Peak content

Doug Kessler called this one three years ago with his seminal Crap: the single biggest threat to B2B content marketing.

If we were to plot content marketing on Gartner’s hype cycle then I fear 2016 sees us plunging from the peaks of inflated expectations towards the trough of content marketing disillusionment.

Can marketing take any more contentification? Have we jumped the content shark? Can the world take any more wellness tips from insurance companies?

Like Mr Creosote we are dangerously near tipping over the edge and just one more (wafer thin) piece of content could do it.

Even Twitter can no longer contain the tsunami and its 140 word levee is about to be breached with up to 10,000 characters of content.

And all this with our phones set to ping and ting even more with a wave of notifications.

Just as happened with social media a few years ago, 2016 will see lots of hand-wringing about the ‘ROI of content marketing’.

We will learn to focus on value, quality and relevancy as very few can make volume, quantity and reach work.

2016 will see us thinking more about what we stop doing in content rather than what we start doing.

How to end a post on my 10 digital trends for 2016? By predicting the demise of the listicle perhaps?


Trying to humanise technology is not new. You may remember Microsoft’s paperclip character.

Around five to ten years ago there was also a fashion for putting characters on virtual agents which were typically for customer service and sat on top of an ‘intelligent FAQs’ database.

National Rail has Ask Lisa and has done since 2007.

With the progress in machine learning and AI (artificial intelligence), conversational interfaces, and a flurry of branded bots appearing this trend is back.

The popularity of emojis, and digital stickers, also show the desire to embed more feeling and emotion into digital communications.

In trend four above we saw how the world of pure digital is trying to connect more deeply through physical manifestations.

Similarly, brands, particularly digital services, are now seeking to create more emotive connections by bringing personality to their technology.

We are moving beyond robots that only deal in commands, interactions and transactions.

Technology can detect our emotions (e.g. Emotient, or Google’s Cloud Vision API), robots can detect how we feel (like Pepper) and any self-respecting cool piece of tech has a bot (e.g. Slackbot) and, increasingly, extensible platforms to create your own bots, e.g. Telegram’s Bot Platform or Slack’s Slash Commands.

Ray Kurzweil, director of engineering at Google, recently forecast that in 15 years’ time it will be possible to have an emotional relationship with computers.

This was made real in the 2013 film “Her” portraying a man, Theodore Twombly, who falls in love with ‘Samantha,’ an artificially intelligent operating system.

If this seems far-fetched I should point out that I have recently been interacting very naturally and successfully with “Amy Ingram” an AI-powered personal assistant for scheduling meetings.

Amy seems happy to work long hours and even replies at the weekend.

The mixing of human and machine is also evident in the many concierge services springing up. Among them Pana (for travel), Operator and GoButler.

Typically, these services work using part human, part machine learning. The interesting one to watch here of course is Facebook M.

Facebook M

Pure human assistance is very useful but not very scalable. Pure machine is very scalable but not always very useful. M’s challenge, and services like it, is to be both.

What does this all mean for marketers? It creates all sorts of exciting opportunities to create more intelligent services and ones which, though digital, really resonate with the brand and have personality.

In a few years I expect we will find it odd not to be able to message a brand and have a conversation which we will expect to be bot-powered to start with.

Some of us may even prefer to interact with branded bots rather than humans.

The challenge for us, as marketers, will be how to imbue these robobrands with the right brand sentience.

It will mean great copywriting is once more highly prised and interfaces will become more verbal. Getting the right tone and the right attitude will be hard but those that do will win.

It’s mobile, stupid

We all know that the fabled ‘year of mobile’ was about a decade ago.

In the last two years most of us have finally got round to mobile-optimising our websites and emails typically using responsive design.

However, what slightly surprises me is that for many marketers I get the sense they think that means they have ticked the mobile box, mobile is covered, mobile is mostly ‘done’.

Mobile (and the same is true of video and even social) tends not to appear on the hot topics or buzzwords list.

Which is odd given we surely recognise that mobile is eating the world?

