The best online marketing isn’t always about conversion

Felix Salmon wrote a provocative piece this morning titled “The future of online advertising.” In it, he makes a forceful case for the value of digital advertising as content, not just a gimmick optimized to drive clickthroughs.

He drives the point home by describing a recent speaking engagement to a group of digital advertising professionals:

“Most of the people in the audience literally didn’t know that when people buy Vogue they want to read the ads; in a very real sense, the editorial is something which just gets in the way.”

In the old-school world of print and TV, this makes total sense. But to all of us in the digital world, ads have become nothing more than the top of a conversion funnel; an ad that doesn’t convert is the definition of failure.

Taken to its logical extreme, all forms of online advertising trend toward direct marketing, and all direct marketing eventually becomes CRM

Consider Groupon, which has passed through these phases faster than most companies: they began with massive display advertising to build email lists; parlayed those lists into a repeat direct marketing channel that could blast new prospects in the door of local merchants; and are now attempting to slice and dice those lists into finely-divided cells of preference and location, to deliver “yield management as a service” to merchants that quickly wearied of one-time visits from bargain hunters.

Groupon’s long-term success may be in question, but their meteoric rise was made possible not by slow and steady brandbuilding, but by applying the digital marketing playbook with massive force.

Salmon’s point — too easily forgotten in a world obsessed with “lean” methods and quantified results — is that the best advertising is actually welcomed by consumers not just as content, but as entertainment.

An entire industry is emerging around “viral” ads — branded messages that are so fun to watch that consumers seek them out, share them and watch them — on purpose — hundreds of millions of times.

This kind of advertising isn’t what traditional agencies are used to producing. A handful of creative firms — like Portland’s Weiden + Kennedy, creators of the massively successful Old Spice campaign (an example is embedded above) — have started to figure it out. But they’ve done so largely by embracing another key point from Salmon’s article, which is to…

“… treat with suspicion the idea that it’s possible to deliver a beautiful, self-contained brand proposition online in the same way that you can in Vogue or on TV”

Effective digital marketing doesn’t have to drive prospects into a conversion funnel, but the best content campaigns *do* produce measurable results in the form of “engagement”: shares, saves, comments, +1’s, Likes, remixes, even animated spoofs constitute positive signs that your effort to reach people has hit the target.

Most companies can’t afford to pay a big-name agency to execute high-concept viral ad campaigns. But every company — and especially early-stage companies with limited marketing budgets — should make content-based marketing an important part of their marketing mix.

The term of art for this type of branded communication is “inbound marketing” — so named because it draws customers in to “soft” engagement with content without an explicit ask, vs. “hard” conversion- and sales-oriented methods.

What does this “soft” marketing look like? Guest-authoring articles on popular news sites, publishing infographics and white papers, creating instructional videos, being a frequent and articulate commenter on relevant articles by others, retweeting helpful posts from experts on the topic: all of these play a role in the inbound marketing toolkit.

None of these methods are easily automated or outsourced, and most require hands-on engagement by the most time-stretched people in the business — the CEO is often the person most qualified to both craft and deliver a killer inbound marketing piece — but all of them deliver what customers crave most: a chance to get to know (and even like) your brand *before* being asked to buy anything.