In 1994, the world’s first banner ad made its debut appearance on the web. Despite its lack of design and simple message, the ad earned an incredible 44% click-through rate for four months running. Twenty-two years on, the media landscape is almost unrecognisable. With conversations shifting from banner ads to content, communities, SEO and beyond, the digital marketing sphere has exploded in response to the growing power of the consumer, and the increasing demand for more. As the rise of the ad-blocker and cross-device consumption add more confusion to this fragmented market, professionals everywhere are looking for new insights and direction on how to keep pace with the speed of change. But have we lost track of what lies at the heart of marketing that works, and are there lessons still to be learned from those who started it all?

The New Marketing Landscape

“Back in 1994, when that huge team was so focused on creating the first banners, we were really focused on three things: Who is our audience? What do they need? How can we be helpful and useful to them?”, says Joe McCambley, one of the creatives behind the world’s first banner ad, and SVP, Content Marketing at POP, a Seattle-based digital agency.“I think that’s why that banner was so successful”, he says.

“But the lesson is to be learned, not from that particular creation, but from classic marketing that’s existed for the past hundred years, where the focus was always on the customer.”

Reflecting on how how his 35-year career in the marketing and advertising sphere has now led him down the path of content marketing, he explains how the landscape has evolved, with more brands looking to the publishing industry for direction than ever before.

“I think that for the first time in history, every advertiser is focused on creating content, because that’s where consumer attention is turning to.”

Looking at this shift in consumer attention, he outlines the lessons that brands are taking from publishers in order to succeed in this new environment. “I think if you were a publisher today coaching marketers, you would say: ‘Well, we’ve been getting consumer attention for years with our content, and the only way that you’re going to do that is if you are genuinely useful, helpful or entertaining to them. For advertising in the content space to be successful, they have to do the same thing.”

The New Generation of Storytellers

As advertisers and marketers continue to turn to publishers for guidance on capturing and retaining audience attention, certain brands have been steadily earning a reputation as the new generation of storytellers. Sujan Patel explains on the importance of brand-driven storytelling, “Telling your story is a critical part of building your brand. It helps to shape how people view you and enables consumers to begin forging a connection with your company.” Innovative companies like AirBnB are setting a new standard, but have brands been telling stories for longer than we think?

“Coca Cola have been storytellers forever”, says Joe. “The popular view of Santa Claus was created by them through their advertising in the mid part of the century, and they created one of the most popular Christmas shows in America: A Charlie Brown Christmas. They created that with Charles M. Schultz and McCann Erickson in 1965 and the first night it aired, half of America was watching. So Coca Cola have understood the power of content since their inception, I think.”

Pointing out the important role that platforms are playing in this fast-moving landscape, Joe highlights the need for marketing professionals to begin moving from traditional websites to more durable publishing platforms that guide customers through the funnel from awareness through to purchase.

“It’s not easy to guide people through the purchase journey because most marketer websites consist of thousands and thousands of individual unconnected pages. The Guardian or the New York Times however… You could look at those sites and say they’re almost liquid; every piece of content is somehow connected to every other piece of content in some sort of relevant way. So I think we’re going to see a lot of advertisers moving into more robust publishing platforms.”

This shift towards brand-driven storytelling and consumer-driven marketing has forced the industry to get back to the fundamentals of marketing that works: understanding consumer needs.

But as audiences become increasingly harder to reach, and more averse to the traditional ‘push’ methods of old, how do we answer that pivotal question: “How can I help you?”

Getting Back to Basics

“I went to college in the 70s and early 80s, studied marketing and got my MBA”, says Joe. “And when you study classic marketing, the lessons are all about the customer, customer need, and need fulfilment.

“I think in digital advertising, especially over the past 20 years, it’s been about anything but the customer and their need…It’s been about tricking people into clicking.”

Now that advertisers are moving into the content space, all of those old marketing lessons are coming back and proving to be more important than ever.”

But finding out what works for the modern consumer, whose behaviors continue to become more disjointed and difficult to understand, is no easy feat. “We live in a search-centered world where we dictate what we consume”, says Tom Smith, Founder of GlobalWebIndex. “The result of this is that audiences have splintered and fragmented, but have become more centered around passions and interests.”

For this reason, understanding consumer behaviors and perceptions is fast becoming the driving force behind marketing that works for the digital age.

Audience profiling data is making this more achievable for the modern marketer by providing in-depth insights into the online consumer. Taking the time to explore your audience and understand their needs in as much detail as possible is the first step towards marketing that works, because anything is possible if you know your audience. The next step, Joe explains, lies in building radical empathy for your consumers.

“Radical empathy means you’ve learned enough about them so that you can walk a mile in their shoes; You know what they’re up against, and you can serve as an advocate for them as you’re that close to them emotionally. You can’t get that from a research report, you actually have to sit down with your customers and have a conversation with them.” This, he explains, is the key to correcting the mistake that too many of us marketers are guilty of making:

“The truth is, as marketers we’re all really marketing to ourselves. We assume too much!”

For advertisers and marketers to succeed in this new environment, it’s time to stop relying on our assumptions, to take another look at what we think we know about our audience, and to revisit the classic marketing lessons of old. Why not start by asking: “How can I help you?”

What does marketing that works mean to you? Join the conversation by commenting below.

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