2017: what will be trending in digital marketing

  • by helga
  • 08/01/2017

People watch fireworks with 2017 written in "digital" fontLadies and gentlemen, as has been my tradition for the last few years, here is a summary of digital marketing trends for the New Year… in plain language as much as possible, and including a “So what?” paragraph with practical applications at the end of each point.

Did I hear someone asking….

Is it reliable?

I set out by reading the usual sources – Searchengineland, Moz, Smart Insights, Emarketer, Marketing Week, E-consultancy, BrandWatch, Forbes. Methodologies, context and writers’ level of expertise vary, but all in all they’re fine for a quick digested read. They aren’t scientific papers, mind you, with the notable exception of search engine news which tend to be grounded on well documented algorithm changes and their expected evolution.

Is it fun?

I’ve distilled information and re-organised the information as to achieve a better flow. Flow is important. It’s what gives me the mistaken presumption that I’ve managed to create something new, or even that I’ve learned something in the process (behold!). It was kind of fun for me but I can’t vouch for anyone else.

Is it relevant?

There isn’t an awful amount being written or read about digital marketing at this particular point in time. Social media and media in general are focused on celebrity obituaries, on kindness fatalities across western countries, and on the much sad departure of common sense… What comes after this, no one knows. But there’s always digital marketing to worry about.

So, without further ado:

More websites will follow the mobile-first rule

Google announced that it will make the mobile version of all websites its primary source for content indexation and search results. This is part of its long-term strategy, based on the increase of search queries done on mobiles, of “forcing” web publishers to provide good user experience.

Many websites are already designed with the mobile experience as priority, and Google’s move will continue the trend of redesigning existing websites with responsive, mobile-friendly layout and content. At some point we will eventually stop talking about being friendly to mobile and forget that websites used to be designed for desktops or laptops!  There will be exceptions in the B2B world, where we still find some heavy desktop and laptop use.

Alongside this ‘mobile-first’ strategy, we’re also seeing the rise of Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMPs) – stripped-down pages that load much faster on mobiles -, and Progressive Web Apps (PWAs) – applications that make use of modern web capabilities to deliver a user experience that is more similar to a native mobile app than to a page accessed through a web browser. Voice search is also becoming increasingly more common- some of the changes in Google’s algorithm take this into account and reinforce the trend.

So what?

All this stuff should be the bread & butter of digital marketing and web development agencies. If it isn’t for yours, give them a gentle nudge. The need to adopt a more radical mobile-first approach isn’t for all brands either – it should be dictated by your business model, distribution strategy and target market, and taking into account how your current customers use the website.

Google search results become more like a machine-curated encyclopaedia (with important consequences for brands, web publishers, and users in general)

I’m sure you noticed in the last few years the addition of information at the top of Google’s search results.  Rich answers and featured snippets now show up very frequently, depending on what is searched for and based on information scrapped from various websites by Google’s algorithm. I have pasted below a few examples of these rich answers and snippets. Sometimes whole accordions with further questions are added underneath an initial featured answer.

Google search - common sense

Google is getting this content mostly with the help of “structured data markup”, i.e. data added directly to the HTML of a web page that allows search engines to better “understand” the content of that page, rather than relying on keywords and other old suspects. There are hundreds of ranking factors but the most important groups remain a) content relevance and quality, b) inbound links, c) Rankbrain (Google’s AI system), and d) pure technical aspects that make a website easy to crawl and 3_grannysmithindex by search engines. Structured data markup is part of this last group.

Most of the sources I read talk about the growing importance of structured data markup, rich content and featured snippets in the world of SEO. Equally, other news sources point out the dangers of letting algorithms curate content, with sometimes pretty dodgy ‘answers’ being taken for granted when they show at the top of Google.

So what? –

There isn’t really much that can be done to halt this trend, so the best is to adapt and use as 4_neoliberalismmuch structured data markup as possible, particularly where this serves a practical purpose (helping web users to quickly find your address, business opening hours etc). In the long run, there is a case for developing website content only if we can offer a richer experience or a specific application, i.e. something of value that users wouldn’t be able to find on a Google ‘snippet’.

Video, live streaming, VR, augmented reality and immersive experiences continue on the rise

Video is the most cited digital marketing trend across the publications, probably because it affects all sub-categories in the industry, from SEO to branding.

We have all noticed how video has become more and more common, enabled by faster connections and platform development, with brands like Google (via YouTube) and Facebook heavily promoting its day-to-day use. It helps that it seems the preferred media for younger generations as well, so all things considered it looks as if the web is becoming more and more an on-demand video experience of sorts. The notable difference is that it can also be carried around in our pockets and allow us to interact with the world around.

This is having an impact not only on content originally produced as entertainment (by media publishers, games companies, or by brands as advertising) but also in how other types of organisations present themselves and share content online. Video is becoming truly pervasive across all industries. In 2017, expect more live video streaming, virtual and augmented reality, and “immersive” experiences using video, delivered through the web.

So what?-

A case starts building up to bring video production capability in-house. Sensible equipment and software-as-a-service (SaaS) can make this happen at fairly low budgets. It’s also clear that agencies must be able to deliver more agile solutions in terms of creating video content, alongside other brand assets and static content. That is already the case for large agencies and groups, but I personally prefer to work with smaller agencies where this can still be a challenge.

