Are marketing budgets on autopilot?

by Míchéal Reddington, Head of Direct Business, ResearchGate Marketing Solutions

Marketing leaders in the science sector could not have predicted how much the coronavirus pandemic would change the way each of us lives and works — or how we interact with brands and make buying decisions. As physical events and in-person sales became difficult or impossible, marketers were forced to pivot to online tactics, causing an unprecedented focus on digital content.

With print and broadcast media no longer resonating with customers to the extent they once did, and the digital fatigue caused by our current circumstances, finding unique and effective ways to engage potential customers can be a challenge.

Science brands can look at the situation in one of two ways. They can plan their marketing activities based on current ideas of what works and what doesn’t, hoping everything returns to normal as quickly as possible. Or they can take this opportunity to reimagine their strategies with a goal of improving outcomes and successfully reaching audiences in this new world.

Challenge the status quo

But where to begin? We suggest putting traditional strategies up for discussion. Normally, large brands and agencies rely on standard metrics like click-through-rate (CTR), attribution, and A/B testing to understand which content lands best. The vast majority of advertising budgets are directed towards programmatic ads, with this figure sitting above 80% in the UK and US, and forecast to increase. It’s not difficult to see why: targeting prospects based on what sites they visited on a certain device allows companies to reach relevant audiences and achieve impressive CTRs.

However, when analyzed in isolation, these metrics can give advertisers a false sense of security over what is working and what isn’t. For example, it is possible that a high CTR is being achieved by successfully engaging the individuals the advertiser had in mind. However, it is also possible that a high CTR is the result of content that performs well with a general audience, but which fails to engage the specific job titles or personas that are likely to convert into sales. It is true that specifying the specific websites on which the programmatic advertising should appear can partially address this. Yet, even then it leaves open the possibility that an ad performs best with the audiences that matter least.

Relying solely on the CTR doesn’t provide the feedback needed to make this distinction until it is too late. Therefore, the best approach is by obtaining first-party data by reserving a portion of the budget to advertise directly on platforms contextually relevant to the target audience. This first-party data can be consulted alongside CTRs to gain an appreciation of what actions an advert is driving amongst specific target personas.

If the first party data indicates a good response from these then companies can then be confident in harnessing programmatic advertising to rapidly broadcast that message far and wide. If, on the other hand, the metrics are less than satisfactory, then advertisers can change up the content. It’s about unlocking hugely valuable feedback before it is too late, with a marginal change in how and where budgets are being spent.

Advertise where contextually relevant

Consider Amanda, a potential prospect. She is a scientist, and her nine-to-five consists of working in a lab, as well as writing, reading, and reviewing research papers. She’s also a new mother, and has to take care of her little one by feeding them the right foods. On top of this, she’s a keen jogger and needs comfortable, high-quality activewear to pursue her hobby. To a general interest advertising platform such as Google or Facebook she is simultaneously a target customer for a company selling research lab equipment, one selling baby food, and one selling sportswear.

While Amanda cares about scientific research, child nutrition, and fitness, she is unlikely to be equally interested in all of them all at the same time. In fact, as someone working exclusively from home during a global pandemic it is likely that now more than ever she will want to maintain some form of distinction between her work and home life.

For this reason she is most likely to engage with content from a potential lab equipment supplier when reading a research paper on ResearchGate. Whereas, she’s most likely to respond favourably to an advert for running shoes while browsing a fitness app on her phone. In each case, it’s possible she’ll be in the right frame of mind when she is targeted by these advertisers by a mainstream social media platform. Yet, those advertisers are taking a risk that could be avoided by incorporating specialist platforms into their campaigns. It requires a little more effort but guarantees contextual relevance. Thereby generating better results.

Prioritize audience intent

In a content-saturated world science companies' marketing strategies need to respond to digital fatigue in a work-from-home environment — and understand that purely horizontal spend might not be the most effective way to invest their budget. Embracing specialist vertical channels, in addition to mainstream sites, can attract potential customers in contextually relevant environments, in a moment that is most pertinent to influencing their buying behavior. And it can help companies unearth insightful information, empowering them to fine-tune their strategies and thrive in this challenging landscape.

As outlined above, it is easy to fall into the trap of operating on autopilot and putting too much faith in CTRs alone as a measure of advertising performance. However, dedicating a portion of the existing advertising spend to working with specialized platforms can act as an important check and balance. Brands can leverage each publisher’s unique first party data, allowing them to test out specific messages and to understand prospect intent more accurately. Those insights can then be viewed alongside CTRs to optimise the performance of those same assets wherever they are used.
Michéal is the Head of Direct Business at ResearchGate Marketing Solutions. ResearchGate is the most visited platform in science worldwide--offering the reach and relevance important to marketers and advertisers working in the STEM sector.