How to Test New Digital Marketing Channels, According to an Expert

New digital marketing channels emerge all the time. Don’t go all in on all of them.
Mae Rice
June 9, 2020
Updated: August 18, 2020
Mae Rice
June 9, 2020
Updated: August 18, 2020

Did you see rapper Travis Scott live while sheltering in place? For 27.7 million people, the answer is “sort of.” At the end of April, Scott put on four virtual shows in Fortnite, a cartoony, combative free video game with 78.3 million monthly players.

It was Fortnite’s biggest in-game event to date, and, unlike the typical Instagram Lives, it looked striking. Scott’s skyscraper-high avatar arrived onstage in a spherical spaceship, stomping-slash-teleporting through the game’s surreal purple terrain in Nikes taller than the crowd.

The single Scott debuted during his Fortnite residency, “THE SCOTTS,” promptly shot to No. 1 on the Billboard charts.

It all officially established Fortnite as the coronavirus era’s stadium — since Scott’s virtual residency, Deadmau5 and Steve Aoki have also put on a virtual show in the game — but the game has long been seen as a powerful marketing channel.

Disney has whole-heartedly embraced Fortnite as a marketing channel, promoting Avengers: Endgame with a special crossover game mode, and the most recent Star Wars installation with a plot development that only happened inside Fortnite. Even Quibi has gotten in on the action, allowing players to watch its Punk’d reboot at the game’s drive-in theater.

Lis Smith, a political strategist, even spitballed about moving the Democratic convention into Fortnite.

“If we could do that with Joe Biden — Joe Biden projected against the Grand Canyon,” Smith said, referencing Scott’s performance, on the Politico Playbook livestream. “That might be a little bit ambitious, but we could have exclusive musical content from some of the biggest musical artists in the game ... driving eyeballs to these conventions.”

It’s not the right channel for everybody, though, warned Stefan Kalczynski, director of client strategy at Hawke Media. Appearing within the game itself is “crazy, crazy pricey,” he told Built In. “It’s a very popular game right now.”

That’s a relatively new phenomenon — back in 2017, Fortnite didn’t even exist! — but it’s part of an age-old dynamic. The mix of channels available to marketers shifts constantly, as do the audiences each channel reaches. That means marketers need to constantly update their strategies and experiment with new options, whether that means trying premium channels like Fortnite, or more accessible ones, like SMS messaging.

How does testing a new channel work, though? We asked Kalczynski to demystify the two-part process: choosing a channel, and testing it out.

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how to pick a new channel to try
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How to Pick a New Channel to Try

Selection is half the battle.

Digital Marketing Channels

Digital Marketing encompasses a multitude of channels to reach audiences, including video marketing, email, social media, content marketing and SEO. Some of the biggest digital marketing channels today are Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and Snapchat, along with more traditional forms like websites and email newsletters.

Research Is Key

Most companies don’t belong on every channel — an orthopedic insole maker, for instance, doesn’t fit on teen-dominated TikTok — so at Hawke Media, “there’s a lot of research that goes into an onboarding process,” Kalczynski said.

Specifically, he and his team investigate who buys the client’s products, and their competitors’ products. Then they investigate: Where does this core demographic hang out? 

Ideally, he recommends reviewing a mix of first-party data from the channel, and third-party data from the whole ecosystem of free and paid channel analytics platforms. These include CrowdTangle, which tracks social media activity, and SparkToro, a newly released audience intelligence tool.

Each Channel Has Its Own Fluid Personality

Different channels attract different demographics in different frames of mind — but the specifics shift rapidly.

Facebook, for instance, was initially a place where college kids went to network, flirt and posture. Older people literally couldn’t access it. But today, “my stereotype of a Facebook user is 45- to 60-year-old Midwestern parents,” Kalczynski said, who “use Facebook and the newsfeed as this battle ground of sorts, to just talk about what’s infuriated them.”

Instagram, meanwhile, is today’s Facebook — a younger, more positive platform. Kalczynski’s stereotype of the Instagram user is someone aged 25 to 34, living in a city, “pretty vain” — and on the platform to shop. But Instagram’s culture has begun to shift too — users don’t approach influencer marketing as trustingly as they did even two or three years ago. “People are starting to get wise,” Kalczynski said.

The Older Channels Are More Reliable...

In general, it’s easier to construct a winning strategy on more established channels like Facebook and Google, which together receive more than 50 cents of every dollar spent on digital marketing. There are more successful campaigns to look to as models, and more experts to consult with along the way.

“There are so many resources out there ... to guide you,” Kalczynski said.

With newer channels like Snapchat and TikTok, though, marketers often have to rely on case studies provided by the platform. “The trouble with those is that they get industry or vertical specific,” Kalczynski said — so they might not be too instructive.

Marketers also have to trust that the platform isn’t “leading you astray,” something of a leap of faith — though established players can lead marketers astray too.

... but Newer Channels Have More Energy

Newer channels may mean a murkier marketing playbook, but they’re also virgin territory — minimally monetized channels, where “the ad platform really hasn’t been developed to where it’s ... intrusive,” Kalczynski said.

