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The Great Online Marketing Lottery

Am I alone in starting to believe that the only people who make money on a consistent basis from online marketing, are those who provide online marketing services to poor schmucks like me?
I suspect more and more that nobody in the world actually knows enough about this constantly evolving marketing landscape to confidently ask 'Hey man! Is this stuff actually working?'

Before I get hauled over the coals, let's look at some facts based on personal experience. If I send out a newsletter via email to 100 people and 14 recipients actually bother to open it and scan the headlines for a few seconds before they hit delete, this is seen as a success. If I spend thousands on a PPC campaign (including setup costs and management) and get a dozen leads (NOT orders, but leads), we are well ahead of the curve, apparently.

Hands out

And don't get me started on Facebook. Zuckerman and his henchmen have their hands outstretched at every turn, it seems. Hell, our company can't even be guaranteed that the posts we pay our social media providers a chunk of cash every month to generate will actually be seen by the people who have made the effort and Liked us - which kind of makes the whole shebang seem a bit of a lottery - unless we pay for a promoted post of course, or a Facebook ad, or ... you get my point.

Online marketing experts, you can stop sharpening your pitchforks and preparing the stake at which to roast me for the above comments, for a moment at least. Cynicism aside, I do see the value in this medium, which is why we continue to do it, and spend lots of money at that. I have seen businesses enjoy significant success from a well-structured online marketing campaign, and have been the recipient of newsletters and mailers that have struck a chord and motivated me to get in touch with the sender right away. I also use Google as my primary vehicle to find new suppliers and providers of needed services, so SEO and PPC makes huge sense to me - in theory.

Where's the sense of order?

My problem is the random nature of it all, the constantly shifting goalposts and the fact that even the experts often seem just as bewildered as a greenhorn like me as to why some stuff works, and some just bombs. Not that they would admit it, of course.

I suppose a lot of the conundrum lies in the natural progression of things. Facebook's metamorphosis from social platform to business imperative, and subsequent public listing, made monetising the platform both necessary and easy to do. Google's monopoly on internet search facilities created a whole new industry in SEO, with an increasing need to pay your way to the top of the pile.

Sometimes it's all a bit like smoke and mirrors? (Image: NASA, via Wikimedia Commons)
Traditional marketing is not much different, let's clear that up. Whatever the medium, marketing is a process that requires ongoing investment and focus before any returns are harvested. In fact, in this regard social media probably has the edge, because it is a quick way to reach a large audience, and there is always the outside chance that your campaign will go viral and interest will come flooding in. But again, the randomness of it all makes it feel like a gamble more than a sure thing.

The unanswered questions

I have worked with some experienced and very sharp digital marketing and social media people, who clearly understand the medium and make a lot of sense in terms of proposed strategy and course of action. That they cannot tell me with any certainty why one PPC campaign works when another does not, or what made 25% of recipients open a newsletter on a Wednesday and only 11% open it on a Thursday, bothers me. Like most small business owners, I need some level of confidence that if we do X, our results should be Y. I do not have thousands to throw into the pot while we dabble and test and poke and prod. Nor am I buying the constant deflection and excuses given for yet another really average campaign - your database is no good, your messaging must be wrong, we need a better subject line, Facebook has changed its policy, Tuesday at 11am is a bad time to send a mailer, so is Wednesday, and Thursday ... we need to refine the PPC campaign every week and by week six we should see some traction... etc.

The fact that online marketing, SEO and social media is growing and changing so fast, seems to have created a scenario where nobody really knows exactly what is going on. Our small company has a web developer who does a bit of PPC, an SEO guy, a social media provider, a branding agency and an overall strategist giving us input on an ad hoc basis. All these people, taking their cut and delivering what frankly are pretty average results - and that is no reflection on their particular capabilities, simply the nature of the field on which they play.

