What role does creative play in digital marketing?

August 11, 2021


With fewer targeting capabilities on digital ad platforms and with more companies saturating the market with content, it can be hard to stand out from the noise. That’s why the creative elements of a marketing campaign are critical. In this episode, Emily Bliss shares her perspective on:

  • the role creative plays in marketing today
  • how to combat ad fatigue among your audience
  • examples of campaigns measuring creative performance
  • three key methods to measure and test

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John Tyreman:  Hi gang. Welcome to The Digital Marketing Troop, where we go in the trenches to help you learn more about digital marketing. I’m your host, John Tyreman, and I am joined today by Emily Bliss, Director of Client Services at Silverback Strategies, and I am super pumped for our conversation today because I really believe that creative is going to play a more important role in digital marketing in the future, and I’m just so excited to jump into this conversation. But Emily, before we really do, I just have a quick question for you. So you’re from New York State, right, like upstate New York?

Emily Bliss: Upstate, upstate. 

John Tyreman:  Have you heard of the dish spiedies? 

Emily Bliss:  Oh yeah, absolutely. There’s Spiedie Fest. That was an annual thing for my family. You’d go, you’d be able… you’d go to the park and Binghamton, you get a bunch of spiedies and then you’d watch the hot air balloons. Absolutely, that’s the thing. Have you had it?

John Tyreman:  Yes, my mom’s side of the family is from New York State so she brought that down and she was, you know, we would have spiedies for Easter. And it was like a family tradition. But every time I asked people about spiedies and they’re not… they don’t have any ties to New York, “what the heck are you talking about”.

Emily Bliss:  Right.

John Tyreman: So I just, I just had to share that with you. 

Emily Bliss:  Oh absolutely, absolutely. That is a good memory. 

John Tyreman:  So Emily let’s, let’s dive into our topic at hand. So performance creative. Let’s start here.  What role does creative play in digital marketing today?

Emily Bliss:  Right. So there’s obviously a lot of elements at play in your digital marketing campaigns but creative is really more than half the battle. And it’s even growing in its importance. And the reason being, this is the attention economy, and humans only have so much of it to provide. We’re trying to get their attention in the feed. And, you know, same as we’re doing it, other creators, other businesses, their friends and families are all trying to get their intention at any given time. So that old adage of meeting the audience at the right place, right time, right message, continues to be critical, although yes cliche, marketers that aren’t working to always understand where that sweet spot is are definitely missing out because creative is remarkably important in your campaigns.

John Tyreman:  So you say marketers aren’t always working to find that sweet spot. Are they just lazy? Why don’t you think marketers are more proactive about that?

Emily Bliss:  Well, I think, I mean, the sweet spot is also a gray area. And I think maybe it could be a discomfort from hanging out in that space of a little bit of this, a little bit of that and let’s try a little bit of this and we’re getting closer. But if you focus on just one of those elements, you know you’ve nailed one, you’re very confident there. And maybe that’s more of a comfort level. But when you throw in the other ingredients, it can get a little gray and it can get a little fuzzy and maybe it’s just that a lot of marketers aren’t comfortable there, which I don’t blame them. You know, marketing is not a space where the gray area is celebrated and loose metrics are appreciated.

John Tyreman:  Yeah, that gray area can take marketers outside of their comfort zone. So, you know, speaking of gray area, there’s a lot of change going on, on platforms like Google and Facebook right now, with fewer demographic insights. I was talking to TJ James the other day about that – viewer audience targeting capabilities. How do you think this will impact the role of creative in digital marketing?

