For one hour on two days in April last year -- the noon hour, to be specific -- the newspaper and magazine websites of 27 publications, along with TMZ.com, were ad-free, except for a link to the Chipotle Facebook page, where viewers learned they were getting a break from junk advertising and junk food.
Designed to stress Chipotle's commitment to additive-free meat, organic produce and small family farmers, the advertising strategy was the work of Compass Point Media, part of the Campbell Mithun ad agency, which bought up all the ad space on those websites for that hour on behalf of Chipotle.
The move demonstrates the length to which marketers will go into the ever-growing, ever-changing digital and social world to get their brands in front of potential customers -- and perhaps the sales that go along with it.
For Chipotle the "Junk Free Lunch" worked.
"We saw same-store sales increase 9 percent last year. We more than doubled the number of Facebook fans," said Chris Arnold, director of communications for the popular Denver-based fast food chain, noting that not all of those results could be directly traced to the Junk Free Lunch campaign. "It was a good program for us."
Evolving at warp speed
Digital and social marketing have been around a good part of the decade, but only in recent years has it begun to accelerate at mind-boggling speeds.
Evolving technology -- think smartphones that seemingly add a new "G" monthly and tablet-based devices like the iPad -- has revolutionized the way advertisers can reach consumers. It's like putting a laptop in someone's pocket.
Ad agencies have taken notice and responded in kind.
Campbell Mithun, which used a Twitter contest last month to select six interns for the summer, expects the digital media billings by Compass Point Media to increase by 67 percent this year.
"We have a Facebook specialist. We have a content specialist. We have a listening specialist," said Chris Wexler, Compass Point's group planning director. "The market is so complex. But we're not looking for clicks. We're talking about moving products off shelves."
At Colle+McVoy, digital work has grown from 5 percent of total output to 40 percent in five years. In the past year alone, the Minneapolis agency added 15 digital specialists to its workforce, bringing its total of specialists to 50.
The digital team at Periscope exceeds 40, up more than a third from three years ago. Indeed Periscope last week launched an integrated marketing campaign for Papa Murphy's Pizza that, in addition to print, television and radio, includes two advertisements on YouTube as well as entries on Papa Murphy's website and Facebook page urging consumers to "Join the take n' bake revolution."
"The iPhone changed everything in 2007," said Periscope's Dug Nichols. "The iPad changed everything again. We're seeing huge growth across all sectors."
Even smaller agencies are enjoying the fruits of the digital marketplace.
Morsekode, a marketing agency in Bloomington, is planning on doubling its 19-employee workforce in a time when many small marketing agencies are closing up shop. In 2010 alone, Morsekode's revenue grew by more than 40 percent.
"We keep seeing other agencies close and feel guilty, because we're not experiencing any of that here," said Mark Morse, founder and the Morsekode agency principal.
Part of its success is based on the agency's dedication to incorporating digital marketing into campaigns, now possible because of an in-house division of Morsekode called Brand Motion.
Brand Motion, which began in 2008, is a digital media production department within the agency that has the capacity to produce video content, design Adobe Flash-animated websites, and develop apps for clients.
The use of video and websites is a proven method for increasing customer interest in a product, said John Purdy, clinical professor at the University of St. Thomas Communications and Journalism Department.
"Using video can allow for more of an emotional bond for a consumer," Purdy said. "Videos can have scenery, setting, maybe some plot. It's like the move from print to television advertising."
A Forrester Research report called the rise in online video-consumption "profound," concluding that 60 percent of Internet users watch some form of video whenever they surf the Web, up from 41 percent in 2007.
Not everyone's convinced
But for some companies, the jury is still out on the social media aspect of digital marketing. A survey of marketers by the World Federation of Advertisers and the research firm Millward Brown found that only 23 percent of respondents were convinced that they were getting a good return on their social media investment while 18 percent said the return was average and 9 percent described their return as poor.
Nonetheless, all but one of the 24 surveyed marketers said they expect to increase their time and money spent on social media in the coming year.
But social media advertising is only one aspect of the digital marketing world.
Morsekode, for instance, applied its technical savvy to a new mobile scan-tag campaign for EcoWater systems, the manufacturer of Whirlpool products. Customers soon will be able to use their smartphone to scan a Microsoft scan tag, which will then pull up a micro-website on their phone where they can read product information, use the interactive online rebate, watch videos featuring the product or read customer reviews.
"It really takes a lot of weight off of the sales personnel in the store," Morse said. "A lot of clients are becoming interested in this technology and leveraging it."
"We've been very happy with the content Morsekode has developed and the traffic they've generated for us so far," said Marty Christiansen, vice president of retail sales for St. Paul-based EcoWater Systems.
Does the rapid growth in digital advertising mean the beginning of the end for more traditional print and broadcast avenues?
Not really, said Compass Point's Harvin Furman, the director of market investments. "For years we've been hearing how digital will kill TV, but last year TV consumption was at an all-time high."
"The last telegraph was sent in 2009," he said of the 19th-century breakthrough communications technology. "It takes a long time for media to die."
Megan Nicolai is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.
David Phelps • 612-673-7269