Digital marketing's biggest wins and losses in 2016

This was the year digital marketers learned how to be better storytellers even as they faced significant headwinds.

Digital marketing made meaningful strides toward more engaging brand content and experiences in 2016, although it is not yet time to sound the death knell for intrusive ads, which continued to make an unwelcome appearance across the internet.  

Better storytelling coupled with a growing array of immersive tactics like live streaming, augmented reality and virtual reality took digital marketing to new heights in 2016. Consumers want relevant, authentic experiences and brands showed they might be up to the task, with Pokemon Go one of the most-recognized examples of what the future of marketing might look like. While surprises like Facebook’s overstated video metrics and a rash of concern over fake news threatened to derail progress, marketers increasingly understand they must address the growing frustration with a sea of irrelevant content if they are to ensure the industry’s ongoing health.  

“Not enough brands have taken the plunge to test new platforms like virtual reality,” Whitney Fishman Zember, managing partner, innovation and consumer technology at MEC, told Marketing Dive.

“There are so many opportunities — brand awareness, education, affinity — that we've only scratched the surface of,” she said. “More brands need to be brave and embrace the unknown so that we can begin to elevate the level of creativity in how we reach today’s connected consumers.”

The biggest advances

Video has been an important story in digital marketing for several years, but in 2016 it really came into its own as a unique offering — and not just another channel for distributing TV content.

Some of the storytelling standouts in digital video this year were: Under Armor with “Rule Yourself,” Wells Fargo’s “Learning Sign Language” and Lockheed Martin’s “Fieldtrip to Mars,” per Joline McGoldrick, VP at Kantar Millward Brown.

Video’s stellar year is also evident in the growth in live streaming, with millions of users streaming NFL games as well as the presidential debates across a variety of platforms this fall.

“The biggest advancement [in digital marketing is] the shift to and adoption of video and particularly live streaming,” Jake Schneider , Director of Digital Strategy and Innovation at The Marketing Arm told Marketing Dive.

“Brands and marketers can no longer rely on static content to make an impact with audiences,” he said. “Live streaming provides an authentic and immersive experience that resonates with audiences, giving brands an opportunity to connect in a more intimate way.”

Virtual reality also had a good year, although the opportunity here is still emerging, with some of the most popular branded VR content having attracted upwards of 3 million views. 


“Brands and marketers can no longer rely on static content to make an impact with audiences."

Jake Schneider

Director of Digital Strategy and Innovation at The Marketing Arm


“Coming into 2016 there was a lot of excitement built up around AR and VR,” said Brad Simms, CEO and president of Gale Partners. “Microsoft released the HoloLens, Oculus launched a new product, and brands like Ray-Ban, Ikea and Cover Girl used AR & VR to enhance the shopping process.

“But despite the effort and fuss, the price point for the equipment remained relatively high, and brands struggled to tell a better story using the technology.”

The conversation around chatbots heated up significantly in 2016, even if the technology has not been perfected yet.

More broadly, artificial intelligence and machine learning showed its potential for automating some of marketing’s more mundane tasks, enabling marketers to focus more on higher-lever creative challenges. The trend has really just started to take off, with much of the opportunity for marketers likely to take shape in 2017.

“As chatbots proliferated on platforms like Facebook, it was a major win for marketers to see consumers see them less as ‘robots’ or ‘fake humans’ and understand the utility they provide,” MEC’s Fishman Zember said.

The surprises

A few of 2016’s biggest developments caught marketers off guard, proving that, as digital marketing continues to evolve, brands need to pay close attention so they can take advantage of emerging opportunities.

The quick escalation — and almost just as quick drop off — of Pokemon Go revealed how leveraging augmented reality can help marketers bridge the real and digital worlds with compelling experiences. Marketers who were nimble enough to jump onboard while the game was still hot reaped the benefits. 

“[The biggest surprise was] the perfect storm — i.e. the summer season, the power of brand nostalgia, etc. — that helped propel Pokémon Go to the top of mind and home screen of consumers and brands,” said Fishman Zember. “While the buzz may have worn off — sorry Nintendo! — it was a powerful moment for augmented reality and a chance for consumers to engage with technology, even if they didn't know they were, that has incredible potential to add new layers, dimensions to their everyday realities and very real world.”

While hardly anyone in the marketing world would be surprised to hear that Snapchat made significant gains in 2016, many were caught off guard by the launch of Spectacles, which are sunglasses with a built-in camera. Paired with the company’s simultaneous rebranding as Snap Inc., it is clear that big plans are in motion. An initial public offering is in preparation for next year to help bring the company’s aspirations to fruition.

“I think one of the biggest surprises this year was waking up on September 24 to the news that Snapchat was now Snap Inc., a camera company dedicated to improving the way users communicated and empowering them to express themselves,” said The Marketing Arm’s Schneider . “Then backed it up with the announcement of Spectacles. 

“What impressed me about this move and the launch of Spectacles is that it is a commitment by Snap to back up the notion of being a millennial and Gen-Z platform, helping audiences to share moments without fumbling through their devices,” he said. “For marketers, Spectacles is big because it allows for content to be seen vertically and horizontally and could eventually introduce Snap’s first attempt at VR or 360-degree video.”


“Late in the year — maybe too late for many, ‘fake news’ seemed to surprise us."

Joline McGoldrick

VP at Kantar Millward Brown


A sudden and fierce backlash against fake news following the presidential election also showed up expectedly. While unsubstantiated content meant mainly to attract traffic, and by extension, ads, is nothing new, consumers shocked by the election’s outcome directed some of their frustration at the sites that peddle click bait. The intense focus — if it continues — may end up being good news for brands, many of whom are unhappy about not being able to do anything about their ads appearing on low-quality sites.

“Late in the year — maybe too late for many, ‘fake news’ seemed to surprise us,” said Kantar Millward Brown's McGoldrick. “There is still a huge need for brand safety and fake news is a risk to credibility for publishers and networks and also for advertisers that risk sitting alongside fake news.

“It will be interesting to see how this evolves in 2017 — will it die down as we move further away from the election, or will it continue even after the presidential transition,” she said.

The failures

In addition to how intractable intrusive ads proved to be in 2016, there were also a few other spectacular fails across the marketing industry.

Platforms, brands and agencies often were often at odds, which undermined trust in a way that has the potential to hold the industry back in the midst of future growth. Mistrust was evident in the ANA’s report on the lack of transparency in agency billing practices, and a number of brands subsequently calling for audits of their agency partners

Facebook’s revelations regarding overstated and otherwise incorrect metrics — a problem that went unreported for two years — added fuel to the fire. 

“[The year’s biggest fail was] Facebook’s announcement that it had found mistakes in multiple reporting metrics,” said The Marketing Arm’s Schneider . “While Facebook has already taken steps toward correcting its mistakes and creating more transparency by simplifying the metrics and allowing a group of third party partners access, the admission has created natural trust concerns amongst marketers and brands.”

What’s ahead

For marketers in 2017, they must carry over some of the gains from this year in creating compelling content — while hopefully getting passed hurdles like in-fighting —  if they are to successfully address digital’s growing role in consumers’ lives.

At a tactical level, next year is likely to see further acceleration of trends like AI, VR and AR.

“In 2017, the biggest opportunity for marketers will be to tap into specific moments throughout the customer journey to share valuable content, delivered through the right context,” Gale Partners’ Simms said.

For a look at what others thought of 2016, take a look at the roundup of this week's Twitter chat hosted by our sister site Social Media Today

Filed Under: Social Media Trends Video Mobile
Top image credit: Snap Inc.