Addressing the Myth “If It’s Digital, It’s Cheap”

There seems to be the perception among some marketers that “if it’s digital, it’s cheap.” If you find yourself among this group, don’t worry, you’re not alone. And you’re not entirely wrong, either. Compared to traditional media, some digital tactics are indeed less expensive. But it’s important to look at why this perception exists, what parts of it are true, and what parts are not true.

Which part of “digital” is cheap?

Before we can dispel or confirm the idea that digital is cheap, we need to define “digital.” From a marketing perspective, the term covers a lot of ground. And over the last decade or so, the definition has grown and evolved to include everything from social media to content marketing.

Is “digital” social media? Yes. Is it email marketing? Yes. Is it your company website? Yes. You get the picture. It’s anything and everything that uses the web as the delivery vehicle. So when someone says “digital is cheap” are they talking about developing a new company website or Tweeting about their latest product? Obviously, there’s quite a difference in development time and cost. So where did this overall notion that “digital is cheap” come from, anyway?

The get-rich-quick viral video phenomenon

When YouTube really started gaining ground about a decade ago, we had an ag client ask if we could create a “viral video” for them that would garner millions of views at very little cost. Something so engaging that people would be compelled to share it with their friends and it would spread like wildfire around the globe. They had read the rags-to-riches stories and we had all watched the videos. But the content of those videos usually involved kittens, babies, slipping-on-banana-peel mishaps or wardrobe malfunctions. Typically, they didn’t showcase the features and benefits of a particular farm product. Would the client be willing to sponsor something a little more entertainment-heavy than product-focused? And even then, we explained it was a long shot. That no one can predict what content might go viral in a big way. The conversation, and their interest, soon lost steam.

The YouTube rags-to-riches phenomenon not only helps shed light on the origins of the “digital is cheap” perception, it also points to the importance of quality content. You can’t bore people into buying your product. Whether you’re producing YouTube videos or web content, you need to offer something more than a list of your product features and benefits. You need to be either entertaining or extremely relevant. And, you need to do it well. Which leads to another source for the “digital is cheap” perception: poorly executed, on-the-cheap digital strategy and execution.

The kid in the basement

We live in a YouTube culture, where anyone with a computer and an internet connection can become a publisher or digital “expert.” How many times have you heard someone say they knew a “computer whiz” who could design you a website for $5,000 in his basement? We’ve heard it. But we also know that not every kid in his basement turns out to be a Steve Jobs or Bill Gates.

Today, the problem isn’t just the “kid in the basement.” We’ve moved on to what may look, on the surface at least, a little more respectful and legitimate. These are the “digital marketers” who promise great results with their $500/month package. The problem starts with a “one-size-fits-all” strategy. Sorry to say, but there is no off-the-shelf solution to improving your organic search ranking. It requires expertise in your content strategy in addition to staying current to Google’s rules and practices.

We’ve also seen a lot of poorly designed websites from these template-driven companies, with little to no functionality. We’ve seen meaningless content for content’s sake. Bad design. And bad grammar. Good web designers, content creators, user experience consultants and digital strategists are rare. And unfortunately, you get what you pay for.

A thing worth doing is worth doing right

Cheap but poorly executed digital can actually end up being costly in the long run. For example, you could fail to reach your target audience by not being optimized correctly or by being on the wrong platform. Or you could lose the opportunity for customer engagement on a website with poor functionality and bad user experience. (Research shows that 40 percent of users will abandon a website that takes more than three seconds to load. Even a one-second delay decreases customer satisfaction by nearly 16 percent.)

Some costs are not as easily measured. For example, websites that are outdated, visually unappealing or have poor functionality can affect how consumers view the brand. Your digital presence is a direct reflection of your brand. If it looks cheap or outdated, then that’s how consumers will likely see you.

Digital isn’t cheaper. But the ROI can be better.

Good digital marketing can actually be more expensive at the outset than traditional media, but if done correctly, it can end up with much higher and more measurable returns.

A smart social media strategy, for example, can deliver a CPM at a fraction of the cost of traditional media. It can be more engaging/interactive and more measurable, too. But depending on the category and the audience you’re trying to reach, social media may only go so far.

In the ag sector, growers aren’t getting their product information from Facebook posts. They still depend on traditional print as their number one source for new product news. But they do visit company websites to get more information, and they are active in online forums and communities. So optimizing your online presence is still a smart investment.

We hope we’ve helped dispel the myth that digital is, by definition, cheap. And that we’ve shed some light on why it could be a costly mistake to approach your digital strategy with “cheap” in mind. We do believe that a thing worth doing is worth doing right. And that expertise and careful planning can make your digital dollar go a lot further.