What next for digital marketing?

Over the past half-decade, we’ve witnessed the hubbub any large-scale Indian event brings, in this case the long-heralded arrival of ‘digital’. Some feared, like Chief Vitalstatistix of the popular Asterix comics, that the sky would fall on their heads. Others positioned themselves as architects of a new dawn. We’ve had clarity-obscuring clouds of opinion, half-information and misinformation. Calm minds have worked through this, like pilots bringing airplanes in to safe landing in poor visibility. 
As we approach the centre of ‘digital’, the clear signal we receive is of essentially three kinds of brands: 

  • The digitally marketed, digitally consumed
  • The digitally marketed, physically consumed
  • The physically marketed (digitally assisted), physically consumed

Within the space created by these primary markers, we see plenty of differences and nuance. Conversely unifiers, such as data and personalisation, draw brands towards a common core. 

Digitally marketed, digitally consumed brands such as Google, Facebook, Netflix, Spotify and a raft of Indian me-toos like Hotstar, Alt Balaji and Gaana rarely, if ever, step into the physical world. Their users discover, try, commit and renew their relationships digitally. The holy grail of marketing, sometimes called n=1, wherein each customer is individually targeted through a deep understanding of personality and preference, is tantalizingly within reach. Even among global brands, preference mapping is currently algorithm based. Recommendations are based on past behaviour, not present moods or inclinations. The possibilities for elevating and energising the relationship, and increasing revenue through this, are potentially infinite.   

Digitally marketed, physically consumed brands like Amazon (and its many Indian competitors) and Book My Show are deeply digital, but the delight they facilitate takes place outside the brand. Whether the doorbell rings to announce an eagerly anticipated delivery or a show booked online proves enjoyable, the fulfilment is in the physical world. The brand is a means to an end, and at times just one of many options to that end. The preference drivers are common and differentiation will peak and plateau at some point.   

 
Physically marketed (digitally assisted), physically consumed brands represent the bulk of India’s digital marketing spends. Marketing methods from pre-digital times make an appearance in digital formats. A video that would otherwise have aired only on TV is now offered on the brand’s website, YouTube channel or an independent comparison site. A printed brochure that would previously have required a dealer visit can now be downloaded. Some categories only make a sale when consumers see, touch, smell and hear the brand and communication in any form, including ‘digital’, is just one more method to make the prospect come there.      

So how does the immediate future look for digital marketing? For India Rising, that huge swell of demographic and demand from small towns and villages, digital is still thrilling. For India Arrived, the novelty has worn off. First, therefore, big brands need to swap one-size-fits-all national digital strategies for layered strategies which target specific communities. Second, it is time for ‘permission personalisation’ through which brands will ask for, receive and use volunteered consumer data to customise brand experience and marketing.      


The author is founder, Bharat Bambawale & Associates


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