Digital vs. Traditional Marketing: What’s the Ideal Mix?

There’s no denying that digital advertising continues to grow exponentially. In its recent state of U.S. Advertising report, eMarketer forecasts that digital spending will grow 16% in 2017 alone. Mobile ad spending is anticipated to grow 22%. But the data point that particularly caught my attention: 40.5% of all U.S. media spending is now digital. And the author anticipates that 50% isn’t too far off.

Although the article doesn’t denote any industry-specific data points on the breakdown between digital and traditional spend, it’s likely that consumer and corporate brands are leading the way to innovate and rebalance legacy media budgets. But the question about the ideal marketing mix is one that higher ed marketers frequently face and may not feel equipped to answer. And who can blame them? Board members and other leadership often expect broadcast, outdoor, and print ads in the dailies as a part of any advertising investment. In reality, however, reports show that time spent with mobile continues to grow at the expense of time spent with TV, and more than  60% of high school sophomores have clicked on paid digital ads for a college.

When it comes to the question of the “ideal balance,” I caution clients against answering with a general rule of thumb. Why? The quick answer: strategy first, then tactics. On the surface, this question doesn’t mean anyone any harm. Look just a little deeper though, and you’ll see how relying on a “best practices” metric could quickly cause a marketer to jump into tactical decisions and solutions without a sound strategy to guide them. Instead, take the time to review the following considerations as a starting point and gather the necessary data to not only inform a strategy-first approach, but also confidently answer the “right mix” question for your institution:

1. Setting Objectives

There is no doubt that paid advertising can play an incredibly important role in amplifying an institution’s brand and its key messages. However, it is most powerful and effective when the objectives, goals, and target audiences are clearly defined and driving the strategy of the campaign. Is the primary objective of your campaign brand awareness or lead generation among prospective students? Are there particular programs you need to promote? Identify priorities, align them with defined business goals, and go from there.

2. Digital Infrastructure

Advertising is most effective when there is a strong infrastructure to support it. Take the time to assess yours before considering advertising channels. CRM, Google Tag Manager, and other marketing attribution analytics tools allow for conversion tracking and the measurement of strategic goals beyond the surface-level click-through rate (CTR) and impression metrics. Another important consideration is what the campaign is driving to. Too often I see ads that lead directly to a homepage or a microsite homepage rather than a form-based landing page that drives conversion and provides a much better chance of understanding results.

3. Target Market

Even though it’s hard to control, another big consideration is the geographic target market. An institution advertising in Los Angeles, New York, or any large metro will face a crowded, expensive paid media market. That doesn’t mean you should simply discount the location based on cost alone, but rather consider it within the holistic plan and the various markets and channels you’re considering. The same can be said for the most popular (and therefore pricey) keywords.

4. Working vs Non-Working Spend

Working spend, or the amount spent on distribution of marketing content via social, TV, print etc., is just one expenditure that needs to be considered. Non-working spend – all the other the costs associated with producing content such as staff salary, agency fees, photo shoots, etc. – also deserves important consideration. Marketing technology company Percolate issues a fantastic annual study, “The Cost of Creativity,” that examines the comparison of working vs non-working spend and looks at how new media formats and other factors affect the breakdown. In 2016, 40% of budgets were spent on non-working spend. This number will obviously vary greatly based on your team, your processes, and plans for production.

5. Past Data and Metrics

Industry trends and reports such as those referenced above can be incredibly valuable in shaping your strategy; however, nothing is quite as valuable as your own data from recent campaigns. Use key data points such as form analytics and results of A/B testing to constantly evolve your approach. And track key metrics such as cost per click, conversions, conversion rate, and cost per conversion to provide benchmarks for KPIs and to refine marketing investments and strategy over time.

Examining and answering these things will not only make your mix more evident, but are key to building the foundation of a strategic marketing plan to identify priorities and inform all tactical decisions.

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