The Digital Delusion and What to Do About it

By 2020, more than $117 billion will be spent on digital and mobile advertising in the U.S. In the first half of 2018, brands spent more than $13.1 billion. And as college bound populations shrink, shift and are out priced by some in-state rates, I predict marketing budgets – in online and social – will increase in our industry, as well.

And why not? We are given the same recycled insights that Millennials and Gen Z want personalized content and would “more than likely” click on ads that are relevant. Removing the issues with most of those survey questions, digital/mobile continues to dominate time spent with media data. As we begin our marketing and recruitment planning, it would be an obvious oversight not to increase our digital marketing budgets to compete in share of voice.

In an effort to further our objectives, we need to rethink digital advertising (A term I will use as a catch-all for both online and social media advertising unless specificity is needed). Why? Because we have been led to believe that intermediate metrics (vanity metrics or short-term outcomes) matter more than they do and that digital and social media’s ability to better target consumers is an important strategy. But the more we target, the less we can employ the ways advertising works, in a sense increasing what Hwang and Kamdar called the Peak Advertising effect. The continuous barrage of targeted ads devalues the medium, training users to filter out ads.

Knowing this, we can find clarity in what marketing science tell us about how to meet our marketing and recruitment goals.

The Distraction of Digital

“The extent to which social media has introduced a new era of conversational, opt-in marketing – where viral content trumps traditional media spends – is greatly exaggerated.” Jerry Daykin

Putting rampant ad fraud and zero oversight of metrics aside (Check out Facebook’s growing list), engagement metrics and third-party ad metrics have led marketers astray. Both have created the belief that intermediate metrics matter.

Moreover, we have assumed they provide a real-time test of our content strategy as well as markers for business objectives. In many cases, these beliefs are reinforced by content marketing service providers and social media management platforms. Both push goals of engagement, loyalty, conversation and more, leading us to optimize all creativity out of videos, oversell reach and create an over-reliance on tactics. Remember, Facebook once claimed to reach 41 million Millennials in the U.S. when there are only 31 million, and were remiss in considering whether or not organic posts actually appeared on a screen to count as an impression.

As noted in the Long and the Short of It, “Sadly there appears to be little progress in the world of digital metrics, narrowly concerned as they often are with very short-term responses and questionable metrics such as social media ‘likes’, often bought with short-term incentives….much work remains to be done to reliably link these to business performance, and the focus of attention appears to lie elsewhere.”

In fact, there has been little evidence to suggest that engagement metrics on social media increase advertising effectiveness. Similarly, Nielsen continues to examine global social media campaigns and continue to find that click-through rates do not correlate with campaign performance (ad recall, brand awareness, purchase intent). Nielsen also found similar results when examining banner CTRs and business impact.

We are being influenced to optimize for efficiency and not effectiveness, and in most cases the link between intermediate metrics and business objectives is loose.

Digital as Direct Response

“The act of advertising is information in and of itself.” – Philip Nelson

The lure of digital advertising is that it can deliver targeted, personalized ads that are perceived to perform the same as more expensive channels. Paired with the ability to directly measure each effort, we have turned digital advertising into a direct response bonanza, ignoring the importance of brand advertising. In doing so, marketers have lost two fundamental ingredients that lead to important brand effects; signaling and meaning-making.

According to Rick Webb, “digital advertising has relentlessly following a single theory of advertising targeting…a far more empirically unsound theory.” It’s a theory that isn’t nearly as strong as what we know about advertising’s role in signaling market or product strength.

For example, in nature, male peacocks show strength through the display of feathers. In branding, businesses show this through expensive ad placement. Both the placement and the quality of production influence peoples’ perception of brand equity—a notion made famous by Marshall McLuhan’s quote, “The medium is the message.” It’s why Super Bowl ads command huge budgets and one content page with five display ads on it, with an average $5 CPM, makes as little as 2.5 cents of revenue.

In The Waste in Advertising Is the Part That Works, authors Tim Ambler and E. Ann Hollier found, “perceived expense influences perceptions of brand quality, which in turn is the most critical predictor of a participant’s inclination to purchase a brand.” When we scrape the bottom of the supply-side barrel or relentlessly re-target a prospect after they have visited our website, in a high-involvement/high-consideration category, what signals are we sending? Similarly, we decrease perceived value when we continue to use the same photo of a researcher in lab coat, student in cap and gown and that non-descript, tree-lined part of campus.

Not only is production value an important signaling device but the media environment signals brand quality as well. Unlike college fairs, high school programs, television and OOH, we have no control over the context in which our advertising is delivered. Brand safety issues, viewability issues and the quality and predictability of programmatic ad buys create an unpredictable and cluttered ad experience. All of these affect the perceived quality and intrusiveness of our work.

