Predictions for Digital Marketing in 2018

This week I was invited down to Boston, by a marketing agency, to take part in a round-table panel with eight other digital marketing executives. The objective of this event was to talk through some of our thoughts and predictions for digital marketing in 2018, and share some of the tactics and learnings that we were seeing within our own work over the last year.

A few of us were independent consultants, some were coming from the brand-side, a few others came from top-tier agency backgrounds. Given the diverse experiences in that room, it was an interesting mix of both professional points of view, and how those observations look based on tenure within our industries.

In preparation for this workshop, we each spent some time independently thinking about the following ten questions. What I like to do, when presented with an exercise like this, is read over the questions once, and then put them away for a day or two. Literally put them in a drawer, and leave them there. Then a few days later, like a siren calling me back, I sit down and get to work.

I set the alarm to get up early (before the kids are up early), pour myself coffee, and start running through the questions without a filter. For me as a digital strategist, this is a great way for me to play around with some ideas, to see if they have 'legs' or not.

Rather than going through this process, and then never looking at my answers again, I thought I’d share these “back of the napkin” responses. Perhaps there might be something of value here, perhaps it’s all just ‘hot air’, but it got me excited about where eCommerce and digital marketing is headed in 2018. 

1. What are some of the biggest trends you are seeing for digital marketing in 2018?

In the 2015 - 2017 timeframe there was a major shift away from “inbound,” to focus more specifically on the “it” term of the moment, which seems to be: lead generation. At least this was my perception working closely with my own clients, and personally I don’t see that going away in 2018. I predict lead generation efforts will still be a major focus for many business, from healthcare, to technology, to financial services to automotive to education etc., it’s the KPI which now has the greatest focus, and whose results could have the greatest impact to the bottom-line. Whether you are on the brand-side, or a digital agency, or in consulting, lead generation is the priority.

While there are many marketing automation platforms that can help create or facilitate intelligent and sustainable lead generation efforts (assuming you know what you are doing from technical to content etc.), lead generation will only get “smarter” and more sophisticated with the help of better technological tools, the ability to better leverage more consumer data, and fixing some of the visibility within attribution. But that is only one part.

The other improvements that will come to lead generation efforts will have to come more on the creative and strategy side (which can be the toughest part), where companies will need to double-down on creating unique and valuable content, and get used to giving those resources away – in exchange for very little information. Lead generation is like being a gardener. It starts with a lot of heavy lifting, sweat equity and time. But eventually, if you have the right framework and strategy, the fruit will come back to you in this boomerang sort of way. The trouble is that no one likes to hear this, because it doesn’t fit neatly into the monthly/quarterly budget plans and sales objectives. Get over it. It will be easier for your business to become more flexible than it will be to change the way consumers approach conversion today, trust me.

Within that content space, personalized, short-form, brand to consumer video messaging will be on the horizon, and it promises to be messy at first (like all good things), but can be executed perhaps more easily with the help of bots and some AI. I’m not saying this will happen in 2018, or that I even understand all the little nuances of how this technically works, but it will happen, and I think this is where lead generation and eCommerce teams should start looking for the ‘waters to break’ offshore.

Of course, data/personalization will continue to get adopted into marketing efforts, but not sure most companies (whether an agency or brand) are necessarily equipped today, to know how to leverage this information to its fullest extent. And I get it, it’s hard. I don’t pretend to have it all figure out myself, and I think a lot of other marketers feel that same overwhelming feeling when it comes to data. Data is great, we’re all excited about this information collection that is going on and being leveraged, but how efficient are we?

People within the industry (almost any industry) just hear the word “data” and immediately get excited because it’s kind of got this aura around it, like it’s the “fountain of youth” for conversion. And while there is something to that notion, the data by itself is like crude oil, and before it can win you that “zero moment of truth” it requires a process where that data can be refined into more useful products like: petroleum, gasoline, diesel fuel, asphalt base, heating oil, kerosene etc. Once this has been done, through filtering and refinement, you can develop some strong campaigns that would be hard to ignore, even for most skeptical online consumer. But I digress.

For some smaller companies the “barrier to entry” (on personalization) could be the cost, as a lot of the bigger vendors in this space are expensive. The other factor is that it’s just complicated and hard to work through without flat organizational acceptance, but that will need to change for companies and teams to compete at the speed of change that is happening in the space today.

AI (artificial intelligence) will certainly start to play a bigger role in 2018, specifically as it relates to helping companies manage their PPC advertising and personalization efforts (and probably everything else), for instance as it relates to on-site conversions and with email marketing.  But again, the barrier-to-entry here will be cost, as smaller businesses don’t have the budgets that companies like Under Armour do, and so until the cost comes down, this may just have to wait till “next year”.  

