How Russia Saved Digital Marketing...

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The Digital Marketing Blueprint

Digital Blueprint
Digital marketers owe Russia a big thank you, no really, I mean it. If there were any questions remaining about the validity of digital marketing, the recent inquiries into the ads displayed on multiple platforms have clearly illustrated one point – digital marketing works. You see, I work in digital marketing and I've always had to deal with skepticism regarding the effectiveness of the products and services that I sell through Facebook, Google, and other digital platforms, but the recent election scandal has brought some hard to ignore statistics into the light.

To be honest, I couldn't have run a better campaign than Russia did, it's almost like they had someone assisting them with how digital algorithms work [Ed Snowden], explaining that the strength and weakness of digital ads are that there are no gatekeepers. Who is there to validate that you are an American citizen when the ad platform is international? Who is there to review the content of ads when they don't use trademarks? Who is there to make sure your not a U.S. adversarial nation running ads to influence political outcomes? The answer to all of those questions is no one.

You really can't place the blame on Facebook, Google, and Twitter, as delivered exactly what they promised to advertisers. They built an effective, trackable, inexpensive way to reach millions of people, that only has theoretical limits on the number of impressions a single piece of viral content can acquire. Advertisers have been clamoring for this for years, and if takes a bit of election meddling to get people to stand up and pay attention to the most influential mass communication platforms to ever exist, maybe the resulting discussion will lead us to using them in a more productive way than posting photos of our food. Let's take a look at how a foreign power used digital marketing to run the perfect advertising campaign.
  1. Find Something People are Passionate About - A lot of companies are on social media just to be on social media, and having these accounts revolves around a series of checkboxes that keep the social media coordinator employed. The key to a great social presence is proximity to subjects that naturally promote discussion, or as Twitter users know it, trolling. In the case of the Russian campaign, the passionate topic is obvious – politics. It's safe to assume anything that shouldn't be discussed at work, or at a bar, will generate a vast amount of discussion on social media. Before companies dump a large amount of effort into posting videos, photos, or GIFs, they should make sure their content contains something to be social about.
  2. Know Your Audience - Thanks to some conveniently placed public voting demographic information, the Russians knew exactly who they were targeting, and they used the sophisticated targeted tools offered by social media platforms to hit their targets. Often times, the biggest mistake made in digital campaigns is something outside of the marketers' control, the client doesn't understand their target demographic well enough to achieve the kind of conversions they're seeking when running a campaign. Unlike traditional marketing platforms, which are the metaphorical equivalent to a bullhorn, digital platforms target potential customers with surgical precision, but that precision can only be achieved through the availability of accurate demographic data (you should have analytics installed by now). 
  3. Leverage Organic and Paid Channels - It's great to be able to pay to get your content in front of potential customers, but the number one rule of advertising still hasn't changed, word of mouth is the best advertising. While the Russian campaign boasts a whopping ~29 million impressions with paid ads on Facebook, it's the 126 million organic impressions that should floor you. Social media is the digital version of word of mouth, and when combined with point #1, you can see the effect a passionate group of people can have on digital reach. Users are more receptive to information that appears in their feed if it originates from a friend's account, so if the content is sporting the "sponsored" moniker, users are less likely to pay attention to what's on-screen.
  4. Timing is Everything - It's not enough to sloppily throw ads on the net and expect some big return; great campaigns are run within a certain window for a reason, and proper planning regarding the times and dates they appear them can make all the difference. Related to the election, the timing is a bit obvious, everything had to be displayed before election day and there was a clearly defined window of opportunity for marketing. All too often businesses run ads in windows without statistically backed justification. Planning a digital campaign isn't any different than planning a traditional one, so businesses should plan to display ads in relation to specific events like back-to-school, or Christmas.

What We Learned as Marketers

Internet Marketing
Businesses aren't the only entities that should have learned something from the election meddling revelations. Marketers should have gleaned some congressionally mandated insight into each platform and used it to better understand the effectiveness of each channel. Based on testimony in Congress, we should all know our preferred social media platform for ads, and that platform is Facebook. Personally, I've always believed Facebook had much more insight into their own platform than competitors, but Twitter's inability to deliver concrete statistics related to the number of accounts, impressions, and impact of the Russian content, really drives that point home for me.

I haven't mentioned Google too much during this post because most of the congressional inquiries are focused on social media, and not search advertising (which is really Google's specialty). If there is a platform that I hold in higher esteem than Facebook, it would definitely be Adwords, as its reach is wider than the users of a particular social network. Ads displayed through Google reach anyone using their search engine, and that's just about everyone on the planet. Their delivery of precise advertising data in relation to Russian ads was impressive, but it's offset by the fact these impressions were all of the paid variety. If there was one thing that Google definitely missed out on, it was having a solid social media platform, and those organic impressions generated by Facebook speak volumes about the impact of viral content. 

Ultimately, I don't imagine much will change related to the long-term outlook of any of these companies based on what's discovered through these inquiries, but I do think it's something digital marketers can develop to make a case for digital marketing spends. It may seem shallow to turn something as serious as election meddling into a capitalistic approach to selling advertising, but isn't that what living in a free democratic society is about? Otherwise, why are we voting?

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