Thursday, May 29, 2008

The death of the campaign

A version of this piece was published in Marketing in 2008
  On March 21st 1918, Erich Luderndorff launched the Spring Offensive, the massive attack that was Germany’s bid to end the First World War. In just five hours, the Germans fired over one million shells, and lightly-equipped stormtroopers cut deep swathes into British lines.

But the very speed with which the Germans advanced proved to be their undoing, as they outran their supply lines and ended up eating the very horses on which their progress depended.

Pace is everything, and a firm but flexible plan for how to deploy resources over a period of time to achieve a goal is vital. Using different assets to support each other (as Luderndorff failed to do) was as important then as it is to today’s marketer as a campaign develops.

The need to achieve cut-through from the cluttered media environment leads marketers to concentrate their resources – to focus them on a target group or time of year where their message is most likely to resonate – and accept that at other times of year and to other people, their message will remain unseen.

The production cost of TV advertising adds fuel to this, with the belief that individual executions ‘wear out’ means they have a finite shelf-life.

So the concept of a campaign is almost hard-wired in to the advertiser’s worldview. We gather our resources, make an assault on the consumer, then retreat, count our costs and regroup before having another go. After all, the advertising trade mag is even called Campaign.

But digital is challenging this approach.

The first place this was felt was search. Volumes of queries ebb and flow, driven by seasonality and publicity, but underlying demand is constant. But even though the number of people searching for ‘swimming pool’ might be lower in autumn than in spring, a pool company would still want to pick up these leads. Early activity in search followed the traditional ‘campaign’ format, but practitioners quickly realised that this was preventing them meeting existing demand from consumers – a missed opportunity.

So search tends now to be budgeted for from the bottom up. Rather than setting an amount to spend on marketing in a year, then dividing it up until an amount is reached for each medium, search volumes are modelled through the year, and the required investment set aside to meet this (allowing for extra demand created when TV activity is run).

Similarly, affiliate marketing doesn’t suit a campaign approach. Continuous activity is needed to build relationships with affiliates, and to reflect their outlay behind your brand – whilst they appreciate the impact of campaign-based activity on their own sales, they find it hard to build transaction volumes without investment over time.

But it’s the rise of Web 2.0 that has provided the most recent challenge to the campaign way of thinking.

Thousands of widgets have been created, alongside chatrooms, forums and even entire branded social networks. Of course if the venture is unsuccessful, its owners will risk little by shutting it down. But in all of these instances, marketers have stepped out of campaign-centred thinking and created entities that are long-term.

In many cases consumers have been asked to contribute their time and creativity to participating in the project. They have introduced their friends, created avatars, uploaded photos. They’ve made playlists, scrapbooks and chipped in with their own recipes, hints and tips – which means of course, that they can’t be turned off when marketing decides to move on, without creating inconvenience and resentment from users – turning a positive brand experience into a negative.

So whilst marketers have in the past taken much of their terminology and thinking from the military, perhaps now it’s time to move on. The campaign approach never really reflected how consumers behave, only the constraints of operationalising marketing in traditional media. Digital changes this – and the consequence of this change could be the death of the campaign.

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