The year ahead in marketing and digital: Part 3 – digital

Econsultancy founder Ashley Friedlein turns his attention to the world of digital, as he continues his look at the trends that will come to fruition in the marketing industry this year.

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.

There is an increasingly blurred line between ‘digital marketing’ and ‘marketing’ but the following trends focus on the digital elements of marketing.

In part 1, I looked at broad macro trends affecting brands, and in part 2, marketing-specific trends.

Digital transformation

Econsultancy’s recent research on ‘The New Marketing Reality’ with IBM highlights the many challenges facing digital marketing: fragmentation, complexity, challenges in understanding the customer journey, challenges with organisational and data silos, confusion around metrics and what good looks like, managing both generalist and specialist agencies and vendors at the same time, lack of capability in areas like data and customer experience, faltering attempts to be more agile, lack of clarity in strategy and leadership.

There is nothing particularly new here and there will not be in 2017. The challenges in becoming a digitally adept and mature organisation are many and will take years to work through.

This year will continue to see a mix of initiatives, which, on the one hand, deliberately create ‘elite’ digital units (McKinsey consultants talk about ‘war-room teams’) in an attempt to move at speed and, on the other hand, attempts to integrate and unify ‘digital’ and ‘traditional’ within a single marketing function. In practice most organisations will do both at the same time.

Digital will also need better ‘ops’ (see my earlier post on marketing transformation), particularly in the area of data. Ops can help corral disjointed data and wrangle the complexity of channel silos.

Digital will also be in the vanguard as organisations seek to become more agile and better at design thinking, customer experience optimisation and product management.

Non-executive directors with digital expertise will stay in great demand. There will be more chief digital officers (CDOs) but the rate of growth in this job title may have peaked.

Data and marketing automation

Last year was a big year for marketing automation. Martech (marketing technology) outshone adtech (advertising technology). Companies like Oracle, Adobe and IBM went on a spending spree to acquire capabilities to bolster their martech offerings across areas including programmatic, personalisation, video and social.

The year also saw a lot of talk about using data to optimise marketing including customer insight, personalisation, automation, conversion rate optimisation, multichannel, and predictive analytics.

This year will primarily be about putting these things into action. For most, ‘marketing automation’ is, initially, just better email marketing – improved customer onboarding, retention or renewal sequences, more refined trigger-driven messaging, more personalisation, introducing lead scoring and lead nurturing. This practice is then extended into other channels as data becomes more joined up and the direct marketing of email becomes joined to the above-the-line of advertising with programmatic media.

Artificial intelligence

Earlier I noted that AI will permeate all areas of marketing so is not a discipline in itself. But it will be the digital experts within the marketing function who will be expected to take the lead on how AI is adopted by organisations. Indeed, at Econsultancy we researched our subscribers to ask who is responsible for defining the role of AI-powered marketing within their organisations and 61% stated it was the marketing function.

The applications of AI in marketing for 2017 sit most obviously in the digital marketing disciplines: AI for content curation (e.g. smart recommendations); AI for customer service (particularly digital/social service); AI for content generation (e.g. email copy or video content); AI for sentiment analysis (e.g. social listening); AI for CRM (e.g. smarter loyalty or sales insights); AI for intelligent digital advertising optimisation; AI to power chatbots (e.g. for assistance in finding products or content).

Content marketing

As per Gartner’s Hype Cycle, 2017 sees content marketing moving through the slope of enlightenment and entering its plateau of productivity. There will be more focus on understanding return on investment, more refined approaches based on learnings to date, more focus on scaling the things that are working, more clarity on roles and capabilities.

Scott Brinker has an interesting view on what he terms the fourth wave of content marketing and I agree that 2017 will see more focus on interactive experiences beyond static content or even rich content like video.

Video, as a form of content, will still be an active area of experimentation over 2017: vertical video, shorter and longer form video, video captioning and optimisation for stream viewing, live streaming, social video ads, etc.


