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At a leading industry conference at which Brand Keys regularly presents, the distinguished keynote speaker, Sir Martin Sorrell, did not shy away from the provocative but critical observation that brands “for the first time are starting to question the measurement issue on social media.” We were not surprised at Brand Keys, having heard our own clients’ concerns about their brands' positions on social media and other kinds of digital platforms.

And while no one questions being on Facebook — or myriad other digital advertising platforms — many brands share their concerns behind closed doors about what to do on Facebook and others so that it truly works for their brand — so that their actions in digital space help to make their brands great and keep them great.
In a simpler time, brands produced ads and put them on television. People even watched them, not because they particularly wanted to, but having been interrupted, their attention was often diverted from their shows to the commercials for a bit. Back then, folks lacked a remote control — never mind a time-shifting DVR or commercial-free satellite TV — and thus brands matriculated into a school of thought in which awareness was viewed as a destination, and where being known was good enough.

Then came the change in the brand-communication landscape to include a few — then an increasing number of — digital communication and branding platforms, none of which are very old. To follow up on Sir Martin’s thought, no one really understands what these platforms provide, aside from a particular audience and some time or space. In the face of increasing consumer expectations and decreasing levels of meaningful differentiation, you really can’t blame brands for hoping that the Internet and the digital devices that connect consumers to it would be the answer to recapturing those golden days of consumer attention — not because of the lack of technology but actually because of it.

Increased levels of digital sophistication allow brands to capture lots of information and build higher-order profiles constructed from customers’ online searches, website visits, perusing of digital newspapers and magazines, game-playing, and shopping, not to mention our social interactions. That’s a lot of data, but not yet a lot of insight. Great brands understand what all this really is turning out to be: a modern targeting technique, albeit a big step up from ZIP codes.

And it would be wonderful if we were able to say that brands have graduated from that kind of calculator-mentality media buying, but many haven't because the digital technology of the Web came with the ability to count — and to count really high. Suddenly, brands had an exact number of all the people who had seen their message, which understandably left them pretty content. But then brands — the great ones, anyway — realized that all that awareness might have brought them some attention and even interest, depending on how engaging the ad or how attractive the promotion or how low-lower-lowest the price, but awareness doesn’t correlate strongly to positive behavior in the marketplace. That’s unfortunate, given that positive marketplace behavior is what brands want to happen following attention and interest. Awareness, alas, not being an end unto itself, ultimately continued to be a poor measure of whether the person on the other end of that digital device was engaged or just there.

But counting, like tracking digital platforms in terms of visits/usage, told brands nothing about their place on the platform being used. Going back to the earlier Facebook observation, brands weren't told what to do when they finally arrived at the digital platform, no matter how high up the visitation list the site appeared. Brands then migrated from counting digital usage to including demographic data points, the theory being that if the brand could match up their users' demographic profiles with the digital platform’s, they'd be able to more easily find people. But brands have already been doing this, without much effect, and on top of it they’d overlay all this attitudinal stuff they had also gathered. But no matter how granular or layered the numbers, all this hubbub churned the waters around the awareness trap. Yet going to where the fish swim doesn’t mean you have the right bait.

As of now, average brands have only come this far in being able to link emotional components to digital usage: a kind of emotional pulse taken completely outside the category environment. A brand may understand its audience very well, and may even watch where they wander in the digital world and then match up that data. But the brand still is unaware of how all that emotion projects itself into the decision to buy.

With all this digitizing and counting, a little-talked-about aspect of the Web was actually coming true: access for all. Ads for new products and services could appear in banners right next to those from the big and great brands. Thus was born the democratization of awareness. But democracy, as we have seen in the United States this past year, can be painful. Whether weighing in on presidential candidates or great brands, the citizenry can voice in a very public way what it actually wants, what it sees as a great brand’s place in the virtual social world, and how today's public is different from the predigital generation — a concept as foreign now as it is surprisingly recent. But that means brands have to actually ask questions about their place in digital space in the right way, getting at the emotion roiling beneath. Of critical importance, brands still need to connect all these things together.

Great brands understand that they need to take an approach to digital communication from a completely consumer engagement–based perspective. Not awareness. Engagement. A relationship that lets brands know where their product or service category and their possible digital platform intersect. To understand that, you need to look at digital engagement through a category-specific lens. So we did, for the first time ever — across 83 categories via our Customer Loyalty Engagement Index.

In order to understand how digital platforms operate in various product and service categories, you need a list of digital platforms. As everyone was talking, tweeting, and generally being over the moon about digital ad and brand-building budgets, we spoke with various industry organizations to identify the standard list of digital ad platforms that brands would consider. As it turned out, none of them actually had a list — well, at least not a comprehensive list of the kinds of digital platforms a brand might use.

But they did have lists of numbers: visits to places in digital space. So we did our own research, using the most respected sources of the 1,000 most-visited digital destinations, and sorted them into the platforms on which a brand could communicate and advertise. The result was an aggregation of 14 digital communication platforms that could be measured in the context of each category, to identify exactly how digital operated from an engagement perspective in that category. Do that in the digital world, and you can digitally manage a brand to greatness. Big media budgets and all the awareness in the world alone won’t make your brand great — just known, at best. And not being known for anything in particular in the category in which you compete or marketing in the category without attaining any real emotional engagement isn’t a good roadmap to greatness — in either the traditional media landscape or in digital space.

Doubt me? Just ask yourself this: Do you buy a car the same way you buy a computer? Yes, yes, price matters, value, things like that. All true. It’s obvious the details of these products are very different. You may want a car to be quiet, and want a computer to be able to get really loud. But there is much more. A car evokes an entirely different set of emotional responses than a personal computer — the word “personal” being the first clue in the emotional landscape beneath the surface of that particular category. Great brands notice that kind of thing.

The great brands also notice that consumers are changing along with the digital platforms. When we looked at those 83 categories, we asked the 49,000 consumers — men and women, 18 to 65 years of age, drawn from all nine U.S. Census regions — to tell us their digital usage and engagement in each category in which they were consumers. Then we looked at those who had the top 20 percent digital involvement in each category. We let them tell us their range of digital usage and did not impose a number. We called them “Higitals,” and we looked at them to see how they engaged with digital, and how differently they looked at the category versus the general population.

By looking at each category individually we were able to demonstrate that one size does not fit all when it comes to digital engagement and — as great brands have long suspected — digital works differently category to category. And when we examined how that digital engagement intersected with the engagement that drives brand choice in each category, we were able to identify the kinds of great engagement strategies that made brands . . . great!

Great brands know that this matters — a lot. Unless a brand connects the emotional and rational responses that are in play in the category decision process to the digital platforms that consumers are using, that brand lacks a strategic plan for digital involvement, having only a sophisticated approach to targeting. But by bringing together brand strategy and digital technology, by understanding how consumers engage with the category itself and how they are engaging with digital platforms in the category, you are able to identify the intersection of platform and brand. Think of it as a Digital Platform GPS, helping brands position and plan for greatness.

The bottom line: Most brands know who they want to talk to and how to reach them. But if you're planning a digital strategy, you need to know what you should be doing on each and every platform and what really matters to the consumers as they engage with the category in the digital space. At least that’s what great brands do!

Robert Passikoff, Ph.D.
Founder and President,
Brand Keys Inc.