So I have put mobile in as a trend largely as a collective slap in the face to remind ourselves just how big a thing this still is.


  • By most metrics mobile now IS the internet. And for most developing nations mobile is the internet.
  • Atom Bank will launch in the UK this year as a mobile-only bank.
  • Walmart reported that over 70% of the traffic to is now mobile and that mobile accounted for over half of its orders since Thanksgiving – double last year.

Really we shouldn’t be asking ourselves what our mobile strategy is anymore. We should be wondering what our desktop strategy is given most of what our customers do is mobile?

So if you think you are mostly done with mobile then think again.

Some mobile questions that should be on your mind for 2016:

  • What could the trend towards conversational interfaces and bots mean for our brand?
  • How do we capitalise on message and mobile-social commerce?
  • What will the changes in mobile payment options (including Apple Pay roll out) mean for us?
  • And, of course, mobile display (including native ads and mobile programmatic), mobile video optimisation etc. etc.….

In short: for the foreseeable future every year should be the year of mobile.

The ascendance of design

Digital design

One of my three digital marketing mega trends for 2015 was the return of creativity and design. Then I focused on creativity.

This year I want to highlight design. More specifically, digital product/service design.

It is always helpful with trends to look at the jobs market and see which roles and expertise are most in demand.

Great developers are still gold dust but in the last six months or so the question I keep hearing is ‘does anyone know a great (digital) designer’?

That special person who not only gets the big idea, the brand, the look and feel, but can also do information architecture, gets UX and UI, appreciates the customer journey, obviously knows responsive inside out, is current with this morning’s latest trends in iOS vs Android transition effects, and is working on conversational interfaces in his/her spare time.

And, like good childcare or a great plumber, if you do know this person you sure as hell are not giving their details to anyone else.

Speaking to a few agency Creative Directors recently they admitted they were starting to feel out of touch with aspects of their craft.

In particular, prototyping and app design/concepts. Talk to startups and product managers/designers and you will hear about Sketch, Invision, Marvel and the like.

Project Comet

The corporate world is catching up. Indeed Adobe’s imminent launch of Comet must be its response to this need.

Expect a lot of activity in this area, both tech, talent and techniques, over 2016.

Also indicative of underlying trends is what is happening in mergers and acquisitions. Here are some headlines that tell a story around the ascendance of design:

You get the idea…

All the major consultancies, both management and strategy, as well as the systems integrators are investing considerably in design services.

Indian outsourcing companies recognise they need to beef up their design credentials and I expect we will see Chinese businesses buying their way into this space too.

Let us not forget that IBM Interactive Experience last year announced a $100m investment to expand its interactive design business, acquiring talent and opening interactive experience labs and studios around the world.

Indeed even in 2014 IBM Interactive Experience was named the largest global digital agency by AdAge and in 2015 IBM IX came second only to Sapient in Econsultancy’s Top 100 Digital Agencies.

Perhaps the most interesting acquisition in this area was at the end of 2014 because it was a major financial services brand buying a leading product design consultancy: Capital One acquired Adaptive Path.

In 2016 it would not be surprising to see more brands make design acquisitions or acqui-hires.

At the very least expect to see design and product people become part of senior leadership teams e.g. Mike Bracken’s hiring of his former Government Digital Services’ colleagues to The Co-Op Digital Service includes a Digital Services Director and Group Design Director to help lead the Co-Op’s digital transformation.

Finally, whilst the big tech companies may have been focusing on data and digital marketing platforms and services to date, expect to see much more focus on design this year e.g. with Adobe’s launch of Comet and Google (behind Material Design of course) set to further empower designers with Google Web Designer.

Digital Transformation: the teenage years

While Econsultancy cannot quite claim to have coined the term ‘digital transformation’ (I would probably give that accolade to Cap Gemini), we certainly helped popularise the term.

My presentation on Slideshare on Digital Transformation from 2013 attempted to define the term at the time.

