Forget the digital conversation: it’s time for a radical response

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digital conversations

It’s 2017, and the marketing world is still talking about ‘getting into digital’. For reference, that’s more than twenty years since the internet graduated to a world-conquering visual platform. Even the advent of the digital watch over 40 years ago might have been a hint.

The day when advertising would need to adapt to new platforms has not just been encroaching in recent years; it’s almost at the point of passing us by. Radical steps are needed if firms and businesses are to avoid obsolescence and take full advantage of emerging technologies.

Taking the plunge

All parties have started to accept that advertising should be adapted for online, but the application of this remains spotty. Most digital campaigns are still entirely transparent, attempting to push the same message to a different audience without adopting online conventions. The brief surge in native advertising between 2013 (when 90% of U.S. publishers had reportedly used or planned to use native ads) and 2016 showed some ingenuity, but its value in the rust-free world of online news in 2017 is questionable.

If the course of these digital dinosaurs is to be corrected, companies need to start taking drastic action. This is true on both the part of brands and marketers. Marketing is understandably a cautious, pragmatic business; but the onrushing shift to all-digital future demands that we reconsider our course.

Rather than clinging to old media, we should be exploring the latest trends with more vigour, and preparing to make the transition. This isn’t something that can be done in isolation, however. Brands and businesses of all stripes also need to buy into new forms of advertising, contributing ideas and assets in order to sculpt entirely new, ‘digital first’ content.

Very real potential

Many new digital platforms offer intriguing possibilities for advertisers, yet seem to have been dismissed out of hand. Recent polling data on virtual reality devices, for instance, has been used as a stick to beat early adopters. Forrester statistics than 42% of U.S. adults have never heard of VR (and that 46% see no use for it) will reassure the 92% of marketers who have yet to explore the technology. But should it?

The advertising world has increasingly questioned the value of VR. At their most negative, critics have claimed that VR will never be the future of advertising; Marketing Week meanwhile seems to think there is more traction in holograms. All of them point to the small, homogenous install base and lack of public awareness as a reason not to bother with VR.

But most approaches to advertising on the platform so far have been in creating tailored advertising experiences. This is a curious response, given that the last thing people probably want to do with this incredible technology is voluntary locate and watch an advert. With most people only able to stand a couple of hours of VR, the user’s time is too precious.

The mechanisms don’t even exist to present pre-roll ads on other people’s VR content yet, and to do so would be a waste. Even an interesting, creative use of VR for an ad spot is still likely to feel like a transplanted ad campaign from another medium. Harnessing the potential of VR as an advertiser before developers and digital artists have got a handle on things is a lost cause.

Digital scenery

A much more intelligent, native form of advertising in VR is branded objects. People put up with brand deals in movies, but the camera specifically focusing on an object does neither the film nor the brand any favours. Conversely, placing objects in an explorable digital environment can make it feel more real, particularly when they are incidental to the experience.

In some regards, the fact that most brands and marketers have not explored all-digital environments before now is stunning. Brands have dabbled with ‘gamification’, the process of turning mundane tasks or reward schemes into digital collections. But most have entirely ignored the highest grossing entertainment medium on the planet: video games.

Now, advertisers have not been blind to this 40-year phenomenon: movie tie-ins have been popular almost since the inception of the medium, and diegetic advertisements (those that fit naturally into the game world, rather than breaking the immersion) have popped up from time to time. Forbes predicted that In-game advertising (IGO) spend would grow to $7.2bn by 2016, with much of it coming from mobile games. But much of it has been an afterthought, with movie tie-ins, in particular, holding a reputation for their slapdash quality.

Of the thousands of historic franchises, arguably only Star Wars (where LucasFilm had its own dedicated game division, LucasArts) and Telltale (responsible for The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones and Batman) have done the medium justice. Compare the level of saturation with sponsorship and product placement in movies or TV shows, and the winner is obvious.

Given the escalating budgets of these games, massive audiences and the need to mitigate risks, this seems like a missed opportunity. It seems doubly true when you look at the industries that are utilising the platform successfully.

Games and gimmicks

The automotive industry has long since cottoned onto the value of appearing in video games, with racing titles securing official licences for everything from your average hatchback to top of the line sports cars, and including in-game track adverts.

A more fertile example, however, might be firearms. The licensing of weapons for modern military games not only makes an enormous amount of money for weapons manufacturers, it also builds enormous brand awareness among an audience of future gun owners. The implications behind this are slightly troubling, but the effectiveness of the approach is almost beyond question.

There are obvious questions around brand alignment and audiences. Despite the industry’s best efforts, products targeted at women may not be best served by advertising in ‘hardcore’, home console based games. But there’s also a broader range of subject matter and possibilities than would occur to most casual observers. The thriving ‘indie’ video game sector, involving small teams of developers, is particularly ripe for investment and sponsorship.

These games are often made by half a dozen or fewer artists and designers, who leave jobs at larger studios to work on a passion project. Self-financing puts the individuals at some risk, but the overall cost is fairly small, and they can still sell millions of units. Picking up on a promising project and lending support is an untapped avenue worth some real consideration.

VR has often been criticised for being an isolating experience, posing a natural barrier to its mainstream appeal. But take the more social world of augmented reality, where a phone or glasses overlay digital data on the real world. Pokemon Go has been the only major success so far, but most industry experts predict that it will be more than a flash in the pan. The potential for branded items, overlays or tradeable items in a social experience like this is enormous.

Exploring these technologies now can only stand you in good stead. Far from building for the future, the disciplines involved in creating content for digital environments – achieving the balance between noticeability and subtlety, and positioning your brand within the ‘lore’ of a fictional universe – can be applied to make more creative (and traditional) campaigns today.

Author bio

Alex Bullock is a Digital Marketing Manager at Gooey Digital, a digital marketing agency based in London, England. Gooey produce high-quality content for major charity and business clients, with projects ranging from tailored website copy and blogs to web and magazine design.

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