For example, Rejon-Guardia and Martinez-Lopez found that unfavorable ad environments lead to “diminished advertising efficacy in terms of consumer memory, a decrease in positive attitudes towards the message and brand, as well as declined purchasing intention and, therefore, sales.”


It has also made us forget a key way in which advertising works, by creating collective meaning. Not only does mass advertising help create meaning, but also it acts as a signaling device, contextually and in terms of quality. Kevin Simler offers this description, “[collective meaning] is the mechanism whereby an ad, rather than trying to change our minds individually, changes the landscape of cultural meanings — which in turn changes how we are perceived by others when we use a product.” Going to an Ivy League school means something, and the benefits of that education are understood collectively, without the vast majority going to an Ivy League school.

The more we target, the more the ability to create meaning breaks down. Because marketers need mass media to create common knowledge, our fundamental assumptions of digital advertising need to shift to reflect better methods of employing the tactic. Instead of abandoning, it requires refocusing our use of digital advertising in several ways.

Reach for Everyone

In many ways, social media performs like traditional media—whether or not we like it. It provides a platform to reach large audiences through paid media. Unfortunately, engagement and intermediate metrics have chipped away at the importance of reach. Furthermore, as consumers continue to adapt to rapid media environments, their behavior is becoming increasingly passive.

Evidence continues to mount from the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute that it’s a much better strategy to use advertising to reach as much of the category as possible. Recently, P&G announced it would move away from targeted Facebook advertising and concentrate its efforts on reach and “fame” through brand salience. More specifically, research on social media advertising found that one of the top factors influencing social media advertising was content reach. Even Facebook Business coaches brands on the importance of paid reach.

As Jerry Daykin wrote, “digital [advertising] is most effective when it plays by traditional rules, but does so better than traditional media can. The real advantage of digital is often when it can help us broadly reach more consumers, not specifically target fewer.”

In other words, there is an opportunity to creatively integrate digital advertising within our broader communications plan. It has been shown that digital advertising can improve the effectiveness of “traditional” campaign tactics. Digital advertising can be used to extend reach, push continuity between large media buys, like TV or even football games, and scale up reach when the budget is tight. The mere exposure effect indicates digital advertising is also a great way to build familiarity before viewbooks or event invites are sent, acting as a priming agent for message comprehension.

Ditch Direct Response

“The ad industry has been bamboozeled by the rise of digital, because most of it had no idea how advertising worked in the first place.” -Ian Leslie

If digital advertising can help us reach the majority of our category buyers and enhance overall campaign effectiveness, it makes sense for us to look at digital advertising as brand advertising. Understanding the media environment in which our ads are often viewed adds further credibility to the argument to move away from viewing digital advertising as a conversion-only tactic and toward a more brand-building role. Similarly, optimizing frequency enables us to build important memory structures connected to our brand. If we ditch direct response and focus on brand building through great creative, research indicates a significant improvement in recall, emotional priming, and metal availability.

Considerations for the Category

When your audience is Gen Z, it’s easy to say the old rules no longer apply or that interaction is the key marker of content performance – a measure one step away from brand equity. The truth is, no matter the audience, awareness, consideration and purchase remain unchanged. The same can be said for how advertising works, authenticity and purpose aside. To combat this digital delusion, we must release our obsession with what is easily measured and focus on developing more sophisticated approaches to digital advertising. For higher ed marketers, that means:

  • Measure what matters, engagement and intermediate metrics rarely correlate with business objectives.
  • Pay to reach your audience. Quality content is important. but organic content only reaches about one percent of your audience.
  • Digital advertising works more like mass media channels, so use it to reach as much of your audience as often as you can.
  • Treat digital advertising more like brand advertising. Long customer journeys, like college search, require long-term brand building.
  • High-involvement, high-consideration categories require brand building channel strategies. Set goals for reach, mental availability, and emotion.
  • For drive emotion in brand building campaigns, value creativity over clicks.

Our job as marketers is not just exposure but also shaping preference and influencing behavior. Instead of chasing what’s easily measured, we must set a new course for meeting our marketing and recruitment objectives using strategies that are based on empirical evidence.

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By Christopher Huebner

Christopher Huebner is an enrollment management marketing professional. He has worked both agency and client-side, where he has planned and executed marketing and recruitment strategies across multiple program types and institutions. His work has been published in Journal of Education Advancement & Marketing and the Journal of Digital & Social Media Marketing.