Then powerful you will have become.