This is something I have been thinking for a while, actually ever since people on Twitter started wondering how is it possible for a platform to be announced as a "Digital Campaign of the Decade." Then, yesterday, I came across this article called "Campaigns Die, But Platforms Live and Grow" over at the Organic's blog (of all places).
If we move beyond just marketing semantics, the difference between the platform and a campaign is the one between the idea and its implementation. Suitably, Nick Law of R/GA said something like this a while ago: "The issue with the branding companies is that they have always been separate from the execution. ... The nature of branding industry is that they create something that they hand off."
Now, in digital it's not so easy to just "hand things off," isn't it? This is because more often than not we face clients' requests without really knowing in advance that our digital solution will be or how it it going to unfold in reality. Instead of facing a simple campaign task that can be resolved by a plain dilemma like "should we spend more time and effort on developing strategy or focusing on implementation?" we are challenged with perplexing situations (yup) with uncertain outcomes. We are developing something new and sure as hell we don't have a manual on how to do it.
Fine, now let's tie this uncertainty in strategy vs. implementation combo. First, where does uncertainty come from? It comes from the fact that digital creates so many unexpected and non-obvious connections between people and technology and products. Just think Nike+ or Foursquare or Twitter or Fiat Eco Drive or as more recent examples, Pepsi Refresh or Unilever's and Coke's taking their budgets from campaigns to "social media platforms". Or even go further, to mobile, and think Red Laser iPhone app where we can immediately get all possible reviews on products right in front of us (who cares about the brand promise in this situation?) This trend is just going to continue: with each new technology, the unexpected behaviors and non-obvious info resources only multiply. Predicting who is going to get connected there and how and what kind of info will they get is close to impossible.
Now, which format is better to deal with this whole digital uncertainty? A campaign or a platform?
Unlike a branding campaign, which usually aims only to extend delivery of the brand promise to digital space and end after a certain short period of time, a platform has as its core properties both unpredictable results and the fact that unfold as they go. Simply, it's the definition of a platform to grow over time and through use. And this is its winning card: instead of wrestling with uncertainty, they place it right at the middle of what they are doing.
So, to answer my question from the title - yes, campaign vs platform debate in digital is moot. Online, there should be no campaigns.