Emily Bliss:  Right. I mean, very simply put, we used to be able to make creative assumptions based on some of that demographic data that we were using. And some of it was, you know, stereotypical things, but nonetheless they were in our toolbox, and it was easy to get pulled out and gravitate toward them. But we’ll instead have to rely on creative testing. So you could have used that demographic data to influence your creative strategy, you know, different messaging or creative based on age, gender, location, job title. All of that would have been easily in your toolbox and something quick to lean on and incorporate, but we’re not going to have that benefit anymore. But honestly, that’s…I think that’s a good thing. And there’s a lot of really good articles and reading out there about how some of these broad segmentations, you know, that were historically made, they don’t really account for the diversity of consumers. And they can also come across as fairly tone deaf. So, maybe that’s a good thing that we’re being forced out of some of those targeting capabilities that would have been, you know, seemingly this direct link to a creative output, when in reality now we can really, you know, make space for that diversity of consumers and how they buy.

John Tyreman:  So I suppose it would be wise for companies, so they can avoid being tone deaf, to really have a deep understanding of their buyers or at least do their market research to understand their buyers. So how does this understanding, if the targeting capabilities, those aren’t there at their marketers disposal, how does that understanding of your audience translate visually into creative elements?

Emily Bliss:  It starts with… I mean, frankly, it kind of starts with your best guess, which can be any historical data that you do have. Any, you know, third party research that you understand out there. And then, you know, putting that together and starting an iterative process in all of your creative testing. So that’s going to be critical for you to understand how you can get to your true north and really nailing that audience. So it really comes down to the testing.

John Tyreman:  And you mentioned volume of creative. So I’m assuming that with ad fatigue playing a factor that means that these creative elements on any given campaign will need to be refreshed at a higher rate, no?

Emily Bliss:  Absolutely. Yeah, because it’s not, you know, we talk about the quality of your creative, you know through testing, but to find that quality you need to feed quantity into the system to understand what’s going to be quality. So you know, you can’t just have one test and take that as gospel. It’s important to map out how many tests you can run, and how many are valuable and once you feed that system the volume that it needs to be valuable, then you’ll be able to land on that quality creative, so you’ll get those you know directional results.

John Tyreman:  I could see how that would present a resource challenge. So if these creative elements are refreshed at a higher rate, I’d assume that increases the demand for creatives like graphic designers, videographers, copywriters. From what I can tell there’s a lot of creative professionals who freelance and scaling up creative for these companies means managing more of those kinds of resources. Do you think that’ll become a headache for companies trying to run ads themselves?

Emily Bliss:  Oh absolutely and, you know, and it’s funny, it’s not just managing those resources. Yes, I said that testing creative quality means focusing on quantity, but let’s add another layer of complexity. Your quantity also has to be quality. You have to… this is like a nesting dolls scenario. So it’s not just managing the resources and getting the sheer volume of nonsense. It’s really about having that long term creative strategy that dictates what tests are being run for which duration, which platforms, how are we prioritizing our tests, because when you map that all out, you’ll get to quantity, you’ll get volume, but it needs to be thoughtful. Otherwise, you’ve kind of missed the, you know, missed the boat there.

John Tyreman:  So for our listeners who might want to learn by real examples, do you have a tangible example you could share of a project or campaign that you’ve worked on where you’ve measured the impact of creative or run some of these tests?

Emily Bliss:  Right, right. Yeah absolutely. So this one, you know, it was a very upper funnel campaign that we had this kind of creative hunch about, so the actual product itself is not fun to look at. It’s rather bland and rather boring. However, the sandbox in which it lives is very lifestyle, aspirational. So we had this creative hunch that we tested with the photography and videography, we removed the actual product from the video, and instead use only lifestyle imagery and videography, that are kind of tangential to the product. So it’s that aspirational vibe that you’re going for, and we were just trying to see if that would resonate. I mean, frankly, we were trying to see are they going to understand, are they going to make that leap, can people still take an action, without us having to incorporate this drab product that frankly kind of limits your ability to get that aspirational tone or incorporate some of those words that you want to try and strike reaction? And we did in fact find improvement in view rate. So it was really very interesting. Now is it something that we carried through to all other marketing initiatives? Not necessarily, actually. What it really was more for us at that time, was just something we wanted to try. It falls right into line with the Silverback… you know, hey, this might sound crazy but what if we…? And we gave it a go, and we tried to see, is this something that in the future if we’re ever feeling boxed in by our limited creatively by the product, we have this other route that worked in the past, and we could always try it again.