Certainly we have been researching, writing about, consulting on, and helping deliver digital transformation for longer than most.

I describe digital transformation simply as the journey towards being a digital organisation where “digital” means two things: firstly, focusing on the customer experience irrespective of channel, and secondly, having a digital culture.

I believe the seven defining characteristics of a digital culture are:

  1. Customer-centric
  2. Data-driven
  3. Makers & Doers
  4. Transparent
  5. Collaborative
  6. Learning
  7. Agile

As part of this transformation journey most organisations follow a similar evolution of organisational structure.

Full details of this are given in Econsultancy’s recently updated Digital Marketing: Organisational Structures and Resourcing Best Practice Guide.

The graphic below outlines a typical five stage evolution towards true multi-channel customer-centricity. Each stage has a typical corresponding job title and organisational structure for digital.

Digital transformation

My observation for 2016 is that most businesses are somewhere between stages two and four. We are entering the teenage years for digital transformation.

These are years of change, of experimentation, of pain, of growth, of tumult, of crises of self-identity, of commotion and instability.

We have already seen in my trends two and five above how the agency and consultancy worlds are colliding and blurring.

Apparently pretty much everyone these days offers ‘digital transformation’ services of some sort.

On the client side we will continue to see re-organisations, new job titles like Chief Digital Officer or Chief Customer Officer, new joint ventures, labs, innovation centres, start-up partnerships, accelerators and acquisitions in an attempt to kick start or accelerate their transformations.

2015 saw a number of examples of brands buying, or investing in, digital agencies and talent: Jaguar created a joint venture with agency Spark 44 to manage its global communications; Coty bought content agency Beamly; Unilever has its Foundry; Visa set up Europe Collab; Barclays has its Accelerator; the list goes on.

In the early years of digital transformation most businesses had digital in a silo.

This created obvious problems so the broad consensus was that actually digital needed to be embedded throughout the core business.

So the last years have seen efforts to ‘digitize’ the mothership and make digital part of the operating model and DNA of the whole business. It turns out this is not very easy either and has all sorts of challenges too: the biggest of which is a lack of speed.

One possible approach to address this problem, promoted by McKinsey, is a two-speed operating model for accelerating digital transformation.

Either this is somewhat of a bodge to avoid driving through difficult but necessary change, or it is a smart and realistic way to get where you want faster without dangerous levels of disruption.

Whichever it is, expect to see more struggles, at varying speeds, with digital transformation this year.

The return of push

The early days of digital marketing were all about push marketing.

Display advertising, of course, but email lists were a big thing. Lists you built yourself or lists you bought. And then hammered away at.

Then we shifted to more of a pull paradigm. ‘Inbound marketing’ is very much pull not push.

SEO in its more mature form is pull, content marketing is more pull than push, social likewise.

But I think we are seeing a shift back towards more of a push architecture. In a small way this is just desperation around those who have spent money on content and mobile apps, find they are not getting much traction, so resort to more push advertising.

But more fundamentally this about messaging, notifications and more context-aware services.

Already the notification screen is the primary interface for mobile. All the big players (Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon etc.) are rapidly developing services that are ‘smart’ and assistive.

Whether the slew of personal assistant type applications (Siri, Google Now, Cortana, Facebook M etc.) or sensor-driven smart services (Amazon Dash, Google Nest etc.) or simply the sky-rocketing usage of messaging apps like WhatsApp and WeChat and the resulting ‘tings’ on our phone craving our attention.

The evolution I believe we are in goes something like this:

  • First we focus on joining up data and systems, then…
  • We deliver experiences that are consistent, synced and responsive across devices/channels, then…
  • We make them personalised, proactive and contextual.

‘Context’ has a lot of possible dimensions: behaviour, location, the weather, what is happening in the world, the time of day, device, pretty much anything.

Because of mobile, and the growth in location intelligence (iBeacons being just one example but the likes of Estimote are doing interesting things), it is likely that user behaviour and location will be the most common forms of ‘context’ to be used in our marketing and customer experience thinking this year.

