Digital Advertising Doesn’t Always Work (But It Can!)

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This post is bi-lined by Christina Martin, Executive Director, Real Estate Marketing at USAA and a seasoned Digital Marketer with over two decades experience in financial services, including roles at Moneygram, United Capital Financial Advisors, and First Horizon Home Loans/First Tennessee (MetLife Home Loans). She shares her perspective here from speaking at Leads Con 2017 in a session entitled: From Search Campaign to Lead Qualification & Transfer – Using Data Analytics to Drive Volume. USAA is a LQ Digital client.

It may be time to take a different approach to avoid spending budget on wasted leads

It’s no secret that digital advertising has been steadily on the rise for a number of years now. In eMarketer’s latest quarterly projections for 2017, digital ad spend in the U.S. alone will grow by 15.9 percent to a whopping $83 billion in total revenue. Of course, it should come as no surprise that Google and Facebook continue to dominate this space, commanding 60 cents of every dollar spent.

These trends don’t show any signs of slowing, even as more marketers turn their attention and budgets to mobile advertising. In fact, the digital advertising industry is about to set a new milestone: by 2018, digital ad spend will surpass TV ad spend for the first time – and continue growing. That shouldn’t be news to marketers. The time to take action was yesterday; just look at the data. As digital continues to pull share away from TV, there’s no question that it should make up a big part of any marketer’s media plan in the year ahead. This basically means that the way we approach, plan, and execute digital advertising campaigns needs to fundamentally change if we expect to break through the noise and connect in a meaningful way with all-too-easily-distracted digital-first consumers.

So, given the relentless rise of digital ad spend, your knee-jerk reaction may be: “we must spend more to reach more consumers.” Generally speaking, you wouldn’t be wrong in making this assumption, but, in doing so, you are missing a big piece of the puzzle. Sure, by spending more on digital advertising, you will undoubtedly get a leg up on the competition in terms of overall impressions. But just because you reach more consumers doesn’t necessarily mean you’re reaching the right customers with compelling messages that motivates them to buy into your brand’s value proposition and eventually become actual customers. The problem here isn’t your spend; it’s how you’re spending your advertising dollars as well as what you’re doing to engage your target consumers.

Consider this a myth busted: greater spend doesn’t mean more positive results. If anything, it just gets you a lot more wasted leads and wastes your precious marketing budget. Industry-wide, it’s not all that surprising anymore to run into situations where, say, only eight percent of leads generated by a digital advertising campaign actually convert into something more substantial. When you do the simple math, that means the remaining 92 percent of those leads are basically useless or, in other words, deliver no value whatsoever. And in spite of the fact that many brands oftentimes see little return on their advertising spend (ROAS), they continue to pour more budget into advertising in hopes that the tables will eventually turn in their favor. It’s a nice idea, but, quite frankly, the wrong approach.

Additionally, it’s important to remember that digital advertising is not linear, nor is it executed via a “black and white” strategy either. ROAS in one channel may have a residual and beneficial impact in another, especially as ad spend grows. Social advertising is a great example of this. A recent Facebook study conducted with Nielsen Total Ad Ratings found that marketers who use Facebook ads to complement TV their ad spend can “boost audience reach and enhance the efficiency of their campaigns, particularly among younger audiences and light TV views.”

What’s the big takeaway here? It’s about time marketers got smarter about how they use (read: not spend) their digital advertising budgets. Here are a few pitfalls to avoid. First, ads need to be placed in the right channel. We know that all consumers are not created equally; digital advertising platforms aren’t either. Placing an ad in a channel that either fails to reach the right consumers or doesn’t incite the kind of action you need from them is a big waste of your budget. Don’t place ads on “popular” platforms just because they cater to a large audience. If your target consumers don’t spend their time there, you shouldn’t either.

Second, once you figure out where your target consumers spend their digital time, you still have to crack the code on how to speak to them – at least, in a way that gets them to act. Simply put, your message needs to resonate. Here’s some good news: practically every part of your digital advertising campaign can be optimized in real-time. Unlike that TV spot or static billboard you have running, you can test multiple digital ad units at the same time to see what works and cut out what doesn’t, instantly. Playing the digital advertising game is more than just purchase, create, publish, and wait. Every step in that process can be refined non-stop to drive results. Don’t just sit around until a campaign ends. If your message isn’t resonating, change it. The longer you run an ad with a mediocre call-to-action, the more budget you waste. Simple, right?

