Advertising vs Engagement. How to win the battle for today's Always On consumer

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In today's battle for attention, the focus in marketing is digital – and digital is all about being Always On and engaging the audience in a dialog, rather than the one-way shouting we call advertising.

You’ve heard it in seminars. Your board meetings sometimes veer off from talking about P&L and major corporate issues to focusing on digital. Your one tech junkie in the corner, the resident geek pops his head in and rants about ‘digital future’. Yes you kind of know about this. You acknowledge it. Yes, you recognize the writing on the (facebook) wall. Consumers have shifted their media consumption patterns in favour of the online world. Attention is scarce, and people simply do not trust brand messages any more. User generated brand content therefore becomes key – and that content is Always On.

But the reality is we’re mostly stuck in the traditional advertising vortex. Even online. We’re still so taken with creating ‘advertising’ that we forget that the dynamics have been shifted. The consumer has moved the goalposts from receiving one-way communications to interaction and engagement. They want to be part of the action, the give and take. And if you aren’t giving them relevance, experience, and a genuine value-add for their time spent with you, they aren’t taking the bait. 

Customer Insights is your First Step in Digital Marketing and these insights about your audience will tell you that it's really about engaging the audience rather than throwing advertising spends at them.

Because the focus has shifted from the brand to the consumer, you really need specialized skills to stay in tune with this new consumer out there. The Always On one. Read Why every brand and every agency needs a Digital Insights Manager.

What we tend to forget is the fact that consumers have always been unpredictably outside thin slice channel silos. Our game has always been about value. Value in exchange for time. The digital marketing trick is about creating value – rich experiences, rewarding content, engaging, useful things delivered to them – where they want it, and when they want it. At their whim. At their convenience. Look at all the digital things we do every day – email, sms, phone calls, downloads, blogs, information gathering, googling – each one delivers something useful, something valuable. This is the core remote flicking fighter. This is the new model. If you build this, they will come.

Engagement vs Advertising in digital code is Pull vs Push. Theirs vs Ours. The traditional online model (I know those two words together sound like oxymorons) is about awareness building. I have a new product, and here’s a ten page microsite that glorifies it, while also telling me about my vision, my mission, my CEO’s bio, and of course my ‘contact us’ details. And I have spent a considerable sum of my (miniscule) online budget on banners across various portals that I believe you go to, to drive you to my said microsite, and you better click through, or else. And, wait, since I am so 2020 ready that I have also put my microsite address on my print ads. Well, well.

No, because that just does not work. Well, it did nicely enough for a while, but it no longer cuts the ice. Today, it’s about building something that is interesting, something the consumer will gladly spend time with, and if done right probably even advocate. I’m not saying this is the death knell of all display advertising. Some display ads have a simple message ‘free upgrade’ , ‘5% interest’ and ‘$99 to London’ will get clicked through if it is in a relevant channel. But overall, our online communications needs to be way, way beyond advertising. It needs to be fresh, fun, fabulous as an experience.

What we tend to forget often that we are in the wow business. All of us. Offline mainstream creatives, suits, brand managers, CEOs et al. Brand-to-consumer communications is all about wow. We have a wow gadget, an unbelievably comfortable sofa, a juice so fresh it’s still on the tree, a free-lobotomy-with-nose-job offer, and for the CFO – yes, we’ve made a small but remarkable profit in the middle of a bust year kind of wow. So, the, how come when we tell people about all this, we forget the wow?

The magic of digital is the technology it sits on. Ever changing, ever evolving technology. The tech spine allows us to build a nice sexy body around it if we want. Use it cleverly and it can be rewarding – for both brands and consumers. Technology and the newness of it, the fresh wow bits it can deliver allows us to better entertain, better engage, better wow. Like the way Mini used augmented reality applications in their print ads – that led to quite a wow experience for the consumer. And it doesn’t all have to be all tomorrow’s leading edge today. We simply need to see how social media today is all about engagement. Not about selling. Improve your social media engagement. Move from Selling to building Relationships.

Which brings us to my final point. We the guilty – the advertising fraternity – have so long ignored what the consumer wants to see, hear, feel, do and chased the Cannnes and other metalware glory , that we’ve lost sight of the consumer as creative possibility.

Lo and behold the new creative director – the 19 year old YouTube upload kingpin out of Muscat. Guitar hero, garage band expert, iMovie editor and brand ambassador par excellence on YouTube. And, he is willing to work for you on a pro bono basis. And no, your brand does not have to be green or preach tree hugging, but just open. Meet John Doe or Salma the blogger or Sultan the facebook fiend – the social media sneezer. The one with self empowerment to make or break your brand. And he is a no-label free spirit who does not believe in advertising. But ask him to be part of your engagement plan, and he will happily take up your flag. The engager. The non advertiser. Your new ambassador. The new piper at the gates of dawn.

That's the way it is today. The shift has happened. That's Digital Marketing Strategies 101.

More reading on Always On marketing

7 Essential Pillars for your Digital Marketing Strategy
Intent is the new black in digital marketing. In-the-moment marketing is what's hot.


This is a nicely written piece. And valid points made. Good stuff. Thanks.


Thanks for a very useful and informative post. I simply need to point out that I feel that "the magic of digital is technology" as you said, is not the best way to look at it. Technology makes digital communications possible in fresh new ways and across many different channels, but the magic of digital is how the consumer is really connecting with each other and with brands in unprecedented ways.


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