The best articulation of this shift I have read is Fjord’s concept of ‘Living Services’ where they not only talk about new interaction paradigms like gesture, voice and touch but how we need to consider how environments and context are changing more than how industry sectors are changing.

We need to build aware platforms where the customer is the operating system we plug into.

For example, this case study from Telefonica Research shows how it is possible to tell how bored someone is from their mobile activity with an 83% accuracy rate.

BuzzFeed banner

In this test the bored participants were sent notifications recommending content on Buzzfeed and were much more likely to respond than the non-bored segment.

So we are witnessing behaviour whereby a prod (i.e. push), mostly in the form of a notification, is required to get attention.

But that interface (now mostly via the lock screen on your phone) is controlled by the mobile operating systems and who knows how they will choose to prioritise what the user gets and how those notifications will be prioritised in the future.

And with predictive and assistive services it may be we will not expect to “go” to anything on our phones – it will come to us.

The big question for us as marketers then is how on earth do we fit in? And how will we make sure our notifications are seen and heard amidst the torrent of others?

As we re-enter an era of push, albeit ‘smart push’, we will need to re-learn the lessons from email marketing about permission, relevance, context and personalisation.

Digital/Physical: will it blend?

The blending of digital and physical is not a new trend but it is one that will continue to be front of mind throughout 2016 and beyond.

Last year we saw a lot of interesting developments from the big ‘digital’ players in the physical world: Amazon opened a bookshop and turned domestic appliances into a retail channel via its Dash Buttons; Google opened its first store in London.

There was some impressive innovation around digital/physical from major brands too. Highlights for me included:

  • The Starbucks Roastery App Experience (see video below)

This year we will see further innovation, for example more programmatically driven digital out-of-home media.

Where it gets really interesting is when digital is used to create the physical. The opportunities around 3D printing are very exciting here of course.

Eyewear business Warby Parker already provide a mobile app called Bookmark that allows customers to see a photo of themselves and buy the glasses, but CEO Neil Blumenthal envisages “…that in the very near future you’ll be able to get your glasses prescription through your mobile device” and, who knows, perhaps you will be able to print them out at home too?

From a brand point of view it is interesting to see how digital is seeking out further depth and substance through a physical connection and manifestation.

Evernote has partnered with Moleskine to create Evernote books for example.

3M’s Post-it notes, quintessentially physical, were given a quasi-physical manifestation as reborn retargeted banner ads.


Could this bastard lovechild of marketing and architecture become a buzzword for 2016?

Even if not I would at least expect to hear much more talk about ‘martech’ and challenges around architecting your martech stack. Move over ad tech, martech has arrived.

Why is this?

In the preceding years we have been busy collecting data, buying technology, trying to integrate systems, launching new channels (particularly social and mobile) and trying to deliver increasingly personalised customer experiences against a background of increasing complexity and fragmentation.

It is hard. It is a bit of a mess. We are worried the whole thing might fall over at some point.

No-one is quite sure of all the triggers, rules, tags and automation in place.

Some questions for you:

  • Are you confident you have made the right decisions in your marketing technology ecosystem between buy, build, integrate or inter-operate? Are you sure whether a single marketing platform (‘cloud’) is better for your business than integrating best of breed point solutions? Do you consider the martech landscape with a sense of calm?
  • Are you happy with your data governance, data integrity, and confident in your marketing resource management with security, privacy and process issues nicely buttoned down?
  • Do you have faith in the data taxonomies, metadata, models and schemas powering your digital content and marketing?
  • Is it clear what marketing logic (rules, processes, triggers, events, automation etc.) drives all your various marketing touchpoints with your customers and what this means in terms of the customers’ actual experiences across devices and channels?

These are hard questions. But they are not going away and they will become more frequently asked in 2016.

There is a great interview with BCG’s Philip Evans on ‘stacks’ and ‘architecture’ as business concepts. There are clear parallels with marketing.