John Tyreman:  So you mentioned view rate as a performance indicator of that test. Are there other ways… what other ways can marketers measure the impact of these creative tests on their campaigns?

Emily Bliss:  Right, that’s, I mean that’s critical. And I’ll tell you, anyone who, if anyone who knows me, has known me for even a short amount of time, makes it this far into this episode, they’ll laugh at this. I’m constantly using this example, and think it was Einstein who said, “If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will spend its entire life thinking that it’s stupid”. And the reason that that’s important in marketing, see I’m even laughing at myself. The reason that that’s important in marketing is, you can’t judge something by a KPI that it was never designed to achieve. You have got to give it its best shot. Otherwise, you know, it was never going to hold a candle to it. So anyway, there’s a lot of ways you can measure the impact of creative. So you could start looking at your method of delivery, platforms, formats of creative. Now that’s not always going to be apples to apples. You can’t do a, you know, view rate on a static image isn’t gonna work for a video, but not always apples to apples but it can, you know, broaden your approach. You could get some, once again, directional feedback, which can sometimes… that directional feedback can be really powerful in just unlocking your creativity, in unlocking the, “we’ve got a new avenue that we can explore”. You could also use motivating elements you know, what hook are you using in your either captions or actual text, or voiceovers? Have you considered using maybe a different value prop that resonates with audiences? There’s a lot of really interesting psychology, around those different motivating factors, so you could always test those against one another. And then also, there’s another method of storytelling. This is another one that’s not always an apples to apples but, what’s an example here?  You know, visuals of the product, like I mentioned. What if you’re using social proof and reviews? Maybe you’re throwing in a celebrity endorsement. So those are different methods of storytelling that one thing may not be an apples to apples test against one another, but could be directional. So, you know that directional feedback can help you get those future iterations and, like I said, unlock potentially some creative ideas you didn’t have before.

John Tyreman:  Well that’s really interesting. So obviously it’s going to depend on the volume but on average how long does it take to collect a significant enough sample so you can get that directional feedback?

Emily Bliss:  Oh man, that’s a million dollar question and I know my paid media and analytics counterparts would probably go to bat at this one as well. I have to say it, it all depends. It really all depends. One of the things though that I do like to greet if at all possible is, can we lean into some type of seasonality with your business? Do you have a stretch of a few months where we’ve got some historical data of what we know what to expect in terms of volume online, you know, in the digital campaigns because we could use that punctuated moment in time, to lead into a test. So, you know, I think it definitely all depends. It depends on your spend, the competition in that space. But I think the longer the better. We certainly don’t want to go, you know, a couple days isn’t gonna cut it.

John Tyreman:  I really like that example of leading into seasonality because most businesses, not all, but most businesses have a busy seasonor busy seasons. There’s different points in time where demand is higher. Now that obviously it will take longer calendar time to be able to perform that test, learn the results, prep for the next busy season. I guess we’ve got a little bit more runway now with I guess Google kicking the can on delaying their plan to block third party cookies. You know that seems to be a moving target so it’s giving marketers and advertisers a little bit more time to kind of look at their campaigns and perform these kinds of tests. When you’re talking to clients who want to do these tests, does that timeline play a role? What does that conversation look like?

