The birth of any technology usually leads to enthusiastic overuse and then eventual moderation. Gartner’s Hype Cycle is a good visualization of the pattern. As the New Year approaches, many companies are climbing towards the Peak of Inflated Expectations by moving towards digital with abandon that just might be reckless.
Look at the recent headlines. In the US, Neiman Marcus is going digital-first. So are The Smithsonian and J.Crew. Coca-Cola is doing the same thing through AI and chatbots. In the UK, ITV News has launched three digital-only shows. Rolls-Royce is doing a digital transformation. In Europe, Lego Group has handed its global media agency brief to Initiative, which aims to be digital-first. In Australia, ABC is undergoing a digital-first restructuring.
For the first time, companies spent more on digital advertising than on television ads in 2017.
But for every company racing up digital’s Hype Cycle, there is another that has fallen into the Trough of Disillusionment. Procter & Gamble cut online advertising by $140m this year and saw a 2% increase in sales. Taco Bell moved ad spend away from digital and back towards TV. So did Turner. An August 2017 CivicScience survey found that 45% of Americans have never bought anything as a result of social media advertising.
So, the question remains: should companies go digital-first in 2018? Here is the only answer that is truly honest: ‘it depends’. The marketing world loves hypothetical ‘one-size-fits-all’ proclamations, but the real world is never that simple. The idea that all companies should be all digital all the time is the Vanilla Ice of marketing advice.
First, the reports of digital-first successes have been greatly exaggerated. The online results would never have been possible without the decades-long building of those brands over traditional media in the first place. It is easy to get 500,000 Facebook followers when you already have 10 million customers. It is a little more difficult for high-tech startups and newer brands.
I cannot think of one offline brand that has been built over the internet, except for Dollar Shave Club. But the exception proves the rule. And as the examples of digital failures above show, pivoting towards the web is no guarantee of success. For best results, marketers need to be channel-neutral.