Since re-entering academia, my thoughts have turned to digital marketing research - partly, because that's what you're supposed to do as a University lecturer, and partly because I have been (and continue to be) genuinely interested in it!
After all, your marketing activity ought to be underpinned by research and data rather than just stabbing around randomly in the dark or basing it on your opinions.
But there's a problem with digital marketing research - and I haven't yet satisfactorily resolved it. From my current observations, there seem to be two strands of research in digital:
On the one hand, you have academic research (e.g. digital marketing research papers in books, peer-reviewed journals, etc.). On the other hand, there is industry research, which tends to consist of surveys or reports undertaken by digital marketing companies, service providers and agencies e.g. Adobe, Google, etc.
The question is: Which of these is more valid, important, relevant, useful, in regard to effective digital marketing in the real world? Which will make you thrive in the digital economy, and what research should you draw on and engage with for maximum digital marketing success?
Over the last few months, I have been trying to walk what I have sometimes felt is a tightrope between ivory towers (i.e. academic digital marketing research) and the real world of industry data-driven insight and research. I'm lucky in that my employer, RGU Aberdeen, is definitely NOT an ivory tower type institution, and instead rates practical applicability highly!
Yet, being exposed to the professional context of academia has led me to questioning the efficacy of the current academic approach. It's left me wondering about the relevance and purpose of digital marketing research at Universities and in Higher Education - especially when compared to the approach taken and research published by industry.
Digital Marketing research in Higher Education
There isn't much, and much of what I've found so far is out of date. I've seen textbooks still using Friends Reunited as an example of a success story and using terms such as netizen or referring to 'web 2.0' (seriously, is ANYONE still using the term web 2.0?). Another example is a very recent journal article talking about how to grow and engage fans on Facebook (really? That stuff was cutting edge about 3 years ago).
I'm not completely criticising academia here - some of these issues are due to the fast-paced change of digital. Take the example of how to create Facebook engagement above - the journal article is likely to be out of date already due to the recent Facebook algorithm update which means organic (free) reach and therefore brand visibility in the Facebook news feed is going to decline considerably - unless you pay.
The same could be said for articles about search engine marketing - imagine completing an academic paper on Google and SEO just before Panda and Penguin 😀 ! By the time it's being published, it's already out of date.
I've summed up below what I consider the current advantages and disadvantages of academic digital marketing research:
- unbiased / objective (due to academic rigour i.e. the peer-review system and so on)
- authoritative (the academic discourse / context ought to have weighting in terms of e.g. influencing policy government, business etc.)
- contribution to knowledge (Universities generate, create, and guard knowledge and research - and that's a good thing)
- quickly outdated
- considerable time delay between research and publishing (due to systems of peer-review, book publishing timelines, etc.)
- inaccessible (journal articles, books etc. are mostly not freely available)
- quality of knowledge can vary - risk of applying marketing theories to digital without living a digital life
- researchers stuck in the past (example: a famous University's Marketing lecturers with no or very poor Linkedin profiles. This is more common than you might think! How can a professor of Marketing at a prestigious University have no Linkedin profile? This really doesn't make him or her look credible in 2013! As William Gibson puts it: "The future is already here, it's just not evenly distributed.").
Overall, I feel that Universities haven't been very successful at addressing the challenges of how to do digital marketing research - including how to deal with the fast-paced nature of change, and how to counter the (comparatively) slow nature of academic or peer-reviewed publishing.
It also looks like much of the research is inaccessible and hidden behind the equivalent of paywalls - again not the best idea in the digital economy and our knowledge society. Last but not least, there is the simple issue of lack of knowledge, skills and understanding.
Digital Marketing research by the industry
Much of what I know I know through free resources, and this includes digital marketing papers and articles by companies, software and service providers.
There is excellent work out there such as the recent big content piece by distilled, Brandopolis. This stuff is good and highly relevant to digital marketing research and practice, and shouldn't be disregarded or rated less highly, just because it didn't appear in an academic journal or book.
I'm perhaps more open that most in my acceptance of 'non-academic' sources in that my PhD focused on online video (before the advent of YouTube), and back then there was hardly any digital research out there. As a consequence I drew considerably on what I could find online i.e. outwith actual established academic discourse - I WAS the academic discourse or at least helped create it.
This experience and my subsequent professional career made me believe that it's vital to be part and parcel of what it is you're talking about if you want to talk about it authoritatively - you can't be outside looking in, as you just won't 'get it'.
It reminds me of the anthropological research method of 'participatory interaction' first deployed by cultural anthropologists such as Margaret Mead and Claude Lévi-Strauss in the first half of the 20th century, who went to live with 'primitive' cultures in order to research them. In the same vein, I'd argue there is a 'digitally native' culture out there and if you want to understand it or research it, you have to be part of it, otherwise you'll be forever on the outside looking in. Like the Marketing professors of the famous research University mentioned earlier.
My point is: You can't just learn about digital marketing by reading about it, and why would you?
You can't learn how to be a car mechanic by reading about cars either! Or indeed how to operate on a human being by reading a medicine textbook.
With that in mind, here are what I consider to be the advantages and disadvantages of digital marketing research by the industry:
- mostly free and easily accessible
- practice-based (i.e. often from actual campaigns, drawing on real data, etc)
- current, agile, and up-to-date
- knowledge from the inside
- not neutral / biased (since companies often have a vested interest in the research outcomes - similar to e.g. 'pharmaceutical research' by a big multinational pharmaceutical company whose interest is selling their latest medicine)
- quality can vary considerably / little quality control
- hard to verify accuracy
To conclude, my current thinking is that it shouldn't matter whether digital marketing research was conducted at University or not. The key consideration should be - does the research make us more effective and efficient, and more successful at marketing in the digital age?
If yes we should use it, draw on it, and write about it!
Another thought crossed my mind just as I'm reaching the end of this TL;DR blog post: maybe the reason why I haven't found any decent academic digital marketing research yet is because it's all hiding in expensive books and inaccessible journal articles or behind paywalls.
Digital marketing research is certainly a topic that I'll be revisiting in the future. I also hope to contribute either myself or via my students to the development of relevant, timely and freely available quality research in this area. Research that really makes a difference!
It may well be that my students will turn out to be the key people here - after all, they are mostly digitally native these days, plus, they will be happy about building their brand and getting some exposure, sharing their knowledge and research on this blog (and YES, some of them are really SWITCHED ON!).
After all, personal branding is extremely important in this day and age - and what better way to kick-start your career in digital marketing than getting some decent exposure online, showing your ideas and digital marketing excellence, and getting some visibility in Google's search results for your personal brand!