Predictions: 17 digital marketing trends for 2017

What does 2017 hold for digital marketers? We ask a raft of industry experts from the marketing technology and industry community

The age of the customer is here, and personalisation and consumer context are now ensconced in every marketer’s lexicon. Certainly, the single biggest driver of digital transformation is customer experience.

With the customer in mind, and the end of 2016 fast approaching, CMO reached out to a host of marketing leaders, vendors and industry commentators to find out what 2017 holds for digital marketing.

CMO wanted to know: What should marketers focus on to improve their digital marketing prowess in 2017? What big milestones and game changers for digital marketers in 2016 will shape 2017? What will be the biggest drivers of digital transformation? Where should digital marketers place more emphasis in 2017?

From a range of opinions and varied responses, a list of 17 themes and trends surfaced. Chief among them is the importance of the customer experience. Experts agreed marketers need to create better targeted, more relevant and contextual communications, and work together to create better consumer engagement.

1. Customer experience rules the roost

The customer is at the centre of everything, according to Adobe Asia-Pacific vice-president of marketing, Marta DeBellis, who says marketers need to “walk in the shoes of customers” in 2017 and truly understand the experience their brand is offering.

“Customers are interacting with brands across many different touchpoints and marketers need to be aware of how this experience affects the overall customer journey,” she says.

Customer experience is the new competitive differentiator of success and it’s separating those brands which are pushing ahead with transformation, and those trapped in a business model of yesterday, DeBellis says.

“Today’s digital landscape is overflowing with people interacting across multiple devices, whether it’s mobile devices, wearables, tablets or even car dashboards. When new products and innovation come onto the market, people want to be able to use it. The increased expectations of consumers have brought us to a tipping point where experience must be at the centre of everything brands do.”

Sitecore CMO, Scott Anderson, agrees marketers should refocus on the customers they serve, and the expectations those customers have of the brands they do business with.

“Six in 10 consumers are not satisfied with the experiences delivered by brands. While it is easy to get caught up in the complexity of so many trends that are changing the game for marketers and business in general, the starting point is the customer his or herself,” he says.

“Make a New Year’s resolution to start 2017 with a research project to revalidate your customers’ preferences for information consumption and buying habits. As technology is prompting rapid changes, you may be surprised to find your audience is turning to different sources to fulfil their content needs and heightening expectations for when, where, and how to receive information.”

The connected customer will continue to shape the marketer’s priorities in 2017, Salesforce APAC senior vice-president, Lee Hawksley, continues.

“Empowered to communicate, research, purchase, engage and leave a brand whenever and wherever they want, consumer expectations of frictionless experiences will challenge brands to deliver unprecedented levels of personalisation and accessibility,” Hawksley says. “For marketers, this will mean a move away from campaign-centric thinking to treating consumers as individuals and engaging with them in a context-rich manner throughout the customer lifecycle.”

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The partnership between CMO and CIO will also continue to strengthen and deliver enterprise-wide value for organisations that centre on the customer.

“Martech and adtech will continue to consolidate and cease to exist as siloed solutions in the marketing domain,” Hawksley predicts. “Rather, they will become the execution and engagement layer of core customer systems throughout the enterprise - bringing together IT, sales, service and marketing to create truly orchestrated engagements. Smart CEOs will shift the focus from gaining a single view of the customer to providing the customer with a single view of their enterprises.”

How do our 2017 predictions compare to this year's? Check out our 16 predictions for 2016 here.

ADMA CEO, Jodie Sangster, also sees a growing need to focus on the customer, and says it will be the biggest driver of digital transformation in 2017.

“The idea we are trying to get to is the utopia of the right message, to the right person at the right time and be highly relevant and personalised so that we can build and retain our customers. That’s the driver behind it,” she says. “That has gotten the attention at the c-level, whether it’s the CEO, CFO, CMO, simply because it sits at the core of the business.”

Sangster suggests marketers focus on measurement in 2017 in order to improve their digital marketing prowess, and get better in touch with the customer.

“There’s a disconnect between the reality of what people say they’re measuring or should be measured, and what is actually being measured – and making sure that those measures are making their way back in future marketing or digital marketing campaigns to improve results,” she says. “There’s also a disconnect between measuring engagement, for example, and measuring true return on investment.”

CEO of IAB Australia, Vijay Solanki, is another who believes ‘measurement and data’ are going to shape customer experience.

