The multi-million dollar advertising deal that Instagram and Omnicom struck and the introduction of ads on Pinterest recently is significant far beyond the dollars changing hands. While it's imperative for the platforms to monetize, of course, both pieces of news demonstrate that there is a place for branding spend (vs. direct response) in digital and highlights a path for publishers and platforms to take in order to grow this piece of the digital marketing pie. Branding is a different discipline than selling, but the tactics available online and in mobile have generally been designed around the latter; hence the idea that brand dollars are not well spent in digital.
Part of the reason branding hasn’t been quick to jump into digital has to do with environment. If you’re used to doing your branding on television and in print, you expect a clean, contextual, and uncluttered environment in which to communicate with an audience that is both demographically and psycho-graphically appropriate. You don’t have to look far beyond the NYTimes.com or ESPN.com sites for the premium sheen to come off the Internet, with pages displaying dozens of blinking banners and traffic of dubious quality. To their credit, Instagram has emphasized that the ads appearing on its platform will be held to quality standards. They won’t let the monkey get punched on Instagram because it would spoil their environment and alienate their users. Similarly, Pinterest is requiring careful curation of Promoted Pins. They understand that for brands, the connection between the ad and the audience has to be made on quality ground.
Branding needs to be done in front of an audience whose interests can be piqued by the ad. But digital’s early promise of measurement has focused on the wrong signals for brands. Digital ads are generally measured by actions, whereas brand marketers need to capture attitude. Actions consist of our old friend the click as well as other proxies that can be measured solely by the ad server. But unlike selling, branding doesn’t need to put a person into a commerce system right now. There’s not a single advertiser who would expect a viewer to drop their plate of wings mid-Super Bowl party and make a mad dash to their nearest Ford dealer upon seeing a stunning commercial. Rather, brand marketers understand that if a consumer simply walks away thinking, “Damn, that’s an amazing car,” then the ad has done its job – even if the cash won’t change hands for a good long while. Brands are driving awareness, recall, understanding of product attributes, favorability, and consideration – things that happen in the audience’s minds and which can’t or shouldn’t find a proxy in a mouse click. Rather, a branding ad impression succeeds by making an impression.
What Instagram and Omnicom have done is build a partnership based on the understanding that the different ways the brand shows itself across every touch point – including digital – will accrete to the consumer’s desire to ultimately purchase that insurance, buy that car, or drop that bag of chips in their shopping cart offline. And by putting to use the social data that Instagram and Pinterest have on their audience – their demos, of course, but also their interests – they can target the audience attitudinally.
It’s interesting to note that while this kind of data is available to the big, established social platforms, Facebook and Twitter have instead leaned towards building tools for direct marketers. Perhaps they had come to believe that digital is more the province of direct response, or at least that it’s the easiest money for them to capture, because today’s dollars already tend to believe that. But the Omnicom deal shows that Instagram – which is, after all, owned by Facebook – understands that branding can not only work but also can earn significant revenue commitments when done properly – and the early word on Pinterest’s sales targets shows the same thing. As attitudinal signals become more widely accepted as targeting for brands, and as native messaging formats become increasingly scalable, the branding money will move to digital, and the metrics and language of action will no longer define the success of branding ads.