The Digital Shelf

It is perfectly obvious that the only marketing activity that influences the sale of detergent is the number of facings in the store. The shopper goes to the store, they are arrested by the display and they buy. As a consequence the entire marketing budget should be expended on securing that shelf space.

Given this quite obvious correlation between the last pre-purchase exposure to the brand and the purchase itself it is perhaps surprising that the brand’s owners do not allocate budgets in this way and instead spend significant amounts of money all the way back from the shelf to the living room of the prospective buyer. They do this because they know, through a heady cocktail of regression analysis and common sense, that multiple contact points contribute to the emotional and rational preconditions for purchase.

These days we call this attribution modelling. We attempt to ascribe values to actions and attempt to create a communications recipe from assorted ingredients in order to create the intended outcome. This is not to underestimate the value of shelf space and most brand owners do not.

More puzzling is what to do about digital shelf space. It’s been said by wiser commentators than me that the results pages of search engines are very often the first digital touch point for brands and this has been extrapolated to describing those very results as shelf space. In the event that the shelf puts the consumer a click away from a transaction, this description has resonance. When it does not the analogy fades in both accuracy and relevance yet in both cases there is an assumption among the sellers of search clicks that budget allocation should start with them and only go to other channels when sufficient funds are allocated to capture every available click.

This represents a compound fallacy. First, wider marketing activity drives clicks; second, a huge quantity of consumer interaction with brands remains unmediated by search and third, if all marketers drank the same Kool Aid with the suggested vigor the results would be an inflationary spiral and an unwinnable game.

Search strategy is brand specific, it requires a determination of how and why people become aware of brands and of the path to preference and purchase. It requires knowledge of the brand’s channels to market and of the relative influence of each touchpoint. The focus needs to be on share of wallet in the category and not on share of clicks. The binary nature of search metrics is seductive but not everything that seduces you is good for you.

This is not the first time this blog has mused on this topic and it won’t be the last. Search has costs and it has opportunity costs. The attraction is that the costs are incurred against actions rather than exposures. The opportunity cost is related to those options you decline in order to fund those actions.

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