Why Traditional Marketing Hasn’t Died

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After reading a newspaper account of his illness or death, Mark Twain famously wrote, “The report of my death was an exaggeration.” We can make a similar statement about the health of traditional advertising and marketing techniques.

It’s been fashionable for several years to predict the impending demise of traditional advertising and marketing tactics such as TV, radio, and print ads. Marketing thought leaders have advanced this view in many of the best-known and most influential marketing books published during the past two-plus decades. Some of the notable examples include The One to One Future by Don Peppers and Martha Rogers, Permission Marketing by Seth Godin, The New Rules of Marketing and PR, by David Meerman Scott, and Inbound Marketing by Brian Halligan and Dharmesh Shah.

Based on these predictions (and many others like them), we would expect to see the use of traditional advertising and marketing methods in a free fall, but that hasn’t happened. ZenithOptimedia recently estimated that global advertising spending will grow 4.9% in 2015 and reach $545 billion by the end of this year. Magna Global has predicted that global ad spending will grow 4.8% in 2015 to $536 billion.

So, were all of the well-respected marketing thought leaders simply wrong? Not completely. Research clearly shows that digital marketing, content marketing, social media marketing, and inbound marketing are the fastest growing segments of the marketing industry. And to some extent, these segments are growing at the expense of more traditional marketing methods and channels.

It’s also clear, however, that many companies – particularly larger enterprises – are not close to abandoning traditional advertising and marketing methods.

Companies are still using traditional methods and channels for several reasons. First, there’s a lot of inertia in large organizations, and the primary cause of the inertia is fear. Even when company leaders recognize the need for change, fear of the unknown and/or fear of making a mistake will cause them to implement changes gradually and incrementally.

But more importantly, companies are still using traditional advertising and marketing methods because they still work. They may not work as well today as they did in the Mad Men era, but they are still more effective than some marketing thought leaders would like to admit.

Traditional advertising and marketing methods still work because they benefit from several deeply-ingrained characteristics of human judgment and decision making. For example, numerous studies by psychologists have demonstrated that the more often something (an idea, an image, a brand or product, etc.) is presented to people, the more they tend to like it. Psychologists refer to this phenomenon as the mere exposure effect.

The mere exposure effect exists because we humans have a natural tendency to prefer things that are familiar and therefore are easier to mentally process. As I discussed in an earlier post, the psychological equation is familiar = easy to process = good (or true or safe). And mere repetition produces familiarity.

Equally important, research also shows that the mere exposure effect operates – and may even be more powerful – when we aren’t consciously aware that a message or other stimulus is being repeated.

The mere exposure effect explains why repetitive advertising and marketing messages like TV and radio commercials and print ads can influence our attitudes and preferences even when we believe that we are paying little or no attention to those messages. The existence of the mere exposure effect also provides part of the explanation for why traditional advertising and marketing methods still work.

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