2. When it comes to marketing automation and CRM tools – what is your preference?

Personally, I prefer Marketo. I have used HubSpot for many years and think it’s a great product, but because of how “easy” it was designed to be, it inadvertentlyprevents people like myself (who may already have some decent automation experience) from being able to get into the gritty details. I heard this somewhere else, so I can’t take credit for it, but with HubSpot you can “go-wide”, and with Marketo you can “go-deep”, and that seems to agree with my own professional experience and preference.

I have also worked with Pardot (albeit not as much as the others), but felt like that tool lagged behind both Marketo and HubSpot in terms of ease-of-use, leveraging certain features, and not being intuitive enough for someone to stick with it. While I like Salesforce CRM (I mean it’s the gold standard), Pardot doesn’t even feel like it came out of the same workshop, it feels like a distant relative to Salesforce, or like an old toy that my son has, but hasn’t played with in months. And recognizing where Salesforce is focused today, I think its safe to say that Pardot will never get the love it needs to truly compete with Marketo or HubSpot.

At a high-level, I feel that HubSpot is probably the best entry-point for most brands, if marketing automation is net-new for the company (and if you can afford it). Get your people trained up on a platform that will make this engaging and interactive, will help them to get in the mindset of thinking about that ecosystem, and then after several years, consider Marketo if you are ready to try something else.

3. What channels should marketers look to invest more of in 2018?

There is no doubt that video marketing is still king in terms of content and an experience that everyone wants to access, and this significantly helps increase user engagement (yes Brett, we know). Additionally, since the cost of making a video has come down significantly, I believe that brands (if they can) should be hiring in-house video producers who can not only create both short-form and long-form videos for them, but are also subject matter experts on everything video. Why rely on a video agency (no offense to those teams out there), when you can become more self-reliant, and it’s probably less expensive after a few years to keep this kind of talent in-house then pay a recurring retainer or contract. Especially if you plan to make dozens of videos per month, which would be a realistic number for many companies. 

This video content can also be leveraged in many more ways than what I see brands taking advantage of, but I’ll let this go for now, since I know I’m likely to bring it up again within the following questions.  

Not to leave other important factors out, but the other “channel” for me, is personalization.  If you look at something like email marketing, long gone are the days of simply planning out a monthly email schedule, where you reskin an old slogan, update the image, and blast out your GWP / PWP / BOGO-type offers (yes many still do this), and then hit your quota. These days of “spray and pray” are over, and in its place, needs to be savvy marketing automation and personalization tactics that help you email (and market) smarter.  Personalization is huge.

4. What is the root cause of unsuccessful digital marketing campaigns?

Poor planning, not enough strategic thought beforehand to fully bake-out the customer journey, and lack of first-hand experience. Having worked recently with both agencies and brands, I often spend a lot of time with account managers, or marketing managers, who have read a post on a marketing blog that documented an effort we should try. And before fully exploring that option, even running a test first, they add it to their weekly call punch list, or started throwing money at it, without fully vetting first.

Often, these “new” tactics don’t produce the desired results, and this makes that person (and company) appear naïve.  My personal belief is that with all the new tools and strategies out there, marketing teams needs to fully test-out and document everything before anything specific can be recommended or promised to a client.

I also think that marketing managers and account managers are often not truly comfortable with the topics that they are supposed to be experts in, so when clients or supervisors ask important follow-ups, they are often caught off-guard and struggle to reply with something intelligent and accurate. Too much of the time its “oh well let me reach out to that team and see where we stand on that.” Instead, client services teams and marketing teams should be sharing experience and knowledge so that the sum is stronger that its pieces. Rising tide lifts all boats and its true. Also, just think of what a CMO is likely to be thinking when their agency account manager tries to steamroll them off a call because they don’t know how to respond to a question? I’ve seen this happen first-hand many times.

Just to play devil’s advocate for a moment (and because I wrote a post about this topic previously), I don’t think “unsuccessful” marketing campaigns are avoidable. That is, while you make every effort to set realistic expectations, occasionally you will fall short. Failure is a part of marketing (a part of everything), and most often that miss, leads to greater understanding, future successes and net-new opportunities. In fact, I think you need to budget for failure, and just make sure you are tracking everything (being responsible about it), so that you can learn from these experiences and communicate that learning to the rest of the team and even the client. Yes, you heard me, admit when something you tried failed, because that transparency will be awarded more than passing over that bullet point (which you hope they miss).

5. What are the elements of a successful digital marketing campaign?

Solid strategy and planning is always important, so these are elements that will certainly help you upfront to get the most out of your time and activities. I also think clearly defining what it is that you are trying to achieve with this marketing campaign (goal setting), is a great way to focus YOU, on what the actual target is. Is it simply “generate more sales” or is it “generate more sales from repeat customers?” If the goal is to sell versus brand awareness, I think you need to be very focused on setting expectations too, with your supervisors or clients. I’ve worked on several projects where the client said they wanted “brand awareness” but what they really meant was lead generation. So be clear about what you are doing, and setting expectations around what is being signed-off on.

