Watching is down. Searching and socialising are on the up.

Audiences are on the move and marketers need to shift their focus to follow them if they want to continue growing or retaining their market share.

According to recent findings by the European Interactive Advertising Association (EIAA), the internet is rivalling TV and outstripping print and outdoor in the consumption stakes. What's more, this trend is even more pronounced among the young, suggesting that it's only likely to continue. In fact, 16 to 24 year-olds access the internet more frequently than they watch TV and spend 10% more time on it than they do in front of the box.

But it's not just the younger demographic and tomorrow's target audience that is slipping out of the living room and into the ether. It's the older ones too. Since 2006 there's been a 12% increase in weekly internet access among the over-55s. Overall cross-demographic internet usage is up too, with a third of people accessing the web for 16 hours or more each week.

It's not a passive audience

Perhaps the most striking thing about this audience is that it's not content to just watch and absorb. It wants to interact, learn, search, shop, review, gossip, flirt, bitch, moan, share views, leave its mark - and do it with and to a large audience.

Frankly, this can all seem rather alarming to many marketers, but every search is a sales opportunity and every conversation a chance to find out what people really think. These changes need to be embraced instead of feared or ignored. Because the fact is: they're not going away and will only continue to encroach on traditional media.

So, as the focus for marketing budgets moves online, the question is: where best to invest in an interactive world?

The two most popular areas for interactive users are search and social networking, mediums that inherently appeal to the human need to learn, explore and interact with others. In the EIAA's survey of the 10 most popular online activities, search scored first among a massive 87% of respondents, while social networking came third. Both have enormous above and below-the-line opportunities.

Search

According to the IAB, search marketing currently commands around 60% of online ad budgets, and is set to experience steady growth in Europe - and with good reason. It's a medium capable of tapping into 'purchase motivated', 'in the market' consumers at the height of their interest, and can deliver strong and immediate returns.

Furthermore, search engine marketing has proved its ability to deliver embarrassingly good returns both as an independent self-sufficient channel, and as a key part of the customer touch process in more integrated campaigns. In effect, bolstering - and some would argue propping up - returns on other marketing activities.

The 2008 CMO report indicates that marketers are looking to use more direct return channels, in order to do more with roughly the same budgets they had last year. Search - with its high bang for the buck, increasingly accurate targeting and immediate delivery - is a prime candidate for budgets to defect to. What's more, few companies have done more than scratch the surface in terms of what search can offer them, often only tapping into less than 40% of available inventory. So there's still plenty of give in search for advertisers to reap the rewards from.

The social web

The web is a hive of customer conversation and sentiment, and is constantly influencing opinions. In fact, the number of people contributing to rating and review sites rose 42%, compared with just over a year ago. With over a quarter of us now prepared to share our thoughts on forums web of mouth is powerful stuff.

However, the social web can go far beyond simply trying to find the next set of digital billboards. It can help marketers get into the psyche of customers in real time, listening to their conversations and observing their search behaviour to find out why they choose to engage with our brands, or worse, with competitors'.

I recently held a meeting with a prospect and asked them how they gauged customer sentiment. The answer was once a quarter, with a Mori Poll. Frankly, I was shocked.

There's nothing wrong with institutions like Mori at all, but the notion of 'once a quarter' in a market that moved as quickly as theirs struck us as almost futile.

So I took them on a walk around our office and stopped by our Profiler team. These guys undertake brand and audience monitoring, and mine the comment and conversations from the web to inform our clients what their audience thinks about them, their sectors and their competitors.

We looked at what we'd uncovered on one particular day for clients, and the findings stopped them in their tracks:

  • A large finance company was being blasted on popular blogs for having its employees masquerade as customers in forums, leaving false reviews.
  • A large food manufacturer discovered a rumour in some forums about the contamination of their product, because some people had attributed their recent food poisoning to it. The manufacturer was now gearing up to investigate and respond before it got out of hand.
  • A more positive example involves a charity finding clues as to why people chose to donate to them, as opposed to their competitors, and what they should do to regain a competitive position.


This was just what had come out in the last few hours straight off the web, via conversations people were having in forums and blogs, as well as via journalists' articles and reviews.

Imagine waiting three months for this insight because your research methods focus on dialogue between researchers and the public and don't pick up on the sentiment in conversations between the people themselves.

These insights can be fed back into your product development, public relations, corporate conduct, messaging, marketing activity and search campaigns to improve response, reaction and organisational performance. Then the bang for your marketing buck starts to increase again.

It's easy to advertise and shout into people's living rooms, but the audience is moving and acting in new ways. Having access to this audience at these points and understanding the sentiment coming out of the social web means you can market, operate and conduct yourself differently.

Maybe that's more cunningly, adventurously or intelligently. Or maybe it's just more considerately. But above all, you can market yourself more effectively.

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