“Making sense of consumer, product and advertising data to create a true end-to-end understanding of the market will be the biggest game changer,” he claims. “Think using end-to-end data to help deliver personalised experiences on owned, earned and paid media.”

2. AR, VR and machine learning hit the mainstream

The obsession with augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR) and machine learning/artificial intelligence is not slowing down anytime soon. In fact, Adobe’s DeBellis says these technologies, which have already started shaking up the way digital marketers operate will shape activities in 2017.

“AR and VR will change the way marketers can engage with customers and drive experiences beyond what is possible today. The challenge for marketers will be to learn how to create content for these formats to fully leverage the opportunities they offer,” she says. “Machine learning in data science in particular, will offer significant productivity opportunities for marketers, allowing them to focus their time on overall strategies and away from day-to-day analytics and data management.”

Machine learning and pattern recognition will be particularly significant around personalising messaging to individual prospects and customers in a way that strongly resonates with them, LogRhythm regional marketing director Asia Pacific and Japan, Joanne Wong, says.

“Without machine learning, it is simply too difficult to compile and process the huge amounts of data coming from multiple sources [purchase behaviour, website visit flow, mobile app usage and responses to previous campaigns] required to predict what marketing offers and incentives will be most effective for each individual customer,” she continues. “However, when all of this data is made available to computers programmed to perform data mining and machine learning, very accurate next best action predictions can be made.”

Accenture Interactive managing director, Tim O’Neill, sees VR continuing to make headway and becoming the tech to watch in 2017. And he’s one of a number of experts that agree the technology not only enables companies to connect with consumers in a deep and meaningful way, but it brings company efficiencies and monetary gains.

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“2016 was the mainstream debut of VR technology, and in 2017 we expect that VR, regardless of the delivery method, will start to enhance and extend many industries and services,” he says. “As these experiences become more commonplace, VR will become a more common part of the brand marketing toolkit.”

According to Eaton Power Quality marketing manager, Trang Dao, continued automation for optimising business and marketing processes, along with machine learning and artificial intelligence, are all areas that allow for large increases in productivity and efficiency, helping organisations to realise digital returns.

“Larger organisations will be looking at taking advantage of large data sets with machine learning and artificial intelligence using tools from IBM, Google, Amazon and others,” he predicts. “The continued rise of marketing technology in new areas, along with decreasing costs, presents opportunities for leading marketers.”

Certainly, the rise of the immersive experience is a powerful marketing tool, according to GroupM CEO, Mark Lollback. “In 2016, marketers saw a taste of what augmented reality could offer with the launch and unprecedented growth of Pokemon Go. Grossing new revenue of $10 million a day at its peak, marketers could now see that augmented reality wasn’t just a distant future thought, or only for the console gaming masses,” he comments.

Machine learning in data science in particular, will offer significant productivity opportunities for marketers, allowing them to focus their time on overall strategies and away from day-to-day analytics and data management

Adobe's Martha DeBillis

“In 2017, we can expect to see more brands get on board with AR (and VR), firstly for gaming apps, but then will swiftly turn into a new wave of content production and consumption.”

Meltwater director A/NZ, David Hickey, was more conservative about take-up but points to VR take-up in industries such as real estate and tourism as a sign of its proliferation. “If you think about off-the-plan home purchases, VR will allow realtors to show potential buyers exactly what the new property will look like before it’s even built - this will be huge,” he add.

3. The power of data is proven – and protected

Data has given marketers the power to demonstrate ROI and drive business growth, and there’s no doubt data utilisation will remain a major priority in 2017 for marketers as they look to maximise media returns and engagement opportunities through digital and physical touchpoints.

Next Gen Health and Lifestyle Clubs director of marketing and products, Andrew Savage, sees digital marketers focusing mainly on data in 2017, with the aim of knowing how to further leverage and consolidate known data to create a single customer view and then to effectively use that to engage customers through one-to-one touchpoints.

“It’s about data, data and data - in particular, the greater use of first-party data in effective audience targeting and in framing bid strategies around known audiences,” he says. “Following Facebook’s lead in developing custom group targeting and look-a-like audience creation, this application has the potential to significantly improve SEM performance. Display also needs to more seamlessly tap into known data sources to improve granular targeting and improve performance.”