For instance: “People still are having this organic, feel-good reaction” to TikTok.

The app’s “magical golden era” will likely pass, though, just as it has on the more established platforms. Eventually, “you’re going to start seeing ads served every three seconds” on TikTok, he predicted. For now, though, it’s still new, and functions as a “getaway” for its users.

Certain Channels Involve Peril

For most digital marketing campaigns, the worst-case scenario is getting ignored. On channels with tight-knit communities and distinctive cultures, though, advertisers run the risk of “alienating the audience or sounding disingenuous,” according to Kalczynski.

Take Reddit, a channel that the Content Marketing Institute has called “fraught with peril.”

“Their audience is very, very knowledgeable,” Kalczynski said. “They know what’s fake, they know what doesn’t resonate and they will eat you alive if [your marketing material doesn’t] sound and look like it’s supposed to be on Reddit.”

Fortnite, too, falls in this camp. If Joe Biden’s team makes him a towering cartoon, “he’s got to be willing to assimilate to the audience and talk their language” — without overdoing it, of course.

Beware Channel Tunnel Vision

“There should always be an omnichannel approach,” Kalczynski said. “You should never just be relying on one channel to be your main driver.”

In the same vein — don’t just rely on channels with name recognition, either. It can pay to branch out and explore smaller, specialized options. Once, for instance, Hawke worked with a client whose product served a “niche industry,” and the team found that a strategy of “direct buys” on industry-relevant channels worked better than programmatic placement on big platforms. That meant “doing takeovers on different websites and participating in email newsletters,” plus a presence at trade shows, Kalczynski explained.

It wasn’t a high-profile campaign, exactly, but it reached the audience it needed to; sales jumped.

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how to test a new channel effectively
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How to Test a New Channel Effectively

Tips for collecting and interpreting key preliminary data.

Look at Click-Through on Your Ads...

Most channels show advertisers an array of metrics for their ads, including click-through rate.

Because it’s so widely available, click-through is a useful way to compare a new marketing channel to a company’s existing ones.

It’s an apples to apples comparison, right? Click-through to click-through.

Of course, it’s also an apples to oranges comparison: click-through on a new channel to click-through on established ones. “You’re going into new territory,” Kalczynski said — which means click-through may be low at first, as you build your reputation and learn the new terrain.

When assessing a new channel’s click-through rates, he noted, it’s also important to factor in where that channel fits into the larger sales funnel.

“If you are getting really low click-through rates and this is a top-of-funnel activity, well, then that’s OK,” he said. “You’re going to be spending more on reaching out to a newer audience.”

Lower in the funnel, though, that same click-through rate might merit a change in strategy.

... but Track How They Behave on Your Site Too

It’s important to pay attention to not just how well ads convert, but what users do once they leave the marketing channel for your company website.

“I am a big proponent of incorporating Google analytics into any campaign that we run,” Kalczynski said. “I like to monitor all the activity that comes back to the site.”

That can mean looking at bounce rate, time on site, page views per session — in other words,  “are they scrolling through multiple pages after landing?” — and even heat mapping, or tracking how users’ attention is distributed across a page. Where do they click? Hover their cursors? How far down the page do they scroll?

This type of data not only informs strategic decisions, like landing page layout, but also helps marketers gauge the quality of the leads a new channel brings in.

Give It Time...

If a channel doesn’t spark tons of sales right out of the gate, is that a channel problem or a strategy problem?

“If you’re looking at it early on, I think you can attribute it to strategy,” Kalczynski said.

He worked with one beauty brand, for instance, that was running ads on TikTok and getting no traction, even though “it was very colorful, very Gen Z-oriented in terms of the language.” After some trial and error, they figured out that they needed to shift from paid advertising to working with TikTok influencers. But it takes time to find your stride.

...but Not Too Much Time

“After the two-month mark, you should have a fairly good idea of whether this is the right channel for you to continue operating on,” Kalczynski said.

Don’t Assume a Good Strategy on Facebook Will Translate to Instagram

If you promote one piece of content across multiple channels, “it has to be positioned in the correct way” on each one.

Sure, on every channel, “people have limited attention spans,” Kalczynski said. “You’ve got to make sure that someone knows exactly what you’re talking about or that you’ve gotten their interest within a couple of seconds at most.”

What those couple of seconds look like, though, varies by channel. Posting a compelling block quote from an article might work on Facebook, where a more longform style reigns — but dense text looks off-putting in an Instagram story. There, it works better to post a quick pull quote, like “The New York Times says ‘Wow!’”

This has worked well for CBD companies, which can’t directly advertise but can (and do) link to positive press coverage in their stories, Kalczynski said.

Don’t Play It Too Safe

It’s worth taking a risk sometimes, especially if you have a product for the masses — like a presidential candidate.

“If I’m Joe Biden’s campaign chairman ... I think he takes the gamble [on Fortnite],” Kalczynski said. “The way that he’s interacting digitally — there’s definitely room for improvement, and I think that they’re in a position where they can and should take those risks.”

After all, Kalczynski said, “Fortune favors the bold.”

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