The big lies of digital marketing

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When it comes to digital marketing strategy — which admittedly barely exists in some companies aside from “I think we have a Facebook page?” — there are a couple of big lies that need to be addressed.

I got going down this rabbit hole by reading a transcript of a podcast from Northwestern’s Kellogg School. A lot of this podcast is about the problems of digital advertising. See, the great promise of digital advertising was how trackable it would be. In some cases, that’s true. But TV still has bigger numbers — even if you have no real idea who’s out there and if the ads led them to buy anything — and because marketing teams love the shrine of big numbers, TV and print often win out. (Plus: how many times a week do I get a Facebook ad or event for something I could care less about or don’t live by? I think their algorithm is a mess right now.)

OK, so … this is the first problem with digital marketing strategy. Often the sheer concept doesn’t exist, because people are off chasing bigger, badder things that will make them look better to their boss. There was some research in early 2015 that most CMOs have no digital marketing strategy, which is depressing. By 2015, Google had been around for 17 or so years. Feels like you should be thinking somewhat about digital by now just because of that anniversary. Maybe I’m misguided.

The digital marketing strategy space has a lot of consultants in it, of course. Probably about seven times per day, I land on a website that’s promising me “92,181% growth” if I just hand them my e-mail address. You could choke an entire nation of horses with the amount of articles purporting to “show ROI” to “push CAGR” from digital marketing strategy. In reality, it’s mostly bullshit and lies.

In fact, let’s run through some of the biggest lies out there.

Digital marketing strategy lie: Social selling

Look, social selling does exist. Some people even do it well. But to think “social selling” is a be-all and end-all is extremely naive. Maybe for some Pinterest-friendly lifestyle brands, social selling straight up works. But in the B2B-type trenches where you’re chasing leads on LinkedIn? No. It has to be a mixed approach. Something like LinkedIn is good for prospecting. You can identify the decision-makers or who can authorize purchases. But to think you’re going to make the sale through LinkedIn Messages? No. That would very rarely happen.

This is one of the big lies of digital marketing strategy. “We’ll drive you all these leads,” the theory goes, “if you follow this action plan.” In reality, people pitching you that are chasing a paycheck. The entire effectiveness of some LinkedIn “strategy plays” sit on a throne of lies.

Digital marketing strategy lie: How people approach content vs. referral

Content is important. Do I think it’s “king?” Probably not. But there’s a big digital marketing strategy lie around all this. Let me try to trace this out for you.

The theory of many “marketing strategists” is that you need to produce content to be seen as an authority or a “thought leader” (gag me) in your space. This sometimes works. I’ve made friends and business contacts through blogging, although I’ve been doing this almost daily for three years and I’m not sure anyone sees me as an “authority” of any sort.

Here’s where the lie comes in, though. With everyone trying to produce content, you’ve got this huge supply. But people only have a finite amount of time in the day, and attention spans have been dropping for years. The demand for content is relatively static. This is a major problem around “content marketing,” to be honest.

What happens when supply way outpaces demand? At some level, it all feels like noise. So rather than people reading something you write or watching your video and saying “I want to work with that person,” this is what actually happens: they go ask friends and like-minded colleagues what to do or who to work with.

We all want to believe that our digital marketing strategy is going to drive us all these new people and potential business, but the game is all about referral. When there’s too much noise, people lean on colleagues for who to trust and work with. Referral is the №1 marketing channel, and has been since probably the cavemen. It’s becoming even more important in an age of constant interruption. You gotta cut through the noise and find the right person, and people tend to do that off referral.

Digital marketing strategy lie: Quick story

I have a friend who works for a big company. She was tasked with finding a speaker for an event. Because I read a lot of different “thought leaders,” she asks me for some help. I send her a bunch of links to different people. She ends up going with a big name who speaks all the time. He hadn’t been in the links I sent.

A couple of weeks later, I see her and ask about the process. She tells me that basically her boss just went and asked some old colleagues “Hey, who should speak at this event?” The same names (within their price range) kept coming up. The whole thing is like NFL coaches. Once you become one, you’ve got a shot to coach 10 other teams when they have openings, even if you keep sucking. But until you become one, it’s really hard to crack the ceiling.

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So we’re constantly being told to “establish credibility” with our digital marketing strategy, but in reality the contracts we covet will probably be determined by referral anyway — not our LinkedIn Pulse posts. See how that’s a lie?

Digital marketing strategy lie: “Build your list”

Again, email marketing can work. Some people do it well. Being conversational helps, as an aside.

But here’s where this aspect of digital marketing strategy becomes a lie. Consider some of these aspects:

  • By now, a lot of people have “back-up” email addresses they use for marketing lists
  • Open rates aren’t massive in most industries
  • Click-through rates can be even worse
  • If you send people interesting stuff, they’ll probably open it and read it (yay!)
  • But interesting stuff isn’t necessarily helping your bottom line (boo!)
  • When you start getting sales-y to help your bottom line, though, people will ignore it or unsubscribe (boo!)

You’ll no doubt find 29,435 hucksters online preaching a digital marketing strategy of “build your list.” But what exactly are you building it for? What’s the end game? It’s a real question to consider.

Digital marketing strategy lie: It’s not operations

At every level of business, people confuse “strategy” (a plan) with “operations” (the logistics of executing that plan). Digital marketing “strategy” is no different. Oftentimes, companies create an editorial calendar or a Twitter schedule and then say, “Well, we have a great strategy in place.” No. That’s not a strategy. That’s a series of tasks to make people feel busy and semi-relevant, which admittedly is the only true goal of most marketing departments.

A “digital marketing strategy” would be something like:

  • We create X-pieces of content around X-keywords
  • Our goal is to target these types of people
  • We’ll have ways to attract, nurture, and close these types all along our funnel

By contrast, a digital marketing plan is something like:

  • We post to LinkedIn Pulse on Wednesdays
  • Tweet five times per day
  • Run a contest on our Facebook page every other week

When you swap the second set of bullets for the first and believe that’s your “digital marketing strategy,” well, you’re essentially lying to yourself.

What else you got on digital marketing strategy? Seen it done well anywhere?

My name is Ted Bauer. Right now, “work” doesn’t actually “work” for many people. I write about why, and how to change it. I also freelance for people, if you’re interested.

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