The myth of predictable digital marketing: how to take back control of your strategy & your sanity

Digital Marketing myths - how to take back control of your strategy and sanity - Cameo Digital

“We’re doing digital marketing, but I’m not sure it’s really going that well…”

This is a statement I hear several times per month, minimum. Usually, it’s accompanied by a defeated look, often from a very experienced and talented marketing manager who feels like they really should know better. Sometimes they apologise for taking up my time, for asking questions about things they feel are “simple”, and for needing my help at all when really they think they ought to know all this already. 

It’s ridiculous, really, but the way digital marketing is sold into businesses often leads to this kind of thinking. 

Digital is supposed to be the marketing promised land. It’s supposed to be predictable and measurable and controlled. Digital marketing is supposed to be able to drive ROI projected in advance to multiple decimal places on every penny invested, and drive endless growth from a never-ending stream of clever new technologies and trends. 

If your digital marketing doesn’t work, it’s you that’s at fault. Oh, and didn’t you know? It’s also really cheap. 

We all need to be more honest about digital marketing

As somebody who has made a career out of selling digital marketing to other people, I’m supposed to be a cheerleader. I’m the bubbly, positive one who comes in and tells businesses how they can increase their performance by 5640% by making a couple of simple changes.  Except, I’m not.

I try my best to be that person. For most of the clients I talk to, there’s real potential for growth with the right strategy. Sometimes there are quick wins that can get things moving fast, and those times it’s nice to feel like a whizz kid. It’s great to see people excited about what I do, and I absolutely love getting other marketers interested in digital. 

However, other times, there’s either very limited potential, or the benefits require commitment, hard work and a long slog ahead. If you’re a professional marketer, the expectations of digital from board level can be astronomical, and if your boss has been caught up in the hype, it can be hard to inject some reality into the conversation without sounding like a naysayer. 

For those situations, and for everybody who’s facing one, I’m here to say what a surprising number of other digital marketers don’t.

It’s time to be clear:

  • Digital marketing is not anywhere near as predictable as it’s hyped to be. 
  • Digital marketing is just as slow and fickle as any other type of marketing. 
  • Digital marketing often isn’t even all that measurable.
  • Digital is not a silver bullet that will guarantee performance.
  • Digital isn’t going to get you anywhere if you don’t take the time to actually research and understand your target audience from the start.

These things might have been true in the early days when most companies weren’t investing and audiences weren’t familiar with digital marketing tactics. There’s still lots of value to be had, but the more mature the digital landscape becomes and the more savvy customers are, the harder the job is getting.

Unicorn hockey-stick results graphs are an increasingly rare occurrence, and even more, modest success requires careful planning, flawless execution, and a bit of luck. 

The marketing manager’s burnout cycle

I’ve seen a huge number of marketing managers (and their bosses) fall victim to the digital hype – that it’s quick, that it’s easy, and that it’s predictable. This is horrible for their wellbeing, and for the performance of the companies they work for. 

Often, these are talented, well-qualified people who’ve read case studies about huge increases in weeks from digital campaigns, and decided to dive straight in and give it a go. It’s not surprising that they do this – it’s exciting to get stuff rolling, and pressure from upstairs for visible progress can make it tempting to act first and ask questions later. There’s also no shortage of agencies, ad platforms and tools explaining how easy it all is – just sign on the dotted line and we’ll handle the rest. It’s easy! 😏

Sometimes these initial forays into digital will work, and will drive an uplift in enquiries or sales. Often, they’ll fall flat. 

Either outcome leaves you in a difficult position, though. Digital is supposed to be straightforward, so what’s gone wrong? What next? 

If you’ve started without really understanding why you’re doing what you’re doing, it can be hard to pick out what’s working and what’s not. It can also be hard, personally and politically, to shift the conversation from “this should drive us tons of sales really quickly” to “actually, this is a lot harder than I thought and might take months or even years to generate results”. That makes it almost impossible to come up with a structured path forward that’s more complicated than doubling down and saying “we must be along the right lines – let’s just do more of EVERYTHING!”.

The pressure to perform keeps coming, so that’s what you do. More blog articles and social posts. More infographics and eBooks. More ads and higher ad spend. More budget, more resources, more agency retainers, higher investment, leading to higher expectations and even more pressure. More late nights, and more stress, running a machine that you really don’t understand the workings of, but that’s endlessly demanding. All for results that still aren’t good enough, so you start again. 

This very quickly leads to a cycle of overwork and unfulfillment that will, eventually, drive even the most capable marketers to burnout. 

Myths about digital are damaging to everybody. 

