In Defense of Spill

“Targeting at scale” – The role many digital marketers ascribe to digital display.

How a precise and measurable medium like digital ends up playing second fiddle to television when it comes to the awareness heavy-lifting chores of brand advertising campaigns is counter-intuitive.  Digital is elegant and malleable, while television is fairly rigid and spills into all manners of adjacent demographics.

Really, though, digital display has only itself to blame for pigeonholing itself.  So desperate to shrug off Click Through Rate (CTR) as its metric of success, digital did an about-face and claimed the role of aggregating niche audiences and reaching them wherever they are with brand advertising.

Not to say this isn’t one of digital’s strong suits, but – as with many medium – many marketers have taken this role as a given when thinking about their paid media plans.  And it’s had a terrifying pigeonholing effect.

One of the dynamics at play here is the movement of customers in and out of market.  With the exception of perhaps the automotive and real estate industries, marketers are not doing a good job with looking at how customers move into the consideration phase and what might lead them out of it.

Nowhere is this more evident than in retargeting.  Wherever most of us go online, we’re plagued with ads for things we’ve already bought, or for products we’ve considered and ultimately rejected, or with ads for competitors of a product we’ve already purchased and will have no need for in the foreseeable future.

Further, we’re seeing a lot of ads designed to move consumers further down the funnel once they’ve entered the consideration phase.  But what about consumers not yet ready to consider?  Are we using digital adequately enough to develop markets rather than tap into already-existing ones?

It’s true that it’s easier to prompt consideration of a particular brand once someone has begun to consider the category.  But I’m concerned that in concentrating so much media weight on existing markets, we’ve not done everything we can be doing in digital in order to develop brand preferences ahead of time.  That role is typically given to television and other offline media.

It is, however, possible to generate TV-like reach using digital in a broader role. 

Comparatively few digital advertisers use it in this way.  While several digital advertisers are shifting dollars from TV to digital video in order to follow the latest consumption habits of their targets, cherry-picking those viewers using Big Data is the latest trend.

The issue is that television generates a tremendous amount of spill, which helps to address the market development and awareness role for the people who aren’t ready to consider the product, but might be doing so in six months or a year.  If we’re constantly using digital to target, though, the numbers might look good on paper, but we’re oversaturating targets that are already seeing plenty of category ads.

This pummeling of in-market consumers is one of the forces driving negative attitudes toward digital ads.  Personally, think about how many brands you’ve seen lately that continue to target you – often to the exclusion of other ads – once you’ve made any sort of overture that you might be interested in buying.  Even after purchase, the ads don’t stop.  Even after buying a competitor’s product and satisfying current need, the ads don’t stop.

Spill helps, and with digital ads playing the “targeted reach” role, it limits the medium’s usefulness while making the consumer feel like they have a target on their backs.  It’s time to consider alternative, wide-reaching roles for digital within integrated campaigns.