Digital marketing has become the largest media channel by spend for the first time, a development that will challenge marketers, platforms and agencies to step up with truly engaging experiences tailored for customers and different delivery mechanisms or risk frittering away their investment.
Following a year fraught with scandals and broken trust, marketers will buckle down in 2017 and do the hard work required to improve metrics and business relationships while focusing on creating engagements that are not intrusive, but rather personalized, contextual and enriching. Without these steps, consumers are likely to increasingly turn to ad blockers and premium ad-free services.
"In 2017, digital will become the single largest media investment channel, passing television for the first time," Scott Symonds, managing director of media at AKQA, told Marketing Dive. "This will be a symbolic turning point for a trend that has been building for years and will make it that much more obvious to all marketers that digital is no longer just a test or an innovation budget. It needs to be expected to work as hard or harder vs. every other investment channel."
A number of factors will influence the direction of digital marketing strategies during the pivotal year ahead. Here, executives from across the industry weigh in on the top 10 trends to watch.
Artificial intelligence gets smarter
Artificial intelligence and machine learning were the exciting newcomers of 2016, but this year, they will assume a place of prominence in the toolbox for marketers who are prioritizing building more relevant experiences. AI and machine learning will be key components both as part of consumer-facing engagement strategies as well as behind the scenes as they take on some of marketing’s more mundane tasks.
Using AI and machine learning, marketers will create self-learning loops that can enhance their efforts through predictive analysis and personalization, thereby adding value for consumers, per AKQA’s Symonds. A key advantage will be the ability to achieve relevancy at scale.
"From leveraging machine learning to accelerate sentiment analysis and domain-specific insights to cognitive computing solutions that automate experiences without human intervention to the rise of voice-based user experiences that will continue to expand in 2017 to deep learning that will fundamentally change how brands approach SEO to predictive API’s that will expose access to predictive models to further create seamless experiences for consumers, cognitive and intelligent systems will play a key role in how we approach marketing in 2017," said Tom Edwards, Chief Digital Officer at the agency within Epsilon.
Measurement takes priority
Marketers are heading into 2017 with even less confidence in data then they had a year ago, even as the need for accurate ways to assess the return on investments is more important than ever as investments grow. A lack of clarity regarding metrics is by no means a new topic, but things seemed to spiral out of control during 2016 as Facebook and others revealed multiple measurement mistakes. The need for better performance indicators as well as the growth in location-based and online-offline engagements will further complicate the issue.
There is expected to be a period of reassessment out of the gate as marketers try to determine what is and is not working. For those measurements that prove to be on point, a rollout of campaigns will follow that seamlessly move from one channel to another, with tailored experiences for each.
"The fundamentals have to take priority," said Brigitte Majewski, an analyst at Forrester Research. "Measurement and data are the only way for marketers to get control of a situation they have completely lost control of. They have to understand what part of the mix is truly working and that takes measurement."
"It is not a sexy story but one that can truly transform a marketer’s plan and get rid of all the waste," she said. "Once marketers get control of their measurement and connect the dots with the data, they can really start to do orchestrated branded experiences told in a sequence that makes sense."
"Measurement and data are the only way for marketers to get control of a situation they have completely lost control of."
Analyst, Forrester Research
Turning up the volume
Audio-driven experiences will become mainstream in 2017, forcing marketers to adjust their search, advertising and content strategies if they want to engage consumers who are spending more time talking to digital assistants such as Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant, Apple’s Siri and others on their phones, in their cars and via a growing array of IoT devices, including smart speakers like Amazon Echo.
Podcasts will continue to evolve, and there will be more opportunities for live audio as an alternative to podcasts and live video streaming. Facebook will support the trend with its launch in late December of live audio broadcasts and others are likely to follow suit.
"Giant Spoon believes the rise of voice-based AI — Google Home, Amazon Echo, etc. — will have a profound impact on computing and how consumers interact with technology," said Trevor Guthrie, Co-Founder of Giant Spoon. "The next wave of computing will be driven by voice, and clients need to begin to build a voice strategy for their brands."
