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By 2020, more than $117 billion will be spent on digital and mobile advertising in the U.S. And as marketing budgets continue to increase across our industry, the investment in digital advertising will likely continue to grow, as well. 

As I survey our industry’s digital advertising output, it is clear that the bulk of ad dollars are going to direct response ads, those middle-of-the-funnel type.

Is this the best strategy?

There is power in closely aligning digital (as well as social) advertising with traditional marketing efforts. To me, there is an obvious place for digital advertising in the marketing mix, but do we need to scrape the bottom of the supply-side barrel to increase digital metrics or only maintain a direct response approach? 

Less Direct

“You’re more likely to be accepted into Harvard than click on a banner.” – “Banner Beater”

Marketers enjoy a 0.05 percent click-through-rate across all industries. Why design for the less than one percent? As consumers continue to adopt to rapid media environments, behavior is becoming increasingly passive and content is being consumed in rapid succession. Similarly, there is little evidence, from a business perspective, that clicks are linked to brand impact or sales. 

Direct response ads rely on conscious consumption and rational messaging to provoke action, which is a lot to ask for when, according to Millward Brown, consumers look at display ads for less than three seconds. We must deliver our messages quickly to be effective. Concurrently, research has shown that 250 milliseconds of exposure on mobile display is enough to gain significant ad recall. Knowing the media environment in which our ads are often viewed, we should shift the mindset that digital advertising shouldn’t be primarily a conversion-only tactic and given a more brand-building role.

To adopt this approach, here are three principles to consider when developing your next digital advertising campaign.

Design for System One

“We (marketers) are in a System One business.” – Rory Sutherland

Daniel Kahneman introduced how we form thought in Thinking, Fast and Slow. The instinctual System One describes the part of mind that is responsible for fast, automatic and emotional agency. Roughly 80 percent of our decisions are made using System One, including most purchasing decisions. System Two is slower, used to make complex computations and requires attention. 

Direct response digital advertising relies on System Two and is meant to drive an action. Digital advertising meant to drive brand awareness doesn’t need active engagement or a unique-selling proposition. They simply need to be distinct enough to be stored as implicit memories and used as a shortcut by System One, knowing that the ads are being processed passively and subconsciously

To be effective, digital ads should include a direct link to the brand via always-present branding (logo or name). Your logo is a distinctive asset that helps to maintain mental networks, improve saliency and linkage within the communication in the split-second consumers give to an ad. In this case, it might be best to ditch the elaborate research photo for better placement of your logo.

Include Brand Assets 

“Rather than striving for meaningful perceived differentiation, marketers should seek meaningless distinctiveness. Branding lasts. Differentiation doesn’t.”– Byron Sharp

In 2009, Tropicana learned the hard way the importance of brand assets. After ditching their distinctive straw-in-orange logo, font and green color pallet, the brand saw sales drop by 22 percent. Distinctive brand assets are unique identity elements of a brand, and it is these brand assets that our brains rely on to make purchasing decisions. Visual elements like fonts, colors and slogans, through repeat exposure, help build familiarity and memory structures related to the brand. The more brand assets you “own” the more likely you are to trigger brand memories in and amongst the digital clutter. Check out Ehrenberg-Bass’s Measure Your Distinctive Assets to assess what assets you should identify. 

Make it Integrated (And Get Creative)

“Upwards of 50 percent of taps on mobile are on accident.” Google Benchmark

A quick survey of would indicate that many digital campaigns are designed in a vacuum. Digital ads should trigger any brand-level or recruitment campaigns—building upon the familiarity of other tactics (i.e. brand assets).

There is also an opportunity to creatively integrate digital campaigns within the broader communications plan. The mere exposure effect indicates digital advertising is a great way to build familiarity before view books or event invites are sent, acting as a priming agent for message comprehension. Research also indicates that digital advertising and television work in synergy to improve campaign effectiveness. Why not build campaigns around television buys or football games? Similarly, why not use digital ads to build familiarity as part of your strategy for attracting prospective students and drive awareness between search campaigns?

Instead of spending money on re-targeting, I have found success combining web data and CRM data to plan digital campaigns around moments of intent during the college search process. The data gave us a sense of how far out we needed to begin to build awareness. At the end of each advertising campaign we then used emails to convert and drive middle-of-the-funnel actions. 

If we remove ourselves from the confines of using digital ads to drive conversions, we can begin to unlock the creative potential of digital ads playing a role in driving familiarity, which drives fluency and helps improve brand metrics throughout the funnel. 

Christopher Huebner is assistant director for online presence at the University of South Carolina.