For LogRhythm’s Wong, protecting a company’s most prized possession - its customer data - is vital. “Arguably, every marketer’s biggest asset is its customer data. This in turn, is also the asset under the biggest threat from cyber attackers,” she says.

Read more: Why CMOs should be paying more attention to cybersecurity

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“With the increased frequency and sophistication of website hacking, spamming, phishing and malvertising [the injection of malware into advertisements on legitimate sites], the website is the ultimate gateway for malicious attackers to steal customer data and deface the company's online assets.

“Marketers taking charge of cybersecurity will be a game changer. There is no doubt we are moving towards a time where the customer will expect companies to share their cybersecurity preparation strategy to address any type of cyber risk and protect the customer’s data.”

Up next: More of our digital marketing predictions for 2017

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4. Automation is married with authenticity

As marketing automation becomes part of every marketer’s DNA, there is a danger of neglecting the need for the customer’s experience and interactions to not only be personalised, but authentic.

“In this respect, technology such as advanced analytics to improve not only marketing effectiveness and generate more revenue per digital dollar spent, but to personalise messaging to individual prospects and customers based on a series of behaviours captured, is not just for big companies anymore,” Wong says.

“Every marketer should be well versed with advanced analytics as a key component in their toolbox as the rewards of advanced analytics are undeniable. Those who get it right are often reluctant to talk about their successes because it generates a competitive advantage they want to protect.”

In line with marrying automation with authenticity, digital marketers should focus on segmenting customers, predicting churn and retention, and forecasting the life-time value of the customer, Wong continues.

“Advanced analytics to derive customer profiling models are effective at revealing analogous groups of customers with like preferences and behaviours. By identifying patterns in the data generated by customers who churned in the past, machine learning forecasting can accurately predict which current customers are at a high risk to abandon.”

Promapp CMO, Sarah Berkowski, is putting the emphasis on automation as a crucial way to match customers with the appropriate content.

“For B2B marketers, mastering the evolving marketing automation capabilities and synchronising these efforts effectively with their sales teams will be key,” she says. “When managed effectively, the right content will be delivered to the right buyers at the right time, and marketing teams will deliver qualified leads who are ready to engage with a sales person.”

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5. Contextual marketing grabs the headlines

Experts will tell you that when you have context around your relationship with a contact, you're able to provide more personalised and relevant marketing content that's targeted at their needs. It’s for this reason that Sitecore’s Anderson believes 2017 will be the year of contextual marketing.

“While marketers cleverly define so many of the trends that we also pursue, 2017 will bring about a trend defined not by us, but by the consumers, themselves – context,” he says. “As consumers continually evolve how they use technology to manage every aspect of their lives, their needs are becoming clearer and clearer. With past year’s leaps in mobile, big data, and e-commerce – consumers increasingly want the brands they do business with to deliver what’s needed, when it’s needed, wherever is convenient for the consumer.

“Consumers want speed, convenience, and they want marketers to know who they are. That’s context and we’re going to see consumers demand it from us in 2017.”

6. Marketing technology stacks finally get integrated

Equally, 2017 will also be the year where we’ll finally see integrated marketing platforms.

“Core marketing tech platform elements will truly converge in 2017 bringing together the best of content management, marketing automation, analytics and more into integrated solutions,” Anderson predicts. “While businesses have to stitch together the components of their martech stacks today, native solutions are on the horizon which can eliminate technology headaches.

“Consumers will accelerate the shift. As consumers expectations for immediacy and personalisation are surpassing experiences delivered by traditional tech models the pressure for businesses to pivot upward will mount. 2017 will see the shift from data-driven marketing to marketing-driven data.”

Next Gen’s Savage expects further developments on the marketing platform front as vendors look to extend their overall service offering and reduce the need for cross-platform applications.

“With Salesforce’s investment in AI and recent purchase of Krux as examples, the race will be to extend single platform capability and I think we’ll see further penetration in platform take-up, particularly at the corporate level,” he says. “Snapchat’s potential IPO will be interesting in relation to its current paper valuation, which if realised could put other social platforms into play, particularly Twitter and LinkedIn and the potential value of their data.”

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7. Digital transformation becomes a top priority - really

No doubt, with the advance of new technologies, more and more people are using online platforms to grow their business. Accenture’s O’Neill says 2017 will finally see compelling digital content becoming a global organisational priority as digital media allows consumers anytime and anywhere to take more control of their relationships with brands.

