Blog post

Analyst Faceoff: Is the Marketing Campaign Dead?

By Jake Sorofman | January 07, 2014 | 6 Comments

digital marketing

Maybe you read my post a few weeks ago predicting the end of the marketing campaign. My colleague Jennifer Beck sure did, because she’s pretty much beaten me about the head with it ever since. 🙂

“That’s wrongheaded,” she said, referring to my belief that the rise of content marketing and brand storytelling will match the fall of marketing campaigns. Let me first say that Jennifer is generally right. That’s why her words got my attention.

Gee, I thought, if JB thinks this idea is wrongheaded, perhaps it is.

That was a fleeting thought, which coincided with a challenge that we throw down the gauntlet. A good, old-fashioned duel with a modern twist. The transcript from our impromptu IM faceoff is pasted below.

Read along and, in the comments, let us know where you stand on the debate. 

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.

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
So herein lies the challenge of balance. 
What brands need, what buyers want. 
You need to satisfy both. 

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.

Beck,Jennifer 1:07 PM
So what’s the social engagement equivalent in military terms?  Not arguing with how content plays a dominant role here or that you have to tell a story, not shout about your offers.

Sorofman,Jake 1:08 PM
I like the idea of two-speed marketing: speed-one is brand-centric, goal-driven campaigning; speed-two is the daily discipline of audience engagement through storytelling, which is driven by content creation, curation and cultivation.

Beck,Jennifer 1:09 PM
So, Jake, tell me a short story and show me where you put the storytelling part that isn’t part of the campaign. 

Sorofman,Jake 1:09 PM
Ah, easy. 

Beck,Jennifer 1:10 PM
Such confidence. 🙂

Sorofman,Jake 1:11 PM
So, my campaign goals are about selling more of product A to segment B. I’m going to shape that demand by cranking up ad spending and promotional investments through retail incentives, etc. So that’s the campaign stuff … 

Sorofman,Jake 1:13 PM
On the storytelling side, I’m going to focus on issues that directly relate to my audiences, whether or not they’re directly connected to a near and present call to action. This could be an element of my campaign itself, but that’s not sufficient. Campaigns have beginnings and ends; storytelling needs to persist beyond the time boundaries of a campaign. And storytelling is about driving preference and loyalty over time. It rarely moves the needle as quickly as traditional campaign tactics. So neither is sufficient unto itself. I believe the answer is (blessedly, mercifully) both.

Beck,Jennifer 1:16 PM
I think continuous loop – marketing is a non-stop function. But I don’t think just a good story will drive the business objectives your executives expect in return for their investments. Now a good storyline, executing across campaign structures – like the chapters of a best seller – that I can see working. Most executives don’t get the non-stop part though. They like to see results quarterly. But marketing can’t sit back and sigh, pop the cork on the champagne and celebrate the end of Q4 as they close the books. You have to keep going into the 5th and 6th quarters. Campaigns help you balance the reporting with the continuous engagement.

Sorofman,Jake 1:17 PM
Yes, definitely, but 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.

Beck,Jennifer 1:21 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. 

Sorofman,Jake 1:21 PM
No doubt! But they are also aware that loyalty isn’t what it used to be and competitive alternatives abound. I think the perverse consequence of hypercompetition is that, frequently, the more you focus on the commercial pitch, to paraphrase Guy Kawasaki, the less enchanting you are as a brand.

Beck,Jennifer 1:23 PM
Enchanting. Now that’s an admirable goal for a brand. I like the idea of advocacy marketing over the notion of loyalty. It’s like the industrialization of word of mouth. Turn your buyers into sellers. Nothing beats having someone else tell your story for you.

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  • David B says:

    If we think about the big picture, marketing has changed forever and Stories are the new equipment for this social-bound marketing world. Stories are interest-centric, digital-ready, and shape beliefs about products, companies, and brands directly by consumers/customers…not by the vendors. Storytelling becomes the way marketing can execute and particpate in social awareness…instantly and continuously which is now required. So maybe campaigns are really the internal strategy or what I call the Plays. Campaigns organize storytelling development and execution so that marketing can continue to measure wins vs loses but based on customers beliefs, relationships, and actions not on number of leads generated.

  • Matt Silk says:

    Jake/Jennifer, great debate! The challenge for a marketer is balancing those short and long-term goals. How can they drive enough short-term results with customers/prospects without forcing a high unsubscribe rate. I do like Jake’s framework describing campaign marketing being more results focused and short-term whereas storytelling and brand affinity being the long-term focus. Different brands however will have different engagement rates across both types of marketing and definitely across different segments. Therefore, the short answer is marketers need to test-n-learn and really get to know their subscribers. There will always need to be campaigns, but they must all rollup to a set of longer term strategic objectives.

    Now bring the different channels in the mix and this discussion gets an order of magnitude more complex.

  • First off, calling something “dead” is very overused as a way to build attention to a story. Not a fan.

    Secondly, Jake, you seem to capitulate on the topic at 1:05pm when you state, “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.” 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.

    When pulling together marketing plans over a year or set of quarters, I tend to look at five layers: campaign, product, sales enablement, industry, and “surround” strategies. Each layer relates to, relies on, and interacts with the other. CAMPAIGNS are your traditional time-bound, nurturing efforts, PRODUCTS relate to roadmaps and releases, SALES ENABLEMENT relates to training the channels selling the offering, INDUSTRY relates to big events/trade shows/analyst events, and SURROUND relates to the new non-time bound social approaches you begin to address above. Taking a more holistic view of marketing or campaign planning allows marketing and other parts of the organization to be more effective internally (inside-out) while not loosing site of the market desires (outside-in) that both you and Jennifer support in the discussion above.

    The more holistic approaches marketing can take toward planning, executing, and measuring — the better off we will all be.

  • @Matt, thanks very much for your comments. Yes, you’re right on. It’s about test and learn, relentless measurement and continuous optimization of engagement styles across paid, earned and owned, based on the two-speed cadence. @Derek, thanks for your thoughts. I like your five layers. Oh, no apologies for the rhetorical question. 🙂 Thanks again for weighing in!

  • Matt Silk says:

    Another worthwhile debate is how the role of the agency plays into this discussion. I would argue that the campaign mentality is often tied to how a brand structures and evaluates their agencies/partners. This creates quite a challenge as the brand must either create and hold dear all of those longer term objectives, or foster longer term agency partner relationships which are tied to those objectives.

    The campaign mindset can be extremely hard to break when there are budgets, bonuses and contracts that are directly tied in…

  • The conversion topic is certainly needed. From our vantage point, we see apparel and lifestyle companies pressured with compressed product cycles and increased product variations with few options on how to market a successful launch. I’d see a movement to on demand campaigns where marketing departments will have “campaigns in a box” especially around product launches.