‘Social’ is a very broad term these days. Plenty of activity to expect in 2017 across social:

  • Social care – deeper integration of social channels into customer service and care.
  • Social CRM – similarly to customer care, social data and touchpoints will become more closely integrated with back-end CRM systems.
  • Dark social and messaging – more brands running private social groups, experiments with chatbots, greater usage of messaging as a medium – both internally (e.g. Slack) and externally through integrations with Facebook Messenger or trials with WhatsApp groups and, for B2B, setting up messaging groups on LinkedIn.
  • Emerging platforms – social is at the forefront of experimentation with emerging platforms and formats. Last year it was Meerkat and Pinterest; this year I expect we will see more activity around Snap, Instagram and WeChat (even in the West).
  • Social answering – I have not yet come up with a name I am happy with for this, but essentially it is about listening for relevant conversations, or questions, taking place online and then participating and answering in order to drive awareness, traffic and search rankings. In B2B this might be answering, or commenting on, content posted to LinkedIn. if you were targeting developers you would do this but on Stack Overflow. Quora, among others, has become a much bigger driver of traffic so it is worth answering relevant questions there.
  • Social amplification – thankfully there is less talk of ‘going viral’ as relates to social. But 2017 should see efforts in understanding how to use social to distribute, augment and amplify content and messaging. These is a skill set to optimising this: the best practitioners know how to orchestrate social channels to maximise amplification. In its simple form this is about choreographing how, and when, content is published. Enterprise social management software now allows for more sophisticated scheduling and provides the analytical insights to optimise it.
  • Influencer marketing – this is not just about ‘social’, of course, but 2017 will see continued efforts to identify and understand who the ‘new influencers’ might be for your brand and then engage with them, socially, commercially and through PR.
  • Social media advertising – driven largely by the emerging platforms as well as increasing experimentation by more traditional media owners, 2017 will offer a whole range of new ad formats, experiences and commercial models for agencies and their clients to experiment with.

Hot topics but still not significant in marketing for 2017

Our own Econsultancy research says that marketers are excited about virtual reality, augmented reality and the internet of things for 2017. So perhaps I will get some criticism for having the temerity to suggest these are not likely to form a significant part of an average marketer’s job this year. Unless you work for GAFA (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon) that is.

  • Augmented reality (AR) – sure Pokémon Go was a great use of AR but most of us are not gaming businesses. AR has many great applications but it still does not feel like it will go mainstream for marketers in 2017. That said, the iPhone 8 release this year could change that with ‘mixed reality’ getting a big boost.
  • Virtual reality (VR) – there is huge hype and investment around VR including from GAFAM (I have added Microsoft because of HoloLens) so it should go large some time. But this year? The hardware requirements are still too onerous, the tech and apps too fragmented, the use cases mostly gaming or too niche for most marketers to spend much time focusing on VR right now. As with AR, VR’s adoption could be turbocharged by the iPhone 8 release this year.
  • Internet of things (IoT) – there are some fantastic examples of successful IoT services, a lot in B2B, and this will only grow. But I am less convinced there is an obvious opportunity for marketers yet. As more products and things become connected, however, there is a really interesting customer-product relationship marketing opportunity. We should see more early examples of that this year.
  • Wearables – I am still not convinced there are enough use cases for most marketers to get excited about the wearables opportunity.
  • 3D printingI wrote about 3D printing almost three years ago. The technology has improved, of course, but I’m still not clear how this is particularly relevant for marketers.
  • Blockchain – important, exciting, disruptive, but not clear to me how marketing can leverage this, unless perhaps for identity management and authentication.
  • Beacons – still not doing it for me.

But what do you think? Feel free to comment with any thoughts or links to your own digital/marketing trends and predictions for 2017.

Ashley Friedlein is the founder of Econsultancy, a sister brand of Marketing Week, and chairman of real-time data platform Ably.