From 1999-2005, I was General Manager of a research consultancy whose primary business was conducting new product concept testing for Fortune 100 CPG and Financial Services companies. It was in/around 2001 that the internet started growing in popularity as a method of data collection in research. The internet was a new, sexy, and most importantly, cheap way to collect consumer opinions.

Forget about whether or not this was a valid method of data collection: who was answering, how companies were recruiting for studies, etc. It was new, sexy, and cheap…and marketers were jumping on board left and right.

It wasn’t until about 2008 when marketers and researchers began to question methodologies being employed via the internet. They started asking tough questions – and validation became a more important factor in deciding – not whether or not to use the internet – but which supplier to use.

The same is occurring right now in the digital space for marketers (and agencies). At first, just playing in the space was ok. It was a cheap, sexy, and new medium that everyone wanted to be a part of. So all you needed was an agency that could set up a Facebook page, get you on Twitter, build some banners, and buy into a few digital ad networks.

Today it’s much more complicated. And those marketers who don’t recognize this (and don’t find agencies that can facilitate smart, strategic thinking and analytics) will die on the vine in this space. There are too many companies playing in the space, too many choices for consumers using the space, and too many ways to operate more strategically in this space.

A couple of cases in point.

We have a client (MediaIQ) who recently developed an analytical tool that enables marketers to not only measure the GRPs levels of competitive (and own) digital advertising activity, but also enables marketers to measure the degree to which competitive marketers are placing different levels of support against different messages used in the digital space – and the degree to which different targeted (or broad reach) sites are being used more or less for competitive marketing activity. This level of intel enables their clients to make smarter decisions about how to manage in the digital space, so they can be more proactive, and more strategic about the decisions being made. This same tool provides marketers with insights about social activity and web activity of clients’ competitive set.

Another client of ours (MEA Digital) recently turned us on to the latest movement in display advertising. Once thought the fading fancy in digital marketing (due to declining click rates), display is now viewed by some as the “new TV”. While hard to pin point a direct correlation between running flights in digital advertising and sales (kind of like TV), there are now studies that clearly point to strong correlations between running display and consumers searching using specific brand names, and running display ads and the commensurate behavior that leads to either buying or other activity on a client’s site. A recent article in Mediapost highlights a study conducted by comScore, Inc. titled “When the Money Moves to Digital, Where Should It Go?”. This article (and the study) shed some light on new ways marketers should be thinking about digital advertising – same sort of thinking that should be coming from your agencies.

So the bottom line of it all is it’s not just the sexy medium anymore. Agencies need to be leading the charge, forcing their clients to think more strategically about how the digital and social space is used. It’s not just enough to know how to set up Facebook pages and Twitter feeds and create banner ads. Now the real winners (on both the client side and the agency side) are going to be those that think and act in a smarter, more strategic, and more analytical way.

Doing is no longer good enough. Thinking has to be part of the game in order to win in the digital and social space.