The year ahead in marketing and digital: Part 1 – macro trends

Econsultancy founder Ashley Friedlein kicks off his predictions for this year with the broad trends affecting brands and their industries.

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Every year I pick out digital and marketing trends and developments which I think will shape the industry and its planning and thinking in the year ahead. Here are the general industry trends that make the cut in 2017. In part 2, I’ll look at specific marketing trends, and in part 3, digital.

The F word

I believe the guiding star for marketing and digital in 2017 will be ‘focus’.

In part, this is because the economic outlook is uncertain so there is less appetite for risk and instead a desire to focus on either fixing what is not working or doubling down on what is working and scaling that. Businesses want growth, brands want saliency in a cluttered landscape, but there is not the money to ‘throw a lot at the wall and see what sticks’, so focus has to be the answer.

In part, it is also a reaction against the ever-increasing complexity and fragmentation within marketing. Both at the highest levels (what even is ‘marketing’ now; what is ‘digital’, really?) and at the tactical levels (which new emerging platforms do we now also have to manage; have we really nailed our responsive programmatic social video campaign; what are we doing about dark social and messaging?). Focus is an antidote to ambiguity and complexity.

In part, I think shareholders and boards are starting to lose patience with strategy and execution which lacks focus. There are only so many times you can say “for us digital is like changing the engines on the plane whilst still flying” or cunningly pass off what is really indecision, lack of competence or lack of operational clarity as “agile”.

In 2017 prioritisation is the top priority. Focus on the focus. So I expect to see:

  • Brand portfolios being rationalised. This started in 2016 but I expect it to continue this year. Weaker brands will be killed off so energies can be focused on the strongest.
  • As well as cutting some brands completely we will see more ‘zero-based branding’ thinking (cf. “zero-based budgeting” from 2016) where marketers revisit brands’ purpose, promise, positioning and audience. Again, to ensure clarity of focus.
  • Agency/supplier relationships being rationalised. I expect to see brands favouring fewer, deeper supplier relationships. This will be a challenge for mid-sized agencies. I believe it will favour the big consultancies and systems integrators over the agencies too.
  • Media partners being rationalised. There will be less appetite for continual experimentation and fragmented efforts. Rather marketers will want to do better what is already shown to work. In the digital space this is good news for Google and Facebook in particular.

2017 will be more about refinement than reinvention for most marketers. More about consolidation, embedding and stratification than diversity and fragmentation. Time to get better at ‘operationalising’ marketing in a digital age.

Take a cue from Google who have been busy cutting back projects to focus on artificial intelligence. In 2017 your hardest decisions will be about what not to do.

Macro trends impacting brands in 2017

These are the broader trends that are shaping brands and industries through 2017 and beyond.

The democratisation of artificial intelligence (AI)

AI is the hot technology trend. But a bit like ‘big data’ I do not see it as a thing in isolation. AI will permeate all aspects of marketing and beyond. From quite specific applications like AI-powered email subject line optimisation (like Phrasee) through smart devices and right up to Samsung-acquired Viv, the ‘global brain’ and ‘intelligent interface to everything’.

AI is already powerful: Google’s DeepMind technology is winning games of Go, while Facebook’s DeepFace facial recognition is better than a human’s. But the exciting opportunity for us all is that AI is becoming democratised, becoming a utility, being made available as a service.

In 2017 you should not ‘do AI’ but you should keep on top of how AI can help make smarter things that you are already doing and make sure your suppliers and vendors are using AI to improve their services to you.

Conversational interfaces

I could have gone with bots, chat, messaging, even the ‘conversation economy’. But let us focus on conversational interfaces for now. Messaging, bots and smart home devices, like Amazon’s Echo, are the main actors on the stage of conversational user interface (UI). This is an exciting area of development, possibly even a paradigm shift.

Conversational UIs can help remove friction in a process. Before long we will expect to say “find me three of the best tents that sleep up to five people for under £300”, get a good answer, and then purchase, all by voice. Interfaces will have API access to marketplaces like eBay, Google Shopping, Amazon, etc.

From a brand point of view this conversational paradigm is also compelling. Perhaps we can have conversations like we used to with businesses and recapture some of the intimacy that technology to date has caused us to lose? Can conversational interfaces re-humanise technology?

The big question for marketers and brands in 2017 is whether you choose to play directly in this space, by creating your own chatbot for example, or whether you figure out how best to integrate in the ecosystem of much larger players e.g. building a ‘skill’ for Amazon’s Alexa platform like the Guardian.

Refugee Text chatbot article image
Building a chatbot is just one example of a conversational user interface

Real-time

Building on the conversational paradigm, we should also expect experiences to become more real-time. Whether that is messaging, live customer service, live location tracking or live video streaming, we can see expectations rising for experiences that are ‘in the moment’. Just recently Google updated its ‘popular times and visit duration’ information for destinations such as shops and restaurants to include real-time information on how busy the place is.

In 2017 and beyond we need to look at how we can deliver customer experiences that are real-time, which is a challenge across technology, people and process.

Google/Facebook duopoly unchallenged

I cannot see how Google and Facebook will not continue to gain momentum. This will be aided by the focus and consolidation I described earlier. For many marketers who need to get good at a few things that they know have scale and can work, it is much easier to concentrate on a few platforms than many.

Over 2017 it will be interesting to see how the video wars play out between Google’s YouTube and Facebook, and also the degree to which brands work more directly with Google and Facebook, which threatens to relegate the importance of the agency relationship.

Consultancies and systems integrators steal share from agencies

Speaking of agency relationships, I fear agencies may increasingly lose out to the big consultancies in winning large digital and marketing transformation work. Creativity and media planning and buying may hold out best against the consultancy attack but, as media becomes more programmatically driven, it is access to (increasingly back-end) data and smart business logic that is required.

And ‘digital transformation’ is very much about change management, business strategy, data architecture, process, systems integration, cultural transformation, etc. This is home turf to consultancies, who have also been aggressively acquiring or hiring agency talent.

Identity management and authentication

We know devices are proliferating, we know we want to deliver personalised experiences across channels, we know multichannel marketing and (re)targeting can work if well executed and we know we want to measure return on investment in a properly attributed way across channels. But we also know the sensitivities around data control and privacy.

At the root of these challenges is how, if at all, we can reliably identify who someone is. And even if we can, what the legal and perception challenges are around what we then do with that knowledge. This is another reason for the rise and rise of Google and Facebook, who can address these challenges at scale and whose users are pretty much logged in all the time wherever they go online. Not a luxury most of us have.

Talent

Yes, there is still a war for that.

Ashley Friedlein is the founder of Econsultancy and chairman of real-time data platform Ably.

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