Lastly, if part of your digital advertising effort involves asking consumers to fill out a form to get more information, then be ready to get them that information immediately. Don’t make them wait. This isn’t dating. There’s no reason to be coy, but you shouldn’t stalk either. If you ask consumers to fill out a form for more information, only ask questions you absolutely need them to answer in order to make initial contact with them. If part of that information includes them giving you their phone number, then pick up the phone and call them back immediately. Doing so in less than one minute after receiving an inquiry can more than double conversion rates. Unfortunately, this is all too often where leads go to die. You’ve succeeded at getting consumers through the funnel to a point where they give you their contact information, only to keep them waiting. You’ve placed an ad on the right channel with the right message. Don’t lose that momentum while you’re already ahead.

If you’re following where I’m going with this, be sure your digital advertising spend is less about generating more leads and more about generating the right leads. This may be a lot to grasp at first because we’ve all become accustomed to measuring success through volume-based “vanity metrics” (more leads, more clicks, more impressions). Unfortunately, volume rarely equates to ROI. Why? Think of it this way: what’s the point of generating hundreds of leads if none of them actually convert? (Hint: it’s a waste of time and budget!)

Brands need to refocus their digital ad budgets on targeting only the most profitable customers or, more simply, the consumers who will generate the greatest overall lifetime value. There’s plenty of data and insights available to pinpoint and find the exact consumers we want to reach. So, in all honesty, knowing what resources are available to us to ensure every digital advertising campaign we run gets us closer to our most desired and relevant consumers, it seems silly that we’re still talking about wasted leads today. With the right planning, it’s avoidable.

To bring this idea around the “profitable customer” to life, I’m going to use an example from a talk I gave at LeadsCon Las Vegas earlier this year. USAA worked with LQ Digital to test paid search performance for a campaign effort intended to help veterans to purchase a home using their VA loan benefit. The goal was to reach VA-eligible veterans who weren’t already USAA members in a cost-effective way. So, that’s what we did – and LQ made it possible to track leads at every stage of the funnel, from initial search to loan purchase, to help us understand if we were, in fact, reaching the right customers at the right time.

Fortunately, we know a lot about what our members care about most and, from past campaigns, have learned what converts the best whenever we’ve got a new offer to share. For this campaign specifically, we worked with LQ to create a number of assets, from paid search ads to landing pages, that we knew would generate both interest and a response. Given the intensity and time-sensitive nature of this kind of purchase, we knew that adding things like call-back phone numbers on search ads (desktop and mobile) and providing a form to fill out on the landing pages would be most effective.

Here’s an interesting curveball (but something you should ultimately see less as a curveball and more like a best practice). Although the foundations of this campaign were built almost purely on digital, the magic really happened when a customer picked up the phone. During the run of this campaign, we saw the majority of qualified leads come from click-to-call (CTC) inbound mobile calls. These drove the highest conversion rates – more than desktop and mobile clicks – as well as a lower overall cost-per-lead (CPL). Additionally, of those consumers who clicked through and filled out the inquiry form on the landing page, our member service representatives were standing by to call them back immediately. Who knew that using online to drive offline conversion would be such a success?

Long story short: a solid digital customer acquisition strategy isn’t necessarily digital-only. Digital advertising alone is effective at getting the right consumers into the purchase funnel; a real conversation can move them through the funnel. Mobile CTC conversion rates alone speak volumes about the impact real human-to-human interaction can make to close a sale or win a new customer. Never discount the phone; it could be your greatest lead conversion asset.

To wrap this up, it’s safe to say that digital advertising isn’t really effective unless you:

  1. Know your target audience (“profitable customers”)
  2. Understand where they spend their digital time
  3. Develop (and test) messages that resonate most
  4. Be ready to pick up the phone when they call or make an inquiry
  5. Track and measure ROAS at every stage of the campaign journey

While this may seem like a simple recipe for success, many brands still make a number of avoidable missteps that ultimately lead to waste – wasted budget, wasted leads, wasted effort. Digital advertising can work hard for your brand as long as you take the time to set your campaigns up for success.


  • Call Center Services
  • Optimization
  • Paid Search