Everyone knows that the media landscape is changing, but few seem to be doing anything about it. Thanks to a booming technology industry and massive advances in tools such as the internet and cellular connectivity, our accepted means of communication will never be the same again. However, from where I sit – in the South African digital design arena – you would never guess that such colossal change has, and is, taking place. Advertising campaigns still favour above the line and very few Advertising agencies seriously consider the growing number of digital tools to be a credible and effective solution to getting their messages across. Digital, if it’s used at all, is treated as an add-on and rarely integrated into the greater campaign objectives.
And yet it’s all too evident that a digital revolution is not only underway, but is in full swing. So if this hasn’t caused concurrent changes for your brand and the way your company is planning to communicate with it’s audience, then rest assured – heads are going to roll.
If you’re thinking that this doesn’t relate to your business, then remember that the digital revolution is not only related to the internet, but also to cell phones, digital billboards, interactive kiosks and the growing number of screens popping up all over the consumer landscape.
Perhaps the seminal event in this revolution was the high profile bidding war between Viacom and Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. for internet property MySpace, which took place just over a year ago. Viacom lost the war and Murdoch – who acquired the site for $580 million – then sold the right to advertise on MySpace to Google for a stunning $900 million. Since the acquisition, MySpace's valuation tripled to around $1.5 billion and its usage quadrupled.
Very few people had predicted this explosion in consumer and investor interest in New Media. MySpace suddenly seemed like the pot at the end of digital rainbow and the acquisition caused shock waves throughout the global media industry. Murdoch, however, landed up looking pretty good – the guy who understood it all. And the thing he really understood, the thing that everyone else should also be trying to understand, is the needs and wishes of today’s consumer. At the time, Murdoch commented: “A new generation of media consumers has arisen, demanding content delivered when they want it, how they want it and very much as they want it.”
This new consumer is fuelling the digital revolution around the world. They are nothing like the passive consumers of yesterday and the shock to many, is how large this audience actually is. In the US, some research has shown that the average American is spending more time on the internet than in front of the TV. Many Europeans are watching television streamed to their PCs and cell phones from the likes of MTV, BskyB and the BBC. They’re researching your product on the net before they buy. In fact they are so at home in the internet environment that they’re living a second life through online virtual reality games, complete with homes, relationships and brands.
Because a great deal of this communication is done on a personalised 1 to 1 basis, it’s difficult for us to see the total volume of this communication, but rest assured it’s happening on a very big scale.
The revenue potential of digital platforms such as the internet is also helping fuel it’s growth. Next year, according to the Internet Standards Bureau, global adspend will increase to a whopping $2 billion. Companies are increasingly investing huge amounts of money on buying online spaces such as $650 million for gaming site Igentertainment.com and $650 million for the virtual pet site called Neopets. In SA the Online Publishers Association predicts an online spend this year of R183 million and well over R200 million in 2007, which is impressive considering that internet buying is still in its infancy here, and also considering very few people have understood how to use it effectively.
Other media are also working hard to digitize. In the UK where outdoor and radio advertising spend has been surpassed by internet adspend, outdoor media companies are also embracing digital by upgrading their traditionally static billboard offering. Viacom recently spent £75 million expanding its UK electronic billboard network and now has over 2000 screens. Clear Channel are also currently placing 10 huge (48 sheet size) digital billboards across London at major road intersections.
There was a time when advertising was largely a leap of faith – you simply aimed your message where you thought it would be best received and hoped for the best. Now, thanks to the explosion in measurable and powerful digital communication tools it’s possible to talk to an extremely defined target audience and know exactly how interested they are in your message. This what makes digital so compelling – it is the only way to get true response and measurability from an audience.
The digital information revolution offers the solution that marketers have been searching for. It allows them to grow and retain their audience in an increasingly competitive marketplace by offering the chance to build a relationship through various integrated and cost effective, two way channels. For consumers it means greater control and more personal choice.
Consumers no longer want to be talked at, they’re demanding a 2 way interactive relationship, where they can create content and make comment.
Through this two-way relationship building process, brands can gain a comprehensive understanding of their audiences’ habits and views, and tailor their services and methods of communicating accordingly.
As new communication paths become available so consumers are learning to interact with them and become active participants in shaping and circulating media. In many parts of the world interactive television is already allowing viewers to instantly order a product from their remote control, or stream a movie on demand, or read emails while watching TV in the background. Cell phones have also become far more advanced than simple speech and SMS. Movie tickets can be sent as barcodes to phones, which are then swiped at till points on entry. GPS tracking can be used to personalise information that you might be looking at whilst accessing the web on your phone. For instance, giving you relevant search results for a type of restaurant that you may be looking for in your area.
Why is it that this sort of thinking is so rare in SA? Do local advertising and marketing professionals think that the digital wave has not yet reached South Africa? Perhaps they have been misled by statistics indicating a lack of internet connectivity and the delayed launch of many cell phone services. The fact is we are still in many respects way ahead of other countries in terms of the ability to communicate digitally.
Our youthful audiences are large enough – 30% of our population is between 15 and 29 – and our technology platforms strong enough to support various digital communication channels. For instance, we already have over 30 million recorded (and paid for) downloads to cell phones per month (ring tones, screensavers etc). Our internet connectivity has grown by 200% in the last two and a half years and we’re set for more growth with companies offering cheaper connection packages all the time. South Africans are building large communities online and also via cell phone. MXit, the cell phone community chat forum, currently has a community of 2.2 million users who send 100 million messages between themselves every day. Their database of users is growing at an incredible 10,000 people per day. Add to this the rapidly decreasing costs of hardware (cell phones, laptops and digital billboards etc.) and you have the conditions for rapid unstoppable change.
Brands that don’t accommodate these trends will be left behind. And the South African marketing industry is not alone in trying to adjust to the rapidly changing media landscape. The editor of Campaign
magazine in Europe recently predicted: “The advertising industry is on the cusp of being turned on its head.”
So what is to be done?
Firstly, be aware that digital is not a skill that can be learned overnight. Agencies need to understand that the audiences interact very differently with their TV than their cell phones and with the internet. This needs expertise and study to get right. In the UK and US, Advertising agencies took years to grow digital competency.
Specific skills and experience are required and a new way of lateral thinking is needed. The positive side to this story is that South Africa has some amazing digital talent to offer. In technical delivery terms, we have companies such as Clickatell, which recently became one of the world’s largest SMS gateway operators. In creative terms, there are many small creative teams that are proving their abilities by winning international recognition for the work they are doing for the select few clients that are choosing to innovate.
Secondly, digital neither replaces traditional advertising platforms or makes sense tacked on the end. To keep in the consumer’s hearts and minds it’s necessary to integrate digital into long term strategies and as part of the campaign mix.
And finally, I believe that ours is a dynamic industry capable of playing catch-up in record time. This year, signalling a landmark in South African advertising (and an agency willing to innovate), a digitally centred campaign for 5FM radio station by Net#work BBDO became the first integrated campaign to win a Grand Prix Loerie award, the highest honour in advertising awards.
Hopefully, this is a reflection of the beginning of industry wide change and that many will be spared the humiliation of saying that they didn’t see it coming.