If you’ve worked in marketing long enough, you’ve probably heard a version of the old saying, “Half the money spent on advertising is wasted; the trouble is we don’t know which half.”
Traditionally, marketing efforts have been divided between left-brained creatives focused on cultivating a legendary brand and right-brained analysts pushing conversion through direct offers. Though both are necessary, it has often been a strained alliance in practice. Brand marketers bemoan the damage crude offers do to their carefully sculpted vision. Direct marketers criticize expensive image campaigns for breaking budgets without producing measurable return. Knowing this, it’s easy to see how brand marketers might interpret Wanamaker’s statement as mostly positive—half is working!—while direct marketers would interpret it negatively—half is wasted!
But online, these once disparate attitudes and the efforts they inspire have moved toward one another—and now even overlap. By using testing and optimization, brands can refine their image through carefully iterating creative and user experience elements, linking the impact of these changes directly to conversions. Offers can embrace the creativity of branding and branding can contribute directly to KPIs.
This is a direct reflection of the reality that the way in which consumers discover, evaluate, and engage with brands has changed. Sure, a viral campaign such as the recent ALS ice bucket challenge is exciting, but relationships are more likely to form along an extended chain of touch points. The ultimate goal of such a decision journey may be conversion, but along the way branding plays an important role in attracting, nurturing, and guiding the consumer. If seeing a viral campaign serves as a trigger, the brand must be prepared with content and platforms that deepen the connection as a consumer builds consideration sets of varying size, suffers from fluctuations in motivation, and gets distracted by the next trending video.
In this context, branding is less about attracting attention. Instead, branding efforts should be focused on creating the right messaging for consumers, tailored to their specific contextual needs. At the same time, direct marketing can no longer be measured with opens, clicks, or even conversions alone. Instead, direct marketers must think about longer-range metrics that track the customer across an extended period of research and evaluation—a period in which the needs of the customer will shift.
Addressing these changing needs isn’t easy and, as such it demands a new, more integrated approach to marketing. Recently, I wrote that “within this immense challenge lies an unprecedented opportunity ... an expanded timeline in which relationships can be formed and opinions solidified.” By combining the skills of brand and direct marketers, it’s possible to seize this opportunity and build trust, better understand consumers, and address customer needs in specific ways.
The common ground between brand and direct marketing can be found in testing and optimization. Successful testing programs require, of course, a strong analytical focus—driven not just by expertise in interpreting data, but a rigorous approach to governing it. Fortunately, this is a common characteristic among direct marketers and marketing analysts.
But testing and optimization requires much more than data analysis and management. Indeed, it requires extensive knowledge of usability, psychology, and design as well. Developing creative strategies for testing may be an adjustment for seasoned marketers, but the opportunity is huge. Not only does testing allow brand marketers to validate their ideas and strategies, it also provides the constant feedback and learning necessary to create tailored, contextually relevant creative.
This is not to say that combining two traditionally opposed methodologies and mind-sets will be easy. As direct and brand marketers begin to grow together within a testing program, there will be pains. But that there will be challenges does not mean the transition should be avoided—and it certainly doesn’t mean it is unnecessary.
Indeed, adapting to this new marketing landscape is essential for all organizations. Pushing messages will no longer work for direct marketers, and brands can no longer be built through display ads and 30-second spots. The usability of a Web site, the pleasure of the browsing and buying journey, is the new branding. The relevance of a personalized message, delivered at precisely the right time, is the new direct. And testing and optimization is the new tool all marketers can use to improve customer experience, together.