[EConsultancy] Ashley Friedlein’s marketing and digital trends for 2017

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On this subject here is an article about Marketing trends: Every year I pick out digital and marketing trends and developments which I think will shape the industry and digital/marketing planning and thinking in the year ahead. 

You can read my 2016 post to see whether I had any success in predicting the major trends from last year, and here are the trends that I think will have the biggest impact in 2017.

1. The F word

I believe the guiding star for marketing, and digital, for 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 marketing and digital 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 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 a brand’s purpose, promise, positioning and audience. Again, to ensure clarity of focus.
  • Agency/supplier relationships being rationalised. Again, in the name of focus, 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 which has been busy cutting back projects to focus on artificial intelligence. In 2017 your hardest decisions will be about what not to do.

2. Macro trends impacting marketing in 2017

Following are some broader trends that are shaping marketing, and digital, through 2017 and beyond.

2.1 The democratisation of AI (artificial intelligence)

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 Go-winning DeepMind technology, Facebook’s DeepFace facial recognition is better than a human’s etc. 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.

2.2 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 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.

2.3 Realtime

Building on the conversational paradigm, we should also expect experiences to become more realtime.

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 to include realtime information on how busy the place is.

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

2.4 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 (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.

2.5 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/buying may hold out best against the consultancy attack but, as media becomes more programmatically driven, it is access to (increasingly backend) data and smart business logic that is required.

And ‘digital transformation’ is a lot 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.

2.6 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 ROI 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, and 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.

2.7 Talent

Yes, there is still a war for that.

3. Marketing trends for 2017

And now the key trends in marketing.

3.1 Marketing transformation

The ‘death of digital’ debate rumbles on but certainly I have noticed brands talking not only about ‘digital transformation’ but also about ‘marketing transformation’.

Usually the initial focus is a restructure of the marketing organisation, often with the (re)integration of digital marketing, and often with a new person at the top who is increasingly likely to be a CCO (Chief Customer Officer) rather than CMO.

Oystercatchers (a sister brand to Econsultancy and part of Centaur Media plc) note a trend towards clients bringing more marketing teams in house – maybe not permanently but building dream teams for specific tasks.

Accompanying this internal transformation is a re-evaluation of supplier relationships, the likely outcome of which I address earlier, and zero-based budgeting has become more popular as another way to ‘reset the clock’.

The area that I find most interesting is the idea of ‘marketing ops’: the operating system for marketing. This is one effective way of keeping focus but also dealing with complexity and delivering operational efficiency.

Just as (enlightened) IT has ‘dev ops’ it makes absolute sense to me that marketing needs ‘marketing ops’. Marketing is adopting ‘agile’ from the world of technology (incorrectly in many cases, but still…) and could do well to adopt ‘ops’.

If you want to get some insight into this emerging area of marketing I recommend you look at this presentation on marketing ops by Justin Dunham of Urban Airship.

3.2 Customer experience still top of the agenda

Customer experience has been a hot topic for a few years now but it shows no sign of cooling in 2017. Every single piece of market research Econsultancy does into what topics marketers are prioritising, and indeed the equivalent data I have seen from other analysts, shows customer experience topping the charts.

The drivers for this are partly just to meet customers’ rising expectations, i.e. improved experiences, particularly digital and multichannel ones, are something that you just have to do. Partly, of course, it is in an effort to improve ROI through better conversion and retention rates.

2017 will see more ‘customer journey mapping’, more defining of personas and further efforts at personalisation. And, according to Econsultancy’s recent Implementing a CX Strategy research, it is the marketing function which is most likely to own CX within a business. Yet only 8% of companies view themselves as ‘very advanced’ in terms of customer experience maturity.

Multichannel will remain a big focus for customer experience improvements. Amazon Go, which entirely automates the in-store experience using sensors and machine learning, shows what is possible when blending the digital and physical.

Multichannel should not be about the distinction of physical and digital channels but about experience fulfilment: what works best for what experience and customer need.

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