Of campaigns, communities and consistency

Posted on November 18, 2011

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A number of high-concept digital campaigns are facing a big problem.

But first things first. In online media, one recent trend has been to move beyond established metrics, often related to display advertising. (Online having long moved beyond print, where granular data around ad effectiveness remains hard to find. Feel free to disagree with me on that one.)

A piece this week from Reuters’ Felix Salmon (@felixsalmon) blogging for Wired http://www.wired.com/epicenter/2011/11/salmon-future-online-ads/2/ even questions whether click-through rates (CTRs) on online ads are worth anything at all, given how few people do click through. That’s not to say the ads aren’t of value – I’ve long known branding online, for example, has been underestimated and there are other proof points, such as data capture or time spent on in-ad content – but his point is valid.

Well the question has moved beyond display, even when it’s online. Many innovative campaigns, certainly in b2b, certainly in tech in my experience, are around fostering community engagement.

What does that mean? I could spend a long time trying to define ‘engagement’. Better people than me have been defeated taking on that. But surely ‘community engagement’ has to be about a definable, usually attractive group of individuals who don’t just read or view but spend time getting actively involved with each other, publishers, advertisers, maybe other groups too.

Often community works best in niche areas. You don’t have to try too hard to think of active subgroups on social networks such as Facebook or LinkedIn.

Brands sometimes try to build their own communities. They wouldn’t call themselves advertisers at this point – but it goes without saying they’re still trying to sell something. It might work for Starbucks on Facebook but for some other companies, not so much.

These companies – 99% of businesses, I’d guess – realise that publishers, by their very nature of appealing to large audiences on a daily basis, do know a thing or two about community.

So partnerships ensue.

Or rather, when done well they are partnerships. What I mean by that isn’t that no money changes hands. It does. But a partnership goes beyond a traditional campaign. That’s great but also the problem.

Building a community – for example around a very expensive type of computer hardware – takes time. It’s worth it because the people involved in making or influencing those decisions are worth reaching. But it’s a slow burner.

I caught up with Jon Collins (@jonno) this week, an IT industry expert and old friend. He made a number of good points about this. Major vendors, who are major advertisers, realise that partnering with publishers to engage with the right community (their would-be customers) makes sense. However, that relationship usually comes about through campaigns, most of which might last three or six months. Perhaps a year at a push.

Whereas traditional ads, even with identical creative copy, can ebb and flow – here one quarter, gone the next, maybe back again for end of year – communities can’t.

Ever gather together a high-value community for a few months, do great things (high-fives all round!) and then get to the point where it all just peters out? I’ve seen it happen. It doesn’t look good.

How about being honest about an end point? Nice idea – but it also limits the number of people happy to get involved in the first place.

And much of the time there is no agreed end-point. An advertiser has every good intention to keep a community going. Publishers depend on that revenue to make the community all it should be. Without the money behind them they’re loss-makers – intensive in terms of curation, tech time, design and overall management.

Then, I don’t know, something like a pesky recession comes along, marketing budgets are trimmed, that long-term campaign gets hit.

Bottom line: Longer-term engagement with audiences on media owners’ sites is becoming increasingly attractive to advertisers, as it long has been to those publishers. But the traditional campaign approach doesn’t usually handle this trend well. What’s the answer?

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