4 reasons why digital beats traditional media—and what to do about it

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“Digital vs Analog” by James Broad on Flickr

I’m often asked, “Is traditional media dead?” The answer, of course, is “no.”

It’s true that cord cutting is accelerating, print subscription rates are declining, radio as we know it is being challenged by everything from Pandora to the auxiliary jack, and billboards have the same problems they’ve always had—being place-bound, offering little opportunity for targeting, and accommodating only the most simple messages. But does that mean they’re “dead”? No.

As the challenges cited above suggest, however, it’s indisputable that traditional media are being marginalized like never before. And while many businesses have adapted to this shift, some—especially small-to-midsize businesses—have been slower to respond. If you’re still trying to make sense of these changes or trying to make a case for digital getting a larger share of resources, it helps to focus on the four advantages digital has over traditional media—and what that means for your business.

1.    Traditional media only talk at the audience; digital media allow for conversations. Since its inception, advertising was largely a one-way medium, seeking only to get a message in front of an audience. Yes, it often included calls to action, but most advertisements seemed uninterested in a dialogue. Accordingly, consumers became increasingly uninterested in those messages, shifting their attention to media—primarily social media—that encouraged them to have their say.

What does this mean for you? If you seek only to raise awareness about your brand or message, traditional media offers great options, as does digital display advertising. However, consumers expect to be able to engage with you on social media and other digital media where conversations are just a click away. If you don’t make that opportunity available, they’ll likely bypass your message—or respond negatively to it.

2.    Traditional media are only available on a set schedule; digital media are often available on demand. The phrase “appointment television” seems quaint. While there’s something to be said for the anticipation that would come with waiting for the clock to strike 9:30 p.m. so you could watch “Seinfeld,” it’s far better to watch, listen or read what you want, when you want. Even live sports, once thought to be the saving grace of traditional TV, are facing challenges as audiences determine that they’d rather consume only the most relevant information—highlights and scores—on their own terms instead of watching every play as it happens.

What does this mean for you? It’s likely programming better consumed as it happens will offer more value for your traditional media dollar: live sports, reality TV and awards shows, for example. However, know that this is changing and that advertising dollars should follow the consumer to on-demand programming.

3.    Marketing via traditional media is all about interruption; digital marketing is more about the audience’s ability to opt in. Soap operas got their name because advertisers determined they could market household products—including soap—to a largely female daytime audience via dramas about the lives and loves of the rich and infamous. The model was built around interruption: give the audience something they want, then interrupt them with the advertisement you want them to see. This is still the dominant model today on both traditional and digital media—but audiences are using everything from the remote control to ad-blocking technology to avoid unwelcome messages.

What does this mean for you? Targeting has never been more important—and never more possible. Whereas most traditional media allow only for guesswork based on audience demographics, digital media allow for much greater sophistication, using strategies like modeling and remarketing to minimize waste. In addition, advertisers have the option of putting resources into opt-in forms of marketing, including organic social media and email marketing, combined with content that’s more engaging (see #1 above) where they can be more certain that the message will not be seen as a nuisance.

4.    It’s hard to measure the impact of traditional media; it’s comparatively easy to measure the impact of digital. I once had a CEO tell me he wasn’t sure digital was right for his company because it was hard to measure. During that conversation, I could literally see a billboard outside his window with his company’s message and no clear call to action. I was tempted to ask him how he was measuring the return on that investment, but I didn’t. While it’s true the impact of digital marketing can’t always be measured, it’s much easier than measuring the impact of traditional media. It can’t be done without effort, but it is very possible to know which messages resonated and lead to a specific action—if you’re strategic.

What does this mean for you? New ways of marketing demand new approaches to marketing. Planning on the front end, optimization along the way and analysis on the back end are the keys to success and should be looked at as imperatives, not luxuries.

As the media landscape evolves, the key is to integrate your efforts. Understand that there are real reasons behind the shifts in media consumption, but know also that traditional media isn’t dead—at least not yet. (It’s no small irony that this article was originally published in a print publication.) By being open to the best of both, you can prioritize based on the only thing that really matters: what’s best for your customers and prospects is generally the best choice for your company, too.

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