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What does “Digital” even mean?

That’s a question that industry trade publisher, Advertising Age asked itself when planning for its annual Digital Conference held last week. They toyed with the idea of removing the word “digital”, but ultimately kept it because otherwise “no one would come”, said editor Ken Wheaton, only half-jokingly.

Yet, this semantic confusion over “digital” has most marketers shrugging their shoulders. It’s now a post-digital world, where a 728×90 “digital” banner ad is as traditional, if not more so, than the ancient 30-second spot. Penna Powers was at the conference and came away with these top insights from the proceedings:

  1. Traditional Digital is Dead – Marketers need to move beyond the traditional online elements of banner ads and other push methods. If you’re just going to do that, you might as well tell a story on television. A digital presence has less to do with the “ad unit”. It has more to do with what kind of experiences you’re allowing your customers to have and what kind of relationships you’re building with them. The traditional elements still have their place, but they cannot take center stage.
  2. The Power of Place – Twitter co-founder and Medium CEO, Evan Williams, discussed how the dramatic increase of migration to cities is similar to how people behave online. Traffic to the top 10 websites makes up 75% of all online traffic. While the average person visits 25 apps per month, 80% of the time is spent on his or her top 3 apps. People plug themselves into established communities on the web and stay there. Just as people need city life for better networking, so too do brands need to establish a community for their customers. And Evan Williams’s solution, of course, is his online publishing platform, Medium. Check it out.
  3. Popular Culture is the New Competition – Think about it. Your marketing is competing for the attention of the customer. What else is competing for that attention? Everything else the customer consumes, from the latest cat video to the newest Netflix or Hulu series. We’re now in the Age of the Customer and the customer is very much in control of what he or she chooses to watch.  Will they choose you?
  4. Stop Being a Perfectionist – Advertisers are used to being in control of everything that happens within that 30-second spot, which can take many weeks and months to get right and presentable for the masses. But that’s too long, and by the time you’ve created your awesome piece of marketing, it may no longer be relevant to the world the customer is now living in. According to Frank Cooper, CMO of BuzzFeed, “content needs to match the rate at which pop culture changes”. This requires us to trade long-gestating perfection for speedy, and sometimes raw, relevancy. It also requires much patience and courage to do.
  5. Try it, Nail it, Scale it – Change doesn’t happen all at once, it occurs in bite-sized chunks. That was the message from AT&T’s Valerie Vargas, who showcased the brand’s foray into original content series like Summer Break and Snapper Hero. Ms. Vargas’s bosses weren’t going to sign off on a huge investment in something so unproven, so she needed to take baby steps in setting aside some budget for experimenting and incubating new platforms. Once she saw success in something small, she could justify larger investments and scaling those small successes to larger ones.
  6. Digital and Traditional Work Together – Cruise ship brand Royal Caribbean and its shop MullenLowe set out to convince jaded New Yorkers that going on a cruise could be exciting and unique. So they streamed the Periscope feeds of over twenty key social influencers having Royal Carribean vacations into out-of-home bus shelters and kiosks all across the city to prove that cruises weren’t touristy and boring. They also re-purposed much of the footage and incorporated it into TV campaigns.
  7. Using Influencers? Let Them Do What They Do – As more brands and agencies use social media influencers to be more relevant to consumers, they often try to dictate the terms of how the brands will be showcased. For example, a sunglass brand wanted Snapchat celebrity, Julz Goddard, to take pictures of herself donning the shades poolside. “Boring”, she said. When the brand allowed her to use the brand more naturally within her Miami partying lifestyle, it scored more authenticity points with her audience.
  8. Use Data to Create More Shareable Content – When we think of using data, we often think in terms of optimizing a digital campaign for better performance. That’s all well and good, but we’re missing a major opportunity to use data to craft better brand storytelling. Using the Facebook Audience Interest Index, Shareablee CEO, Tania Yuki, showed that factors like “usefulness”, “happiness” and “emotion” engaged more women than men and that men were more likely to share content that was “funny” and “exciting”.  For 18-24 year-olds, content that enabled them to be “in the know” was the most likely to be shared.

So will next year’s conference just be titled “Advertising Age’s 2017 Conference”? Doesn’t quite have the same ring to it, does it? But what’s true is that buzzword value of the word “digital” will continue to diminish as we brands and agencies drop the semantics and just do what works.

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