Relationships broke down across the marketing landscape in 2016, something that will need to be addressed in 2017. Marketers are facing increasing pressure from executives over the questionable business practices of some partners.
The lack of trust running rampant through digital marketing threatens to undermine the entire ecosystem. Consumers made clear their lack of trust in brands by adopting ad blocking software, while brands encountered multiple reasons to question ad agencies, who also were accused of shady billing practices and faced allegations of a lack of diversity.
Facebook, Google and Twitter each dealt with its own metrics mishaps, leaving marketers questioning whether their partners are intentionally obscuring results or — perhaps just as bad — simply don’t have a grasp of what's happening on their platform. On top of it all, programmatic buying continues to be plagued with fraudulent inventory.
The path to healing will start with marketers asking harder questions of their partners.
"The biggest difference in 2017 is going to be a focus on transparency," said Forrester’s Majewski. "But now marketers have gotten much smarter and they can legitimately ask hard questions that they might have let pass before. They will really dig into the numbers from agencies and platforms — they are not going to let things slide."
"Even the smallest errors will draw a disproportionate amount of attention as this is going to be one of the significant ways to demonstrate [to their bosses] that they are going to work harder," she said.
"But now marketers have gotten much smarter and they can legitimately ask hard questions that they might have let pass before."
Analyst, Forrester Research
A clearer picture for digital video
Expect digital video to shake off its reputation of being little more than a replay of TV content in 2017.
Video is already one of the fastest growing areas of digital, but emerging opportunities like live streaming, 360-degree and live 360-degree video, virtual reality and group video chat promise to elevate digital video to even higher heights in 2017 and enable brands to present content in more captivating ways.
Concurrently, new over-the-top distribution channels such as CBS All Access, which will have original content, and AT&T’s DirecTV Now, which offers linear TV content at a cheaper price than most cable networks, will shift even more viewing hours online.
"As video becomes untethered from television in terms of its primary investment opportunity or most likely viewing occasion, we believe it will continue to have exciting emerging opportunities in and around the space including augmented and virtual reality, 360 video, live video, programmatic innovations, etc.," said AKQA’s Symonds.
Social pivots back to sharing
Following a year in which brands jumped at the quickly proliferating ad opportunities on social media, the focus in 2017 will swing back to what makes social unique; namely the ability to engage through sharing, user-generated content and influencers.
With consumers spending so much time on social media, marketers cannot afford to ignore it. However, as concern widens over inaccurate measurements and ads appearing on fake news sites, marketers will pour more resources into building their social channels, prioritizing the few that work best for their brands.
The social influencer vendor space, which grew quickly in 2016, will experience some rationalization in 2017 and brands will narrow in on how to better leverage influencers in a way that does not turn off consumers.
Additionally, user-generated content, which is currently underutilized, will be leveraged more to inspire bigger campaigns, per Forrester’s Majewski.
"It will no longer be about paid, earned, and owned social but rather, how a consumer engages with a brand through its social channels," said David Song, managing director at Barker. "Social channels are and will continue to become more important than client websites."
An important shift in 2017 will be in how social messaging is used to connect the physical and digital worlds. The use of chatbots and other cognitive solutions to make suggestions during conversations will also grow.
"Marketers will need to shift their strategy from one of personification of the brand to a seamless experience that is about simplifying and predicting needs while also empowering consumers to create their own stories," said Epsilon’s Edwards.
"Social channels are and will continue to become more important than client websites."
Managing Director, Barker
Cleaning up the landscape
A significant trend in 2017 will be in addressing the intrusive experiences and fake news that are cluttering the digital landscape, annoying consumers and devaluing marketing. Many marketers will attempt to remedy the situation with richer experiences such as native content, interactive video, online-offline integration and more.
"The days of static display banners are numbered," said Anna Bager, SVP and GM of Mobile and Video at Interactive Advertising Bureau. "Consumer expectations for rich, relevant ad and content experiences are growing."