Shearing layers was a concept coined by architect Frank Duffy, then elaborated by Stewart Brand in his book “How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built”, and refers to buildings as composed of several layers of change.

This concept has already been adapted to tech system architecture by the likes of Gartner, but also makes a lot of sense as a framework for architecting marketing ecosystems that can deal with the level of change we are experiencing.

There are even greater parallels between marketing and engineering as the worlds of digital, data, technology and marketing collide.

We have no shortage of data but we now need to create rules and logic, a form of marketing middleware, to drive all forms of marketing automation. And this is essentially programming.

Not just programmatic media but programmatic marketing more generally.

Start-up marketers (aka ‘growth marketers’) are already used to the likes of IFTTT and Zapier to wire up their marketing tech. Marketing ops have a lot to learn from dev ops.

The rise in the strategic importance, and difficulty, of all this is why even strategy consultancies like McKinsey are growing their marketing ops practice and why it bought Agiliti just over a year ago.

Expect more M&A in the agency and consulting worlds around ‘marchitecture’.

Funnel Wars: CRM strikes back

Just when you thought it couldn’t get any more complex…

In the graphic below on the left is a classic marketing funnel. In the middle, at the top, you can see the famous LUMAscape graphic showing the complexity of the vendors in the display ad tech space.

These typically cover the top half of the marketing funnel.

In the middle, covering the bottom half of the funnel, is Scott Brinker’s Marketing Technology landscape graphic which is equally busy.

To the right are the service businesses (agencies and consultancies) with a crude split showing the (mostly media) agencies servicing the top of the funnel and the SIs and consultancies servicing the bottom half.

Agencies tend to talk about DMPs (Data Management Platforms) whilst the back end centres more around CRM (Customer Relationship Management) platforms.

Customer relationship management platforms

My observation, and trend, is not only how complex this all is and how it needs some brains to properly architect it all (see previous trend) but that these two “halves” of the funnel, historically quite distinct, are fast merging into a single view of the customer journey where there is data visibility, tracking and tech inter-operation throughout the funnel.

The big resulting question is who should be in charge and which system, or what data, should drive the other?

Do you dump your media agency and give it all to a management consultancy who is good with business/CRM data and can use programmatic platforms to drive the top of the funnel?

Or do you open up your back office data to your media agency and target them on metrics like sales and margin rather than more traditional media metrics?

This is the war that is raging in agency-consultancy land.

WPP bought Acceleration and Essence, among others, to bolster its data-throughout-the-funnel capabilities (note GroupM’s Gotlieb: ‘Media Needs To Morph From The Top Of The Funnel To The Transaction’) whilst all the big consultancies (Accenture Digital, IBM Interactive Experience, Deloitte Digital, PWC Digital, McKinsey, BCG, Cap Gemini, Tata etc.) are rapidly encroaching on traditionally agency space.

And in techland DMPs and CRMs are the front lines of the/martech tussle.

Oracle’s acquisition of BlueKai, a leading DMP, connecting it natively into its marketing cloud, is one example of the bottom of the funnel swallowing the top half.

Expect more marketing cloud companies to assimilate DMP and CRM offerings this year.

So who will win these battles?

Obviously there is no simple answer. But certainly the once-so-sexy world of media and advertising at the top of the funnel is looking seriously threatened by its historically less glamorous below-the-line cousin.

Argos’ case study in joining up real-time advertising through the customer funnel is one of an increasing number of brands using CRM data to drive top-of-the-funnel advertising and media in real-time.

The idea of ‘streaming CRM’ will become more commonplace: read about streaming CRM in the context of travel here and note Sociomantic is owned by dunnhumby, in turn owned by Tesco, both companies known much more for transactional data than media.

Recent Marketing Week articles include “How CRM is becoming the ‘new advertising” and “Why CMOs are shifting their focus from customer acquisition to retention” backed with data and trends to support a view that the bottom of the funnel might usurp the top rather than the other way round.

  • Wow! Thanks for the very extensive list here! I appreciate the work that went into this.