The conflict between digital immediacy and effectiveness



The age-old tension

The tension between the long-term and the short-term has always been one that marketers and communicators have had to grapple with.

We’ve long observed and bemoaned the tension that exists between the corporation’s short-term reporting practices, performance goals and incentives, and the fact that branding’s biggest rewards are realized over the long-term.

Many of us will have raised an eyebrow at the discrepancy between the average time spent in a marketing role and the time required to see financial payback on marketing communications.

We’ve all had to try to reconcile the tension between a consumer and pop culture environment characterized by speed, novelty, and fad, and the need to build and sustain long-term memory structures.

And of course we’ve all from time to time encountered the tension that exists between the need to build and sustain those long-term memory structures, and the impatience and occasional fickleness of creative imaginations.

The risk of digital immediacy

The tension between the long-term and the short-term is an old and familiar one. But the lure of the short-term is now being exacerbated by the possibilities of digital interactions.

The glory and thrill of all things digital for normal people in the real world is (amongst other things) that they make things immediate.

Immediate communications. Immediate information. Immediate answers. Immediate purchasing. Immediate feedback. Immediate consumption. Immediate gratification.

But when it comes to marketing communications, these digital interactions and the new forms of marketing communications they enable, bring real and enormous risk if not managed well.

For digital interactions encourage a prizing of immediacy and a thinking in the short-term that is fundamentally at odds with how branding builds real, significant, and sustainable growth for businesses.

Digital immediacy brings with it immediacy of data. Whether it’s views, likes, shares, +1s, pins, comments, tweets, retweets, downloads, linking, following, clicking... however measured, that data invariably measures people’s exposure to and interaction with communications content.

The lure of this data is not only that is it immediately available, but that by its very nature it is highly responsive to communications activity. It is relatively easy to track. And relatively easy to attribute it to communications activity.

But it is short-term data. And short-term data leads to short-term perspectives, short-term objectives and short-term strategies. As Heisenberg taught us, what you choose to measure is what you see.

Digital interactions have also made possible new approaches to connecting with consumers. Real-time responsiveness, ‘always on’ communications, ‘content marketing’, brands as ‘publishers... by their very nature all encourage, if not demand, real-time monitoring.

And with that comes the infrastructure of social media ‘command centers’, ‘dashboards’, monitoring tools, and all the new job titles that come with them.

Again the focus is on the Right Here, Right Now.

The necessity of long-term effects

But for all the opportunities that digital immediacy makes available to us, there is a very real tension between what it is possible to make, and what actually works.  Between digital’s culture of immediacy and how communications actually grows a business.

This conflict between digital immediacy and long-term business-building was brought home to me recently on reading The Long And Short Of It - the latest report from the IPA.  Published last week and authored by Peter Field and Les Binet this is the follow-up to Marketing in the Era of Accountability.

In The Long And Short Of It Field and Binet build ontheir last round of analysis, incorporating a wealth of new data. Most significant, is the new data on how campaign results develop over time, and the differences between short-term and long-term effects.

Their effectiveness data is derived from the IPA Effectiveness Databank – the product of 301 years of the IPA Effectiveness Awards covering more than 700 brands in over 80 categories. At the time of the analysis, the Databank held data from 996 campaigns entered into the biennial national and international effectiveness competitions from 1980 to 2010.

Never mind all the fashionable stuff that our industry trumpets and that populates the business sections of our bookstores. This is one publication that every marketer should have read.

It is worth briefly highlighting their key findings on the differences between short- and long-term effects. For they carry with them fundamental and indeed urgent implications for us all:

Long-term effects effects work differently from short-term effects

“The way in which long-term effects are generated is fundamentally different from how most short-term effects are produced. Although long-term effects always produce some short-term effects, the reverse is not true and long-term effects are not simply an accumulation of short-term effects.”

Long-term effects aren’t just built out of  short-term effects

“A succession of short-term response-focused campaigns (including promotionally driven ones) will not succeed as strongly over the longer term as a single brand-building campaign designed to achieve year-on-year improvement to business success.”

Long-term effects work through both volume and margin gains

“Pricing improvements are more likely to drive profit growth than volume  growth. Most profitable of all are campaigns that drive both volume and pricing... Their principle characteristic is that incremental volume is achieved whilst strengthening margin, in marked contrast to many short-term campaigns, where volume is achieved at the expense of profitability.”

Profit growth takes time

“Profit growth is a product of volume and pricing increases, so the pattern of profit effects over time is also gradual”

Long-term effects demand brand-building

“The optimum campaign strategy is radically different if success is measured over the short term versus the long term. Achievable short-term goals will be volume-based and favour a direct approach in which immediate behavioural triggers such as discount pricing, an offer or incentive, new product features or some other promotional event, are central. Longer-term goals such as share growth or reduction of price sensitivity favour a ‘brand-building’ approach in which the strengthening of the esteem of the brand is key.”

Digital immediacy versus brand building

For many of those counting social media metrics and short-term communications responses, as well as those advocating marketing programmes characterized by immediacy of interaction, these conclusions should make for some disquieting reading.

For profit growth isn’t achieved in the short-term. Nor indeed, is it built out of joining up of a series of short-term successes.

Views, likes, shares and all the myriad of other possible interactions with communications content count for naught unless they are shifting brand responses. As Byron Sharp has written, what matters are the long-term memory structures in the mind that branding builds, sustains, and refreshes.

Of course we want people to be exposed to and respond (emotionally and /or behaviourally) to our communications. But ultimately what matters are brand responses, not communications responses. And brand responses take time to build and shift.

What all this means is that digital content cannot escape the strictures and rigours of long-term objective setting.

By all means we should be asking ourselves how our marketing content will generate short-term conversation, social currency, sharing etc., and be monitoring it accordingly.

But we should also be thinking through how that activity will build, sustain, and refresh long term memory structures around our brand. Since it is that - not mere communication exposure and interaction - which is the engine of growth.

So when it comes to monitoring these brand responses, we should be evaluating them accordingly - over the long-term.

Certainly we should recalibrate all those costly tracking studies to report on brand responses on an annual basis, rather than pretend they are valuable as real-time monitoring tools.

Fighting the good fight

Resisting the temptations of short-term thinking and action has always bedeviled our industry. Surrounded as we are by the supply of immediate data, that task is harder today than it has ever been.

In Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now, the novelist and cultural observer Douglas Rushkoff has argued that immediacy is more and more the central defining characteristic of our culture:

"Our society has reorientated itself to the present moment. Everything is live, real time, and always-on. It’s not a mere speeding up... It’s more of a diminishment of anything that isn’t happening right now - So much so that we are beginning to dismiss anything that is not happening right now - and the onslaught of everything that supposedly is.”

The world of marketing it would appear, is not immune from this phenomenon. And however much hard work it might be, we must resist the gravitational pull of immediacy.

For marketing’s biggest contribution is felt in the long-term, not the short-term. Nothing that has happened in the last thirty years has done anything to overturn that truth.

However exciting it undoubtedly is, we cannot let digital’s immediacy take our eyes off that prize.


Les Binet & Peter Field, The Long And Short Of It: Balancing Short and Long-Term Marketing Strategies

Douglas Rushkoff, Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now

Byron Sharp, How Brands Grow: What Marketers Don’t Know