Has Digital Marketing Evolved in Unforeseen Ways?

Blog Post
May 09, 2017


A conversation between Professor John Deighton of Harvard Business School and Frank Grillo, CMO of Harte Hanks, on the future of digital marketing.

Frank Grillo

In 2007, John Deighton and Leora Kornfeld1 wrote an article exposing how marketers in the 1990s had incorrectly predicted the future of digital marketing. Back then, it was commonly assumed that the internet would be harnessed by marketers to increase their influence with consumers.

John and Leora argued, quite effectively, that much of the prediction had proved to be inaccurate. Rather than marketers becoming more influential, the internet had pushed them off to the sidelines. Consumers had taken over the internet and were using it to interact with one another, not with marketers. The real story of the internet, as it related to marketing by 2007, was not about the interaction between marketers and consumers—it was about how consumers were deeply engaged in digital interaction with one another and with the world of information. And, it was about how marketers were struggling to find a place at the table.

From there, John and Leora predicted that the role of digital marketing would, at best, be to “provoke conversations among consumers” and would be “more a matter of fitting in” and “less a matter of domination and control.” They predicted that consumers would dominate the process of defining the meaning of products and services, and that consumers would be “rewarding more participatory, more sincere, and less directive marketing styles.”

Looking back at this seminal article, I have several questions I would like to put to my friend John Deighton. First, I am curious how he views his 2007 article now. Looking back with the benefit of a decade, would he say his 2007 predictions for digital marketing were accurate?

John Deighton

In one sense we were absolutely right back in 2007. The locus of power over meaning has shifted dramatically to consumers. But interactivity between marketers and customers is not as important as we had envisioned. The consumer exerts far more power than marketers over meaning. Consumers frequently interact with each other—but rarely with marketers. They review marketers’ products and services, talk about marketers on social media, and point out marketers’ missteps, but there is minimal dialogue. Marketers can at best monitor these conversations: perhaps correcting misinformation; supporting customer brand advocacy. But marketer participation in conversations among consumers is practically nonexistent relative to the importance of consumer-to-consumer interaction. We thought marketers would be a more relevant participant in the dialogue by now.

A second important surprise to us is the way digital advertising has grown. Digital spending is now equal to television spending, but a big part of digital spending goes to search and display. Google and Facebook overwhelmingly dominate this form of advertising with over 85% of the spend between them.  In fact, the number three player has only 3% share of digital spend.

In general, marketers currently invest heavily in media and formats that have low influence over the process of defining the meaning of things. If you’re trying to change the mind of customers, it’s usually video ads, those little stories or moving images that create context and symbolic meaning. They pull together everything that we’ve learned about influencing people, going back to the Greeks. This is a far cry from today’s Google display ad or paid search text box, which is more nudger than persuader.

Thus, a third surprise is that video remains the most powerful rhetorical force of all. Digital interactivity pales by comparison.  Marketing has invented the 15-second, 30-second or, at the most, 60-second video ad. These are little pieces of art. They, of course, are not restricted to television—they also appear on mobile devices and laptop computers. Arguably, these brief art forms are the most persuasive rhetorical devices available to the marketer to reassert control over defining the meaning of their brands.

The Geico pre-roll ads with the theme “it’s already over” are a brilliant example of how video can exert power in today’s digital world. They poke fun at the connected consumer and the universally learned behavior of hovering your finger over the “skip this ad” button. At the fourth second in the link above, the ad teasingly says: “You can’t skip this Geico ad because it’s already over.”  Then they go further: they entice you to continue viewing by starting a humorous “Act 2” lead-in sequence just as the voice over and jingle are ending. The viewer wonders: “What’s going on? This is weird.” And then yes, something weird and funny does happen. The huge dog first devours everything on the father’s plate and then jumps up on the table and finishes every other plate as the actors try to stay in character and not laugh. If the viewer wants, he can watch a full 50 seconds of humorous dog misbehavior as actors struggle to stay in mock freeze-frame. The ads reflect a clever grasp of internet wit and behavior, and the reward for Geico has been a viral ad series and considerable consumer awareness and good will.

Also on the list of rhetorical weapons, for good or evil, are sound bites. They are very, very powerful, but because their argumentation is so slight or absent, their power is sometimes overlooked. They don’t work by appeals to reason, or often even by appeals to rationalization. They recruit deeper, often darker, motives. The tweet is, of course, the sound bite in modern dress.

Frank Grillo

In your view, what are some implications for marketers of these trends and surprises?

John Deighton

First, the old aphorism “never advertise a bad product” has never been more true nor more important to heed. Negative word-of-mouth resulting from product flaws has always been a problem. But social media accelerates and magnifies the negative impact on the brand. The Samsung Galaxy Note 7 disaster is a prime example.

Second, marketers must monitor and attempt to influence the social media conversation about their brands. This may be more successful in the B2B environment.

Third, understanding and tapping into consumers’ deeply held values and letting the social media work for the brand is possible.  Dove’s “real beauty” campaign is the prime example.

And fourth, high quality creative content delivered in the form of video ads are the most effective levers over which marketers have control. It has always been true that brilliantly creative messages have been many times more effective than average creative messages. But at one time, the average message, given enough impressions, could achieve awareness and even boost sales. This is no longer true. Brilliant creative messages, programs that tap deeply held values, integrating the product in programing—these are the prerequisites of getting the brand message across.

Frank Grillo

I very much agree with what you are saying, John, especially about video, tapping into deeply held consumer values, and letting social media conversations work for you. But something bothers me in all of this, and I would like to tee up our next conversation with a few follow-up questions:

  1. Should marketers anticipate a continued minor role in the process of defining meaning?
  2. Has digital marketing competence advanced to a degree where the pendulum might swing back toward the middle?

1. John A. Deighton and Leora Kornfeld, Digital Interactivity: Unanticipated Consequences for Markets, Marketing, and Consumers, Working Paper, September 26, 2007.