How to future-proof your performance marketing

Why effectively driving a consumer action online is going to mean having a less rigid approach.

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Abacus’s creative shows the importance of creating content specifically to be viewed on phones.

This story originally appeared in the May 2019 issue of strategy.

This ever-evolving competition means translating data into results is now a business imperative. But while performance marketing is typically thought of as more tactical – on the “science” side of “art and science” – the rapid success of upstart brands shows that setting your organization up for success means not being so rigid.

“I’m not quite sure when performance doesn’t impact the brand, and when brand doesn’t drive measurable performance,” says Mark D’Arcy, global CCO at Facebook. “If you’re starting a business in 2019, you can have this intellect of a performance marketer and emotional approach of a brand marketer. And you do it fluidly, caring about the design and copy at the same time that you’re thinking about conversion rates and everything else. You can care about both, and do it at inception.”

But DTC brands don’t have the market cornered on the first-party data that can drive performance. A pilot launched in April marks Loblaw’s foray into efforts associated with a media company, using sales data it is already collecting through its PC Optimum program to target ads from brands it stocks across websites and social networks. Loblaw will only be reaching PC Optimum members (for now), but 18 million users offers a large and high-quality pool of first-party data – effectively eliminating the need to rely on third-party sources. The connection to the loyalty program also allows attribution of both online and offline sales to specific campaigns.

Loblaw’s digital ad service is an example of what a holistic performance approach from a large company might look like, using its scale and breadth of data to customize and target ads, as well as directly attribute sales to those efforts.
But Sarah Thompson, CSO at Mindshare Canada, says attribution can be trickier than it seems. For example, direct response and the emerging field of addressable TV has shown that what was typically thought of as a brand-building medium can be a performance driver.

cetaphilThe fact is no one can really say if any single ad is the one that convinced a customer to buy. Mixed market modelling (MMM) doesn’t focus on attributing a purchase or action to a single ad, but on understanding how every piece of media a customer encounters eventually leads to the desired result. Thompson says MMM has somewhat been abandoned in the Canadian market, due to the occasionally cost-prohibitive nature of getting high-quality data sets for Canada’s relatively small population, as well as an “ebb and flow” when it comes to data science capabilities on the media side.

The important thing marketers need to get back to, Thompson says, is having greater context around a consumer’s journey. Part of that can be from having high-quality, owned data, but also looking at other factors that make people open to clicking on a performance-based ad. An influencer post, the weather, what a celebrity wears on the red carpet or a hot topic on social can all have an impact on how any one ad can drive an action.

“You need to see everything you are looking for in the ballpark you want to play in, without spending all your time chasing things that don’t exist,” Thompson says. “This is the challenge of performance marketing. There will always be ads where it’s competitive and price-based. But then there are important questions about how and when a brand inserts itself into the need a person is giving off signals for, and what those signals are.”

The key to finding that balance, Thompson suggests, is thinking in terms of having an audience manager, instead of a social media manager. If a manager is empowered by not being siloed with marketing dollars, they can define and analyze audience behaviour across channels – as well as have permission to change course and be fluid with spending behaviour changes.

“What we foresee,” says Thompson, “is one person at a keyboard analyzing the data, making a decision and aligning that to an audience.”

It’s not just about the actions you’re trying to drive. An overlooked part of performance is what you’re actually putting in front of customers. For years the industry has been hearing it needs to better tailor its creative to online channels, instead of simply reusing broadcast spots. But repurposing creative meant for mass platforms is more than an ineffective approach to performance marketing: it’s wasteful.

“Most marketers are totally negating the advantages that data and ad tech gives them by using it to push the same message out to everyone,” says Jeff Goldenberg, co-founder and CSO at Abacus.

Abacus is a performance marketing agency, focused entirely on Facebook and Instagram. In February, it launched a creative studio (run by former Cossette designer Corey Way) aimed at developing creative that’s better suited for performance campaigns. What that means is having an array of different ads so a brand can speak to every customer at the right point in the funnel, as well as test and change it along the way.

Goldenberg describes the ideal creative approach as being inspired by design thinking. Working under an established visual style, different customized assets that are consistent with the brand – but iterated based on what would drive different segments to an action – can be created.

hyundai2For example, a campaign Abacus worked on for Nickelodeon aimed to drive traffic to retail partners that stocked products based on the kids network’s properties. The design team created ads that were consistent with the look and animation style of the shows, but customized to each niche audience being targeted and what would drive them to stores, all while iterating the approach based on results throughout the campaign.

“We think of it as a layer between the brand, which is static, and the campaign, which is disposable,” he says. He adds many CDs have been resistant to provide creative suited to this approach as it’s an inversion of how traditional creative is done.

“Instead of running your brand spot and hoping performance happens, you can run performance and accrue brand over time.”

“The interesting part about performance is that it’s always a new day,” Thompson adds.

“Your competition may have regrouped, adopted a new strategy or push, or are now competing on dollars in a different way – but if you focus on audience, context and the data sets you own and you start to understand what influences them, you are better set up for success.”