A number of challenges will need to be overcome before better experiences become a reality, like the number of businesses built around intrusive ads. Marketers will also struggle to find the right emotional tone in a year when the population is divided over many issues.
"I feel like there’s been a significant maturation of understanding within leadership that the old-normal approaches no longer work," said Gabe Weiss, digital experience and transformation leader at SapientNitro. "They have bought into designing approaches that work for their brand and for their customers."
"They will be more committed to delivering their messaging in all forms of content and fragmented channels to make an impact," he said. "They will offer engaging and unique experiences and not just yell at their audiences."
Getting the message
Messaging platforms will become central communications hubs in 2017, replete with an array of services for users. The importance of messaging environments will grow, as marketers focus more intently on creating organic mobile engagements for younger consumers.
Messaging apps such as Facebook Messenger and Snapchat will continue to add users at a quick pace and are on the road to becoming mainstream. At the same time, chatbots — which should improve significantly following some early stumbles — will make it easier for brands to engage with users and deliver services like searching for a product or making a purchase without the need to leave the messaging environment. Apple’s recent update of iMessage positions it for a larger role by enabling users to initiate app actions directly from the platform, such as booking an Uber ride from within a conversation.
"In the U.S., the rapidly evolving messaging space represents a tremendous opportunity beyond social media platforms to engage with consumers in a native way," said IAB’s Bager.
Mobile evolves into people-based marketing
Mobile will continue to deliver big wins for those who get it right, while presenting significant challenges for everyone else. There is no doubt about how critical mobile is as time spent with these devices continues to grow, driving an 89% surge in mobile ad spend during the first half of 2016, according to the IAB. However, finding the right formula for engaging mobile users will continue to elude many marketers because it's so different from other channels while new formats, such as Snapchat filters, chatbots and 360-degree video continue to pop up.
There will be more success stories like Uber and Airbnb, where the right mix of contextual relevance, personalization and value will engage mobile users in large numbers.
Headway was made in 2016 in bringing accurate location-based data to marketers, who will leverage the information to integrate real-world experiences with online engagements.
"Additionally, as the digital and physical worlds continue to converge, a focus will be placed on the intelligent and responsible use of location data to better understand and anticipate consumer needs and track in-store visits," said Kurt Hawks, SVP, cross-device and video, at Conversant. "Mobile will finally evolve from a device to a set of behaviors that inform people-based marketing."
Experimentation will remain important for media companies. Following on the heels of the success of Snapchat Discover, new offerings such as The Outline, which groups stories into card stacks that can be swiped and is designed as an infinite scroll, will create new ways to deliver content to mobile users.
"We're finally starting to see UIs truly built for mobile instead of just converting what we're used to on desktop," said Giant Spoon’s Guthrie. "I don't simply mean 'make it vertical' or 'make it short and snackable.' A few companies are completely reworking the structure — not just the details of the content pieces."
"Mobile will finally evolve from a device to a set of behaviors that inform people-based marketing."
SVP, Cross-Device and Video, Conversant
Looking towards a post-broadcast, post-digital future
The media landscape will be recast in 2017 and beyond. With the proposed merger of AT&T and Time Warner looking like it could get the go-ahead in 2017, more mega tie-ups are likely, as it becomes increasingly important to own the pipes and the content now that consumers access media across a multitude of devices.
"The digital media bubble will pop this year," said Guthrie. "Media will bifurcate into massive networks that roll up many properties for scale and synergy or niche publications charging premium prices based on the strength of their brand. Media's middle class of independent venture-backed digital publishers will either get acquired or fold."
In this environment, savvy marketers will focus on developing omnichannel experiences, something that will require transforming their organizations for greater internal cooperation.
At the same time, the best marketers will be nimble enough to quickly jump on and experiment with new opportunities that emerge as media consumption patterns evolve.
"Digital marketers can no longer think inside the box to reach and engage with digital consumers effectively," said Jeff Liang, chief digital officer at Assembly. "They must quickly adapt to how audiences are using new forms of digital media to avoid getting lost in the sea of change."