Despite All This Data, Empathy Is Still the Greatest Tool in a Marketer's Toolbox

A Top-Down Approach Needs to Be Balanced with Consumer-Centric Thinking

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Imagine having to watch an hour's worth of commercials before a two-hour movie. Or being tapped on the shoulder before each page of a novel with an "exclusive offer." It sounds ludicrous, but this is essentially the way we experience ad-supported content today. It's no wonder ad blockers are proliferating.

This is because something strange happens to ad execs when we walk through the doors of our corporate offices: We somehow forget that, just before stepping over that threshold, we were a part of the population we're trying to reach with ads. With this perspective mysteriously erased from our minds, we begin describing people as "users" that "consume" content in a "cross-screen" environment. When was the last time you thought to yourself, "I'm done watching short-form, snackable content on my mobile screen and now I'm going to watch long-form, premium content on my OTT device?"

This collective amnesia can be cured by simply reminding ourselves that we, too, are the viewers. People don't think in silos. They just want to watch their stuff where and when they want -- and so do we. This is indicative of what I see as the major problem in our industry: We need to balance our top-down approach with consumer-centric, bottom-up thinking. As we begin to make this change, what should serve as our beacon is a sense of balance and empathy.

Achieving balance is easier said than done. Our industry is a complex mesh of technology platforms, data solutions, acronyms, and buzzwords. We have multiple definitions for the same word. Just ask five colleagues to define "programmatic," "premium," and "viewable." Seriously, ask them. This complexity is often what necessitates top-down thinking. We have to use lingo and generalities for the sake of efficiency, but we also need to remember that there's a person on the other side of the screen. Moving beyond this will not be easy, but for the first time I believe we have the technology, data and momentum to change.

So what is the easiest thing to empathize with? Time. Everyone's time is precious. No matter how you cut it, data show us that a 30-second pre-roll in front of a one-minute video is not a fair tradeoff. But did we really need data to tell us that?

After all the CPMs are calculated and the analytics interpreted, empathy is still the greatest tool in a marketer's toolbox. Sure, the top-down approach can show us what is working and how well it is working. But at the same time, it confines us to simply doubling down on the tried-and-true, and lets us get away with not innovating. It begs the question: Can we really know what consumers prefer if we haven't given them much of a choice?

For starters, we need to let go of our obsession with the 30-second ad unit, which is often a repurposed TV ad. Digital is different than television. We aren't required to think in 30- or 15-second increments. We have the ability now more than ever to push creative boundaries, drive engagement, give people more choice and control, and leverage the unique features of each device to tell tailored stories. This, too, is easier said than done -- especially because our industry tends to segment budgets between creative development and media buying.

This 30-second mania is especially problematic for mobile advertising. It blows me away that our industry still primarily repurposes TV creative for a device people hold in their hands. Over the years, I have watched clients spend $50,000 to produce a 30-seconod ad for TV, and then balk at the suggestion of paying an additional $30,000 to cut a mobile-friendly, 15-second version for an upcoming $5 million mobile campaign. This is in spite of what years of research has shown. For less than 1% of that $5 million budget, marketers can develop a creative asset that data tell us has a higher likelihood of driving brand objectives. It makes logical sense, yet so often this investment is deemed too costly, and the whole campaign is run with a piece of creative that simply doesn't fit.

The people we're trying to reach are shouting the solution back at us in the form of data. We just need to learn how to listen to them and respond accordingly with creativity, innovation and choice. Adopting this consumer-centric mindset and having real empathy for the experience of our fellow viewer is the secret sauce. So ask yourself, fellow marketer: How do you want to be marketed to?