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What's the Point of Online Marketing?

Have you ever thought about the reasons why businesses — or individuals, for that matter — work to market themselves? It's such a basic question that it's often overlooked. All marketing exists to achieve specific goals. But something more fundamental drives those goals. (For the moment, we're going to look at marketing more in the sense of promotion. You can learn more about the distinction between promotion and marketing here and here). Now there's an old-school way of looking at marketing which breaks these fundamentals down into two basic categories:

  1. Direct Response (DR) marketing
  2. Branding

Direct response is all about making money for your business right now. In other words, marketing is next quarter's sales — that is, assuming it's not this quarter's sales. It seeks to answer the question of how you can reach a customer and get them to take immediate action that turns into revenue for your business. In the offline world, coupons, telemarketing, and infomercials all provide examples of DR marketing in action (don't worry, we'll get to the online world in just a moment). DR remains a huge marketing vehicle, accounting for over half of all marketing expenditure in the United States. On the other hand, branding focuses on building long-term value for your business, creating mindshare and meaning for customers at each step in their decision-making process. A typical model says customers progress through a series of steps, or funnel, as they make their decision:

  1. Awareness of your product, service or brand.
  2. Consideration of your product, service or brand as a possible solution for their needs.
  3. Preference that your product, service or brand fits their needs better than others offered in the marketplace.
  4. Action, choosing your product, service or brand when they're ready to buy.

There's also a fifth step, retention, where branding undoubtedly plays a huge role (i.e., the customer knows that your brand represents "the best" product or service to meet their needs in the future based on their past experiences with your brand). Now, the reason I opened by saying this is an "old-school" model is that the difference between DR marketing and brand building is not so clear online. Usually the distinction comes down to whether a "Buy Now" button (or some other form of call-to-action) exists within your chosen online media. If it's there, it's DR. If not, it must be branding. But while there's no doubt that paid search and email have lived their whole lives as direct response vehicles, there's really no reason why display media, online video, sponsored content and other forms of "branding" online can't also use a direct response model effectively. More to the point, they should. All online advertising must contain some sort of call-to-action that directs your customer to move further "down the funnel." An online ad without a call-to-action is a missed opportunity. Now that call-to-action might be to download a whitepaper, sign-up for email, learn more, etc. But the point remains, you must give your customer something to do when exposed to your ad or risk losing the opportunity. So, fundamentally, the difference between DR and branding online is really an artificial one. In all cases your marketing exists both to make money for your business right now and reinforce your brand's values. As Mark Burgess noted in a recent CMD post,

“Marketing is a process by which a firm profitably translates customer needs into revenue.”

That sounds a lot like "next quarter's sales" to me. So, as you're looking at marketing your business online, or yourself, remember that the point of all marketing is to "…translate customer needs into revenue." Anything else misses the point.

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