Emily Bliss:  Yeah, so that the timeline definitely plays a role but we don’t want to use it as an excuse to, you know, for inaction, or inactivity. And sometimes leaning into that seasonality, whether or not it’s as strict in their business as it is perhaps some other ones. Sometimes it’s just a nice stake in the ground that we can work toward, or you know work backward from. Because with large initiatives like this, you know, I’m talking about mapping out creative tests over a long period of time, and of course getting the inventory to perform them, it can be so daunting that we actually never start. You know, you’re just paralyzed and then there’s no activity there. So leaning into something like seasonality or working backwards from something like, you know, Google says it’s going to do this so we better start, you know better understanding, we’ve got some gaps to fill. Sometimes it’ll be just a goalpost to work toward. And there’s a lot of power in that as well. Yeah, those conversations definitely play a role but we try to use it more as, okay, you got lucky. We need to get moving. Rather than, oh we can wait.

John Tyreman:  Yeah, it seems to be sort of a catalyst. I guess it could be used as such. Well Emily, is there anything about performance creative, I know that we are coming up on our time here. Is there anything about performance creative that we didn’t cover that you think would be important for our listeners to know?

Emily Bliss:  You know, I think, and I’ve said it a few times, there’s a few tactics to do it… embrace it, lean in, start somewhere. It’s gonna take time, like you said, it’s gonna take a lot of time to get the inputs, run the test, measure the results, but you’ve got to start somewhere. It’s a really exciting, very exciting time. And, you know, we believe that clever creative, born of intent, aligned with what audiences are doing and looking for is definitely what will win the day. And we’re very excited with clients that may feel a little paralyzed by it but we’re definitely right there to help them dig in and figure out how we can start learning immediately.

John Tyreman:  Clever creative born of intent, I like that. Is that just kind of a nicer way of saying that creatives are going to need to be more competitive or embrace data and be more analytics oriented?

Emily Bliss:  I think so, yeah. Well it’s a, it’s the combination, you know, clever creative, and so it’s decent, obviously. It’s gonna stop, like I said, attention economy, you’ve gotta be stopping people in the feeds at some point. But that born of intent is critical. If you are not aligned with where your audience is at in their journey, you’re missing them. You’re missing them entirely. So I think this is, once again, the balance between left brain and right brain, and to bring it all back too, it’s that gray area that a lot of people aren’t comfortable in, but we can definitely find some harmony.

John Tyreman:  The balance between left and right brain. Hemispheric lateralization, that’s what it’s called in psychology terms. Gosh that’s, that is the key. That is the key right there.

Emily Bliss:  That is it and that’s what I’m always telling my, you know, paid media and analytics guys, like creative brings something different to the table. It’s equal – left brain, right brain. We all got to work together to move forward, so.

John Tyreman:  We’ve all got a row in the same direction if we’re all in the same boat. Well Emily, thank you so much for taking the time to be on this podcast episode with me to talk about performance creative. It is the future. If listeners want to connect with you and learn more about performance creative, where can they find you?

Emily Bliss:  Absolutely. So you can definitely find me on LinkedIn, always looking to share compelling creative that’s interesting. So, I always love to talk about it but performance creative and this combination of, you know, digital marketing and analytics and creative is something that Silverback blog has tons of great content on, how paid and creative teams can work together. So that’s something that we have always been very passionate about. So there’s a lot of good stuff there about how to strike that balance. And then also, you know, the Troop Podcast. I know that I’m bringing one side to the table but sounds like you spoke with TJ, which I know was definitely good. So I know there’s going to be, you know, forthcoming episodes, all about these changes.

John Tyreman:  Yeah, we’ve got some great episodes lined up. I talked with Haley Nininger the other day about Google kicking the can on third party cookies. That was an episode, if listeners are listening to this right now and they haven’t listened to that episode, I highly recommend going back and checking that out. But, Emily, thank you so much for the kind words. Thank you so much for your time, and I’m sure that we’ll be talking again on the Troop Podcast. 

Emily Bliss:  Absolutely. Thanks John. 

John Tyreman:  If you found this podcast episode insightful, please subscribe, tell a friend and leave a rating and review. And to learn more, head on over to silverbackstrategies.com where we have a wealth of digital marketing insights on our blog and Resource Center. We’ll see you next time on The Digital Marketing Troop.