I also think, at the end of the day, you know if you have a good (or decent) process, by whether you can repeat that same success with other projects or clients. Granted it will hardly ever be formulaic, but sustainable results should be possible if you are clear about what you are doing, and understand why it works.

Also, and this is something I see with client service folks all the time, but never commit to something (a KPI or benchmark or result) which you aren’t sure you can deliver. Sometimes people get nervous, and are more interested in wrapping up the call, then properly serving their customer. Client services people should think of themselves as therapists (in a way) and the more time on the phone you can have with your client, the better. Build that relationship, educate them on gray areas, be attuned to things that they aren’t even saying or asking about (yes, its possible), and always go above and beyond. Make yourself their go-to problem solver, and your agency will never lose another client again. 

6. What social media platforms should marketers invest in? Which ones should they avoid?

The first thing you should do, is ask yourself the question: how can social media help me to accomplish my business objectives? Then look at your current social media efforts, and analyze what is already working (or not), and optimize those efforts as much as you can. Then think about what you could be doing differently, to better leverage the social networks that you do plan to be active on. Social is another longer-term play, not a quick win, so I always find it helpful to have clear goals, and constantly be checking my efforts against those goals, so that I can monitor efforts.  I also think its important to be realistic about how many social channels you can realistically have an active presence on.

Thinking specifically about platforms, I will say Facebook (1.37 billion active daily users) needs to be in the mix, but really, I don’t even consider that to be “social” anymore, it’s an adverting platform.  Because of the volume of data that Facebook is collecting, they can offer advertisers attractive targeting features, so brands need to have a presence there, just get ready to carve out a decent budget for these efforts, because its certainly a “pay to play” situation.  

Instagram is one of my own personal favorite social media platforms (700 million active daily users) and will continue to grow in popularity and engagement – especially considering their new “stories” feature, which seems to have a lot of momentum behind it for brand marketing. That said, I don’t like some of the recent changes they have made, and feel like my Instagram feed has become increasingly more “spammy.” Additionally, my feed no longer shows posts in the order in which they were published, but prioritizes the posts based on their algorithm.  Elements which attracted me to this platform are slowly being baked out of it, as they manipulate the experience for the benefit of advertisers. Same thing happened to Facebook. Remember when you could reach an audience without paying for it? Those were the days…

I think the “right” social media platform depends greatly on WHO your customer is also. For instance, if you are in fashion or design space – there are many reasons why I might recommend budgeting resources for Pinterest. If the business leans more B2B, then you need to invest in Linkedin and Twitter. Quick aside, Twitter requires re-examination now, given the major changes to their functionality - as it relates to character length and “live” video etc.

For business-to-business, I enjoy leveraging LinkedIn, but see many companies “out there” with strategies that are ineffective. LinkedIn is important because its essentially the professional face of your company, so you should be carefully curating content, managing your appearance and descriptions, just like your website. While there are many shortcomings of LinkedIn, my prediction is that LinkedIn is going to make a pretty big change to their advertising features, reporting and functionality within the next year or two. According to my contacts at LinkedIn, Microsoft is still wrapping their arms around their LinkedIn acquisition, and still figuring out how to fold LinkedIn into their suite of other products.

Lastly, I’ll just say that I don’t enjoy using Snapchat. Oh wait, its “Snap” now. Every time I use Snap I am constantly thinking “this could be so much better” and don’t understand why some of the more obvious improvements which could be made, aren’t.  This frustrating user-experience has been enough to keep me away. At its most basic level, I could never get on-board with publishing content that disappears in a few seconds. And before I continue with my rant, this might be a great place to state that I understand that the average person’s attention span is short, so I understand why it might be brilliant to use short-form video content, in micro-serving portions, which taps into these preferences. But because I never personally enjoyed it, I never felt comfortable recommending it.

As a marketer I understand that 178 million DAILY active users is an audience that can’t be overlooked for Snap – but I struggle with this one. That “daily” active user number is incredible, so I’m willing to bet it’s just me that feels this way. To put that figure in context, last month, for the first-time, Pinterest crossed the 200 million monthly active users.  If you play out the math here, Snap has 5.34 billion monthly active users, which is roughly an increase of 2,500% over Pinterest.  

7. What single marketing activity would make the biggest impact in 2018?

Make sure your website is as great as it can possibly be. Consistently working to improve your website should always be your biggest priority, and if you can do this, then all your other tactics should produce stronger results: digital exposure should cost less, your customer acquisition cost should come down, audience retention should increase, inbound links should increase, site authority will increase, brand awareness will increase, and many other great things.