It says a lot about the pervasiveness of the myth of quick, easy digital marketing that after 14 years in the industry I still fucking fall for it. If you’re at all prone to imposter syndrome, it’s an absolute nightmare.

“Why didn’t this campaign work? Why can’t you drive never-ending exponential growth on the same budget? Why aren’t things moving quicker? Why isn’t this working yet? That guy on LinkedIn posted a huge hockey-stick graph for his latest client, why isn’t your campaign doing that? Don’t you think your day rate’s a little high? Maybe you’re just not cut out for this…”

Often, digital agencies and freelance professionals are the ones feeding the myths. It’s innocent enough – why wouldn’t you shout about your successes to attract new clients? Why wouldn’t you send an optimistic set of projections alongside that proposal, or humour the MD when he asks for a ridiculous stretch target if it means winning the contract?

The trouble is, when everybody’s shouting about their unicorn wins, nobody sees the full context – the bulk of clients who get a decent level of impact for a fair level of effort, and, hidden away, the few who fail outright. 

The myths around easy, predictable digital marketing are hugely damaging, not only to marketers executing strategies, but to the businesses who buy into them. They tempt us to jump into activity too quickly, thinking it’s simple. They mislead C-level managers into unrealistic expectations of what digital marketing is capable of, leading to inflated targets and excessive pressure. Then, when our over-simplified approach fails to meet our vastly inflated targets, the myth that digital should be easy leaves us blaming ourselves and feeling like failures. 

Forcing a rethink: how to break the cycle and manage the HiPPO 🦛

It’s time to take a breath. It’s time to unpick the fiction from the fact of digital marketing. Then, it’s time to slowly step back and build a more nuanced view of what digital marketing is capable of, and where it fits in your business strategy. 

So how do we get from churning endless activity for limited returns into a more positive place? How do we take back control? And more importantly, how do we get the boss on board?

It’s not easy, particularly if you’ve got the board of directors breathing down your neck. The HiPPO (Highest Paid Person’s Opinion) holds a huge amount of sway in most companies, and if they’re bought into the mythic version of digital marketing, bringing them back down to earth is no mean feat. 

If you’re committed to unachievable targets and working flat out on tasks that you’re not sure are the right ones, it can seem impossible to climb down. Saying “this isn’t working and I don’t think it’s going to” means denying the myth, and leaving yourself open to the cry of “well maybe you’re just not good enough”. 

Here are a few potential circuit-breakers you could try:

  1. “We need to invest in better measurement”

Measurement, not Analytics. The vast majority of websites have Google Analytics, but the vast majority of brands are not doing good measurement. This is especially true if their marketing is based on lead or enquiry generation – eCommerce is easier to an extent, although there are usually significant gaps here too. 

Measurement is a great way of prompting a new approach to digital marketing activities, because it’s so widely acknowledged as one of the key benefits of digital. If the measurement you’re investing in shows that your marketing isn’t working as well as it should be, that’s a great prompt for a reset.

  1. “We need to modernise our marketing approach”

Another nice thing about digital marketing is that it’s always changing. So, if you’re in a rut of endlessly churning the same old tasks, you’re almost certainly doing it wrong. 

Often, myths about digital as an endless font of free money are tied up with the mistaken notion that volume and automation are key. However, modern approaches to digital marketing are, more often than not, focussed on identifying and honing niche approaches, understanding audiences and building compelling brands. No magic, just good old-fashioned marketing. 

Communicating a pivot in strategy as a modernisation can be a good way to start conversations about a more sustainable approach to digital. 

  1. “We need to integrate our digital strategy”

A bit “blind them with science”, this one, but it can work. If you’re blindly churning out activity across a few different areas of digital with no master plan of how different parts of the puzzle fit together, you’re a prime candidate for a digital strategy review to bring it all together into something coherent.  

Integrating means streamlining, reducing activities and costs, and getting better results out of the other end. It also means taking a hard look at what’s working and what’s not, and facing some difficult truths based on what you find. 

Good luck!

Need help to take control of your digital marketing strategy?

Marketers have never been under more pressure to deliver, and it’s tough out there. If any of this rings true, we’re here to help. We work with stressed-out marketing managers who need support not only to develop, revamp and execute their digital strategy, but to set and manage the right expectations at board level. 

A big part of our work at Cameo is helping our clients to understand what’s truly possible for them – not just the best-case scenario, but the other possibilities too. If it’s all feeling a bit overwhelming, we can help you gain perspective, set some simple priorities and start to take back control of your digital activities. 

Fancy a chat? Get in touch and we’ll be happy to help. 

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