The Campaign to End All Campaigns

By Andrew Frank | February 28, 2014 | 0 Comments

To campaign or not to campaign, that is the question on a lot of digital marketers’ minds these days. Mike Volpe, CMO of Hubspot, is among those who believe that “the notion of the marketing campaign is dead.” And he’s far from alone.

But for those of us of a certain age – especially if we were raised on Madison Avenue – the idea that “the campaign is dead” is bound to bring a smirk – didn’t Chiat Day run a campaign like that in the early 90s?

And yet we secretly wonder, what if it’s true? What if there really is a better way? This is a crucial question – whose outcome could permanently alter the practice and economics of marketing. A few weeks ago, my colleagues  Jennifer Beck and Jake Sorofman aired a faceoff on the topic. Here’s a quick recap of their debate, with commentary:

Sorofman,Jake 1:01 PM
Campaigns are as good as dead.

Beck,Jennifer 1:01 PM
Well, let’s first define things. What do you mean by a campaign—before you pronounce them dead?

Sorofman,Jake 1:02 PM
I see it as a concentrated, time-bound promotional effort to drive some change in demand or selling motion. To me, it’s an inside-out, brand-centric concept that puts the marketers’ interests first.

Me: Notice how Jake sets up the post-brand-centric communications aesthetic where marketers’ interests take a back seat to addressing customers on their own terms. Point one: people don’t like to be pitched, and now that they have more choices they’ll be more likely to engage with personally relevant messages.

Beck,Jennifer 1:03 PM
I think of campaigns in gaming or military terms—as a connected series of battles, adventures or scenarios. Think of military campaigns. Take that hill, secure the city, push forward on the front—they all feel like marketing maneuvers geared up to open a new market, retain customers or grow revenue. The analogy works, marketers have been using the lingo—guerilla marketing, under the radar, competitive win back, and the like for ages.

Sorofman,Jake 1:03 PM
I agree with that the structural aspect of campaigns remains valid—logical linkages between goals, themes and efforts. But in an age of abundant choice, engagement needs to be centered around what the customer cares about, not what the brand cares about.

Beck,Jennifer 1:04 PM
[...]You know – all this talk about empowered consumers, engagement, experiences, trust, loyalty, affinity—blah, blah, blah—every company I talk to is trying to make money.
So herein lies the challenge of balance.
What brands need, what buyers want.
You need to satisfy both.

Me: When in doubt, follow the money. Counterpoint one: if you completely suppress brand interests, your marketing will be ineffective (no matter how engaging it is). You need balance.

Sorofman,Jake 1:05 PM
Actually, I don’t think these ideas are mutually exclusive, but marketers need to break out of campaign thinking to become better brand storytellers. I don’t see this as the death of sound, focused business practices, where marketing efforts are tied to sales outcomes; but I don’t think campaigns alone are sufficient, particularly when they’re used as the grist for social engagement. I think the best campaigns have more authentic storytelling extensions and storytelling itself also must happen apart from these campaigns.

Me: The sound you hear are the cheers and jeers of the ghosts of soft-sell advertising, who preached the power of storytelling when they walked the Earth decades ago.

Let’s break for an insightful reader comment:

Derek E. Weeks: Jake, you seem to capitulate on the topic … So, campaigns are not dead — they just need to be extended in new ways. A point that we all (you, me, and Jennifer) agree on. I think the point you are trying to make is that marketers can be more effective by stepping out of their traditional campaign comfort zones and adding in new social, storytelling, and content extensions.

Me: “The news of my death is greatly exaggerated…” Point 2: Campaigns might not be completely dead, but they represent a limited way of thinking.

Sorofman,Jake 1:17 PM
[...] …if you focus all of your effort on driving near-term customer behavior through traditional campaign tactics you’ll exhaust your customers. Engagement also needs to be less directly about the CTA; it’s also about building dialogues which influence preference and loyalty through trust and affinity that you nurture over time.

Beck,Jennifer 1:18 PM
Can you have a storytelling campaign? The goal is brand extension perhaps?
It would be like that movie – The Never-ending Story.

Sorofman,Jake 1:20 PM
In a sense, yes, but most content marketers would call these themes, not campaigns. Because campaigns, right or wrong, place the emphasis on the brand, not the audience. Semantics, yes, but I think there’s a real danger of content marketers forgetting to play the longer bet on the customer when they think of what they do as a campaign. But these themes are often time-bound and driven off of a calendar, which makes them campaign-like, I suppose.

 Me: And so we are led to what we’ve taken to referring to as “Two-speed marketing.” In a subsequent blog post I added,

“…when individuals seek to form or modify relationships, clearly their interactions take different forms. A first impression is a one-time opportunity, and people are motivated to make it count. Whether it’s dating, a job interview, a major speech, a big sales presentation, or a marriage proposal, we all strive to make the most of our big moments. Brands are no different: whether it’s a new product launch, a shift in direction, a seasonal special or even an attempt to answer for a disaster, there will always be moments in the life of a brand that call for “campaign thinking” – that is, preparation, orchestration, and careful measurement – and maybe, in the digital world where messages reverberate and take on a life of their own, these moments are more important than ever.”

My colleague Marty Kihn added:

“I think there’s also an economic argument in favor of campaigns. Consumer brands often launch new products, line extensions, etc., and the most efficient way to do so at scale is via mass media (e.g., TV, homepage takeovers, big Facebook campaigns, etc.). Such media are simply too expensive to continue indefinitely (“always on”), so they’re used in bursts, which we call campaigns.”

Counterpoint 2: The scale and impact of a campaign is hard if not impossible to achieve on a continuous basis.

Conclusion: Campaigns may not be dead, but they’ve mutated and now need to co-exist with content marketing in a two-speed system where both modes complement, compete, and play against each other.

Come celebrate the modern campaign with us as we embark on a week of examination of the old king in his new (digital) clothes (subscription required)!

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