Human Element In Digital Strategy

Episode 31: The Human Element – The Catalyst In Digital Strategy

The era of the Mad Men is drawing to a close. The Math Men are in the ascendancy. Programmatic buying and marketing automation mean that the skills that matter today are the technical skills required to manipulate systems and software. And yet, in the rush to automate and optimize, we are increasingly overlooking the element that has traditionally been at the heart of our industry, the element that gives us purpose, that elevates our work from pragmatic to sublime, and that ultimately determines our success. That element is the human element.

This piece of advertising exemplifies what I mean. It’s an ad that won an Effie Award in 2008, conceived by Draftfcb Chicago on behalf of the Dow Chemical Company. Think about that. Not only is this a company in an industry that is not typically associated with thought-provoking creative, it is also one with a challenging reputation, from being the sole provider of Napalm in the Vietnam war, to the environmental disaster of the Union Carbide incident in Bhopal, India.

That is what makes this ad so astonishing. In spite of knowing these facts, I still couldn’t help but pause and watch it every time it used to come on. It is sheer poetry, a thing of beauty, and it works because it delivers by appealing directly to the subject of the creative, namely the human element.

And it is this element that I believe we lose sight of when we think about how to market through digital channels. Consider this; when digital practitioners were first hired in organizations, where did they typically sit? In the IT groups. They were technicians who understood web development, but they were fundamentally ‘techies’. I still know of major organizations where all digital marketing still resides in the IT organization. This is typically symptomatic of senior leadership teams for whom the Internet is an alien place, one to be tolerated, and more of a problem than an opportunity. These are organizations that do not have bright futures and that every year see their market position erode.

But it’s not just these types of companies that find themselves in trouble. How often do we see technicians and analysts charged with responsibility for brand messaging online? All too often it is the person with the responsibility to run the Adwords account or the programmatic buying who is in charge of developing this messaging. And I don’t think this does anyone any favours. Take a look at what Spirit Airlines have done with their Twitter account, calling it their Auto-pilot and completely automating it. That pretty much screams contempt of audience.  It shouldn’t come as a surprise that they were recently voted the worst airline in the world for customer service by Travel and Leisure.

So is this entirely the fault of the people at the top of the organization? Can we lay this all at the feet of digitally illiterate people? I don’t believe that this is fair. I think the challenge is that the very people who are responsible for digital marketing have difficulty in explaining the importance and impact of their work in ways that the leadership team can understand. And this brings us back to the importance of the human element. If you don’t think it’s important, or don’t understand it, how can you ever translate what you do in order to make it comprehensible to your audience? This is the human element at play in the workplace.

The good news is that the technology is getting better, more intuitive and easier to use, and so the focus will increasingly be on the creation of the idea, the strategic platform, the creative concept that together will determine the messaging that is used in these platforms. These can’t be left to the analysts to create, they have to be the responsibility of the people who can communicate with the audience, the people who understand the human element. In the absence of this we are left with a series of direct response messages that make no attempt to connect or tell a big story. We see no attempt to explain complex human behaviour online to internal audiences. Imagine a world where the only advertising we see is the equivalent of late night infomercials. Imagine a world where the only digital advertising we engage in is the absolute lowest of the funnel campaigns, ignoring the need to educate, inspire, convince and ultimately convert. I remember an Account Director telling me that the reason he loves working in search engine marketing is that it is so easy to explain the value. You know how much you invest, and you know how much you get out. It’s easy, he explained to me. It’s also lazy. It’s much harder to tell an integrated, connected story that aligns all the marketing efforts around a singular concept or idea, one built around the audience. And that brings us back to the element that ties them all together, the element that the digital strategist must focus their efforts on. The element that will determine ultimately if we can look at our body of work, and not only take pride in fleeting short term results, but also that it contributed to building long term sustainable value.

The Human Element. Nothing is more fundamental. Nothing more elemental.

Next week on octopus, we will continue to explore the role of the digital strategist. Please be sure to comment below. I’d love to hear from you. Please subscribe for alerts about new episodes and content. Thank you for listening to octopus. I’m Nasser Sahlool.

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