Seems a bit like smoke and mirrors to me sometimes.
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About Anton Ressel

Anton Ressel is an experienced business development consultant, mentor and SME specialist. He is the Senior consultant at ED and CSI specialist agency Fetola ( ), a winning mentor on the SAB Kickstart Entrepreneur Competition, and a published author across multiple publications. His passion is helping small businesses become big ones. Follow @antonres on Twitter.
Peter Moolenschot
Why is it that Internet Advertising is only by 'Campaign'? What is being done to get attract Retail advertising Rands, so loved by Print publishers, to the Internet. My view is that the basic Internet advertising model is flawed, It is time for a complete re-think. Watch this space.
Posted on 14 Jan 2014 11:42
Andrea Mitchell
Anton, a great piece, and one I'm sure is shared by MANY brands. There are many factors to consider, not least of which is that there is simply not enough TRUE talent in the industry, and most certainly not enough that take accountability. Don't give up your digital efforts. There are enough success stories to prove that it works. The key, is doing to right. (I can assure you, refining a PPC campaign "on a weekly" basis, is not often enough).
Posted on 14 Jan 2014 14:10
Chishamiso Nikurawu
Excellent piece this is... There are too many players involved in the digital space that have their "own" way of working hence the constant change in policies and algorithms etc... Due to these changes marketers also have to keep up and change strategies. Digital is a constantly changing space and things in and round it need to change along with it. Like with anything, if 'x' doesn't work or produce the desired results, you try 'y', so don't give up on Digital and like Adrea said, make use of the success stories as comfort and case studies.
Posted on 14 Jan 2014 15:30
Arthur Charlez
I think too many business owners compare online marketing to traditional marketing. If you place a newspaper ad, you expect a percentage return sometime in the period that the ad runs, but today's newspaper is tomorrow's potato peel wrappings for disposal or like in my house in the 70s - toilet paper.What online marketing does is make you pay once for something that will be around FOREVER. Yes I said FOREVER. (or as long as the platform exists). That means that what you get for your payment is a constantly deepening and widening digital footprint and a solid presence online. And that's just one benefit.Something else you get is INTERACTIVITY. The ability to communicate directly with the people your brand message reaches - back and forth - as many times as you like. Can you do that with a TV ad? These are just two benefits that outlive the money you pay by years.. (If I give you more I'd have to invoice you)
Posted on 14 Jan 2014 22:22
Romany Thresher
I've shared similar experiences Candice the internet has been changing so fast that it has been difficult for most to keep up. I've also sensed and from feedback received spending time with business owners we openly share our challenges and across two continents everyone is feeling the same way, too much to do and not enough time and I know that social media platforms need to upgrade and do things but damn they need to consider the guys that are busy running businesses doing their best to keep up in such a fast paste world. The consensus is with our community is that we are going to take control of our time in a way where we are not going to feel the pressure of having to constantly keep up and compete. At the end of the day it is about how you impact the community around you.
Posted on 15 Jan 2014 01:03
Anton Ressel
Thank you all for your interesting and constructive comments. My intention is always to encourage debate rather than pass judgement, and I am pleased that this is what seems to be the case here. The online landscape is shifting so fast all the time but I still feel that focusing on doing the basics well in marketing (and in life in general) is the best way in the long run.
Posted on 15 Jan 2014 07:18
Hi,I've linked an article posted yesterday by Jeff Green, CEO of The Trade Desk. An interesting read that provides some further insight. I think he highlights a few points that are relevant to your debate here. One of his answers echoes what Candice mentions about online marketing being measurable.JG concludes with this : "Real-time bidding and programmatic has and will continue to change the way that advertising is done. Period. It is impossible to stop. You either lead efficiency, or you get run over by it... There's so much opportunity in front of us, we just need to be running as quickly as we possibly can.Advertising will continue to change. And the only long pole is getting publishers and agencies and advertisers to wrap their brains and their cultures around a world that looks very different from the one Don Draper grew up in."I found this relevant and interesting. Take a read :
Posted on 15 Jan 2014 12:26