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The digital marketing industry has a dirty little secret.

From the big marketing firms to fly-by-night freelancers, every digital marketing pro promises to raise a website’s profile in search results, position the client as a virtual leader in its industry, and like magic, sales will follow. But clients looking for a measurable return on investment are often frustrated by a lack of magic. Why?

Digital marketing is about building assets

Here’s the deal: Every business can benefit from investing in its online presence. The key is to understand what, exactly, a business buys with its investment. A robust digital marketing strategy results in assets: an awesome website, engaging social media content, valuable resources for current and potential customers, and so on.

For some businesses, the value proposition of “digital spend” is obvious. A business selling consumer products is right to invest heavily in its web presence. Maximizing customer impressions and burying competitor products off the front page of Google are powerful strategies for a company that sells soap, toasters, or haircuts.

But for many others—service businesses or other companies with a long sales cycle, for instance–the link between an enhanced web presence and the bottom line can be fuzzy at best. That isn’t because their investment hasn’t turned into a valuable asset, but rather because they are failing to take full advantage of the asset they’ve built.

An asset that likes to be used

Recently, a Red Mallard client who works in a niche service industry told us something interesting. He was happy with the content we’d developed for his site—in fact, he’d heard from people outside his business that they liked what they were seeing. But the content wasn’t translating into new business. Many companies would perceive this as a failure of the content, but our client understood that it was only part of the puzzle. “The content is good,” he said, “but it’s not doing the work it could be doing. That’s on us. We have to find ways to take advantage of our better website.”

Not to brag, but our client is a savvy business thinker. He understands that in his industry, the marketing that counts requires a mix of good timing, building relationships, and establishing trust. Very few potential customers are going to hire his firm on the basis of a blog or an impressive “About Us” page. But a few might encounter the firm’s team at a trade show or hear about them from a colleague, and discover valuable resources in those blogs that, over time, will lead to a new engagement.

Investment, then return

Digital marketing assets can be spread across a kind of “value spectrum.” At one extreme are campaigns intended to sell mass market goods with broad, well-established appeal. At the other extreme are the businesses selling products or services to an extremely small and sophisticated market segment.

A law firm that primarily handles auto accident claims may get more from high volume blogging, which raises its Google rankings but might not get very technical. But a firm that represents large insurers in complex commercial claims litigation may have a few hundred people it wants to impress. The consumers looking for someone to help them pay for their car repairs might be impressed by a blog, but the attorneys at an insurance firm are going to want a lot more.

In both cases, the branding asset that digital marketing provides is adding value. The difference is that the personal injury firm may not need to work as hard to realize that value.

That’s why at Red Mallard we encourage clients to think about ITR – investment then return – rather than ROI when it comes to digital marketing spend. Many of our clients are working in niche industries, or industries that are only now beginning to understand the importance of digital branding as a younger generation starts to occupy the C-suites. For them, the investment in the business’s digital marketing requires a shift of mindset. They are building a brand for the modern marketplace. It’s up to them to take their refreshed, updated brand into the trade shows, board rooms, and factory floors to tell their company’s story and make a deal.

Give Red Mallard a quack

Red Mallard gives its clients the tools the need to unlock the marketing potential to be found in their success stories and visions for the future. Whether you compete for eyeballs in a crowded field or need better strategies for engaging with a specialized audience, we can help. Drop us a line to find out how Red Mallard gives clients a fresh voice.