To be more specific: (1) create highly-relevant content (in various formats) and host that on your website (without slowing it down). (2) make sure that your website becomes a content-rich hub, that is not just a sales channel, but a valuable resource that audiences will not only return to, but will share with their friends. (3) Make sure your site is tracking as much activity as possible so that you can benefit from the data. Your website is like a living breathing focus group that runs 24/7, 365, so if you are not tracking what happens, or looking at your on-site search results, you are missing a lot of low-hanging fruit. (4) from a technical standpoint, make sure your site is designed for mobile and search engines, and is fast. This needs to be a priority. Also, if you have the resources to do this, take control of your company’s data stacks, and make sure that data is cleaned every so often so that you are working with real information. (more on data later)

I could go on here, but feel these are the major things that will help marketing teams the most. You don’t need to launch an app. You don’t need to try to out-Amazon, Amazon. You just need to own your niche in the market, and consistently do a really great job at that – the rest will come, but ensuring that your company has a wonderful home online, which will delight customers, and become a resource for them, is paramount.   

8. What is the best content that a brand should be focusing on creating this year?

Video. Double-down on video. And then take that investment you make in video and properly support it. Give it the framework it needs to be discovered on your website. Create content hubs for each video (landing pages) that will rank for that title, topic and focus. Use the actual content from the video (Pssst: which you already have), to create the appropriate copy to support that video. Some companies literally type up the transcript from the video, and use that on the landing page for SEO and inbound strategies. Makes good sense to me and that way the content can be found whether you watch the video or not.

I’ve also seen some impressive data where people talk about how your video and site metrics will get a nice boost by adding subtitles/captions to your videos. Yeah, subtitles. Think about it, people are everywhere and always using their phones, scrolling through Facebook, or YouTube or any number of sites where videos play a major role. Often people can’t listen to the audio because they are on a train, at the doctor’s office, at work etc., but they continue to watch that video for a few moments while they think about whether there is any value in this experience. If you have subtitles, then folks can still enjoy a large percent of that video’s message (value), and it sort of surprises users who might have otherwise given up on a video because they couldn’t understand the point. Don’t sleep on subtitles.

Because I am talking so much about lead generation here, it goes without saying that you always need to be creating and collecting more white papers, case studies, and customer testimonials (social proof), to support your video or written content.  But since this is a more obvious observation, I won’t go into this further, but build your content a “nest”. Make it cozy. Surround it with other pieces of content that validate what you are saying, and remove some of the pain-points before they even occur.

9. What are some techniques and tools you have learned this past year and what was your takeaway?

I personally spent a lot of time this year focused on lead generation efforts, primarily in the B2B space, targeting high-level decision makers in technology companies. This was difficult. These business leaders are savvy about how targeting works, and they disbelieve most ads they see, because of that deeper understanding.  This audience (and I believe this applies to most audiences now) tends to now research a lot before making a decision on something (especially when the IT contract is typically multi-year and multi-million dollars in value), so you either need to be generating a lot of content on these topics (the more specific the better), and spending a lot of money to promote that content, or become comfortable giving it away, hoping customers will appreciate the value you provided, and will return to you for the sale. That, or you need to have a highly ranking website, and you organically capture that “research” traffic because you have an excellently well positioned website. 

Also, tread gently into unproven types of advertising like Facebook and LinkedIn lead generation ads. These ads are positioned (especially by LinkedIn) as if they will solve your lead generation woes, but they don’t work well yet for the typical user.

10. What do you think are the biggest challenges for marketing managers this year?

I think clients are getting a lot more sophisticated, when it comes to asking the right kinds of questions, and expecting more transparency between what client services people present to them in weekly reports, and wanting (expecting) to see that data first-hand. I think great marketing managers have to always be learning more, to stay ahead of their clients and customers, and so ongoing education is the best way to do that. Read more. Get into the data. Talk with your Directors to see how you will handle certain questions about data and analytics. Go sit with the PPC team and ask questions about your client’s metrics to gain better insights and reasoning. Strategize with your social team on doing something else other than “hump day” posts with cat gifs. Lean into your industry and absorb as much as possible and client calls will be a breeze.

The industry is changing so quickly – in so many different directions – so there is a lot to keep up with. Even certain tactics that marketing managers may have had a good handle on, are now shifting, so what you knew about “email marketing” from several years ago, may be different now. Lean into conversations happening around you, ask friends about what they have seen work, read posts that are online, and try to educate yourself in areas where your “day to day” doesn’t give you visibility into, just so you can be more attuned and informed to how things work and what is going on.

Marketing managers are typically seen as heroes, or the ones wasting the company’s money. If you can prove to your company’s CFO that the marketing budget can become a sustainable revenue stream, that marketing overall is a profit center, you will be CMO one day (if not CEO).   

Okay the kids are running around and my coffee is cold. Time to start my day. Cheers everyone.