Big data, wearables, IoT, data visualisation and predictive analytics still promise to deliver more

This isn’t a new trend either. Three years ago the Internet of Things (IoT) was becoming the ‘next big thing’ but the lack of widespread use and common standards were an issue. Fast forward to today and we have Google Home, Amazon Echo and Apple HomeKit.

Wearables around exercise and health & wellness are definitely the most popular though. Alongside other sources of digital behaviour (smartphones, tablets, laptops), these smaller wearable computers are providing a tremendous amount of data that can be processed, analysed and used in innovative ways.

Predictive analytics are the corner stone of what ‘big data’ is supposed to deliver: if we can start making sense of the future using the more accurate data we have collected, will we finally be able to achieve exponential improvement in various key products in services? This always seemed to me the more elusive and interesting use for ‘big data’, beyond the widespread approach by Google and Facebook of using ‘big data’ to serve more relevant ads… (I guess that is the service they deliver, so clearly a case of double-standards from my side!)

So what? –

Brands should be exploring the potential of big data, wearables, data visualisation tools and predictive analytics to deliver better products and services. I’m a hardcore advocate of the crucial role of marketing in shaping business strategy. ‘Big data’ can give us a huge insight into customer needs and is a good example of where digital marketing can add long-term value rather than focusing on the more promotional aspects.

More automation and personalisation via CRM, AI and digital tools

This trend is directly connected to the previous. As we are able to capture, understand and store more and more of user behaviour online, and as marketing technology continues to develop more sophisticated ways of applying this data to business endeavours, it is only natural that we continue to see incremental improvements in marketing automation.

Customer Relationship Management (CRM) software and other SaaS can be used to set and hone marketing communications, which means we can personalise messages to the end user and deliver more targeted promotional activity (ads, content marketing, emails) with less resources.

So what? –

Although I’m sure I’ve said this in previous years, it’s worth repeating that we shouldn’t get overexcited with technology if it doesn’t deliver sensible, practical results. It’s great to see what’s out there and grasp its potential, but there is testing required to understand if they’ll live up to the promise.

Start small, test, and decide if it’s worth further investment. Also, with the sheer amount of new Martech products available, it’s worth ramping up due-diligence before committing to a particular platform or solution. I fear we may be getting close to ‘peak Martech’, and there will be a lot of market consolidation happening in the coming years.

Ad blocking, native advertising and Trump tactics

We’re getting to the end of the list of main trends and for this one I’ve grouped three related trends.

Digital ad blocking continues on the rise, despite campaigning by media publishers (which rely partially or totally on ads to keep going) and by ad distribution platforms (which make loads of money from them). Again, this is especially true for younger generations, so it doesn’t look like something that will easily bounce back.

So-called ‘native advertising’ has been around for a couple of years at least, but it fell somehow silent in 2016. Native advertising delivers content paid by organisations with the premise of blending almost seamlessly with non-sponsored, editorial content. This takes typically one of two forms. It can show up as a set of related sponsored ‘stories’, delivered by a third-party supplier (a distribution platform such as Taboola), usually at the end of a web page. In this case there is still some kind of labelling to indicate they are sponsored, but such ‘stories’ aren’t outright adverts.

In the second type of placing, the ‘stories’ don’t carry any sort of warning about who produces or distributes them and to which end. Click-bait and highly appealing headlines give way to wide and quick sharing across social media platforms, and content sponsored by organisations for commercial purposes is freely mixed up with other types of content. Everything is ‘content’ after all – they’re all stories, articles, posts, links… Who creates them and why is almost beyond the point, what matters is that they resonate with people, and many times take them from intention to action like any good marketing message.

It’s a word-of-mouth effect amplified to an almost uncontrollable degree. A few years ago, there was this fixation with ‘viral’ content, and lots of social media agencies promising to deliver something which was largely un-replicable. Native advertising and Trump tactics are just new attempts at ‘viral’ advertising, the latter done very successfully by people who are probably savvier and better connected.

So what?-

Will native advertising and Trump tactics ever be something worth investing in, by a commercial organisation, as an alternative to other types of advertising or marketing activity? It really depends on what sort of brand you work for, of course – but I daresay that, like with any ‘viral’ attempt, you can’t really replicate past successes for commercial purposes, and some attempts can backfire spectacularly.

Content makes us content

And with this we get to the last trend: “content marketing”. What has consistently been the biggest jargon for the last few years, goes this year to the back of the queue.

It’s not so much that no one is doing it anymore – it’s just that it’s too broad a term to really mean anything. What is content marketing? Look no further, here is the ‘featured answer’ from Google:

A type of marketing that involves the creation and sharing of online material (such as videos, blogs, and social media posts) that does not explicitly promote a brand but is intended to stimulate interest in its products or services.

Wait, wasn’t this native advertising? No. Content marketing is content marketing, which is a sort of advertising in disguise, but not like native advertising which is definitely advertising in disguise. Native advertising is the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood’s dressed in sheepskin, while content marketing is… a sort of fox. Got it? Neither is as likable or reliable as a dog.

Odd jokes aside, as you can understand “content marketing” applies to a very big chunk of online material out there. By definition, the only content it excludes is a) explicit advertising and b) content created by individuals with no intention to stimulate interest in any products or services.

And with this in mind, I can confidently predict that content marketing will continue to be a very important element in the digital marketing budget of commercial organisations in 2017.

So what? –

Keep writing. For all the added complexity and the digital dystopias we expect in 2017, there are still many problems to solve and things worth writing about.


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