Consumers want speed, convenience, and they want marketers to know who they are. That’s context and we’re going to see consumers demand it from us in 2017

Sitecore's Scott Anderson

“Viewing the creation, production and distribution of content will become a key activity in itself, in need of not only creativity but discipline, instead of just an afterthought, is a first step to optimising its value,” he says.

ADMA’s Sangster said digital truly started to take off in 2016, and she expects more action in 2017.

“2016 saw a lot of investment in digital and digital transformation, understanding that you need to be truly effective in digital required investment in technology, which led to change in business structure and change in focus from the business and top-down buy-in in digital transformation,” she says. “I think many companies will start to see the fruits from the investment being made in 2017.”

Next Gen’s Savage urges marketers to think of the ‘big picture’ in terms of improving digital marketing prowess in 2017.

“Extend digital marketing capabilities across more business functions that touch the entire customer lifecycle. This will rely upon greater integration of marketing with other core areas, particularly digital, but also sales and general operations,” he advises. “Also know how to further leverage and consolidate known data to create a single customer view and then effectively use that to engage customers through one-to-one touchpoints.”

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8. Brands become atomised

Accenture’s O’Neill also advises brands to look towards becoming atomised in the New Year. “Atomised brands take a less rigid approach to their products and services, allowing them to be super distributed across various platforms and third-party services, while still retaining their brand identity,” he explains.

“The most commonplace example is Spotify appearing within the Uber app, so you can stream your favourite music while being driven to your destination. Amazon is leading the way with Amazon Echo and its expandable ‘skills’, and the Amazon Dash Replenishment Service, which allows manufacturers to ensure customers never run out of laundry detergent, dog food or toilet paper.”

In order to create utility, fun and value for customers, O’Neill says brands must continue to build their own services, apps and platforms, but increasingly look outward to branded partnerships with others.

“Marketers are starting to incorporate atomised services into their branded applications, but what are they contributing back? Who will be the first supermarket to offer a shopping list Web service for other brands to consume, or the first bank to provide an API allowing for easy incorporation of banking services into other products?” he asks. “2017 will see some surprising partnerships between brands, combing their services in innovative ways to delight their customers, and win new ones.”

9. Big data actually delivers

For marketing organisations, big data is the fundamental consequence of the new marketing landscape, born from the digital world we now live in. Expedia A/NZ managing director, Michael Pearson, says the sophisticated use of big data, by tapping into seasonality based on the search and booking patterns of many, as well as data points from an individual’s travel preferences, will make more efficient personalisation possible in 2017.

“For us at Expedia, this results in ‘personalised’, relevant travel offers to an individual, at the right time, at scale. This approach does require universe of actions to align perfectly to get this right, and 2017 will be the year we nail it,” he says.

10. IoT and wearables increasingly shape customer experience

The Internet of Things (IoT) is also revolutionising business operations from logistics to marketing. Sitecore’s Anderson says IoT evolved from “an idea to a foundational fabric” in 2016.

“Fitness bands, driverless cars, connected kitchen appliances, and wearable ecosystems are slowly building steam across society – multiplying the number of consumer touch points by orders of magnitude and setting the stage for a coming transformation in digital engagements,” he comments. “While the growth of the mobile phone and tablet markets continues to expand, the types of connected devices beyond them are growing five times faster.

“Wearables alone are expected to grow by 11 times over the next five years and forecasts show 31.8 million connected cars on the road by 2020. Very soon, the interaction between a brand will move far beyond in-person, PC or mobile device. The very nature of the entire service experience will become integrated into the customers’ journey.

“Brands that are not rapidly building the foundation to engage seamlessly with customers across devices and channels in a micro-moment, will be caught flat-footed when all things become touchpoints with their consumers.”

Despite fears over data security and privacy, LogRhythm’s Wong says customers are jumping aboard the Internet of Everything.

“Increasingly, average technology users will come to expect the convenience of connectivity from everyday objects, along with mobile access to those objects and their data. This alone will be a huge driver as end-users make a collective beeline for digital versions of the activities that power everyday life — banking, shopping, health management, entertainment, socialising, education, productivity and many others,” she says.

“Marketers will need to address the skyrocketing demand for online, and particularly mobile, interactions with customers.”

11. Programmatic becomes the norm

Programmatic captured lots of attention in 2016, and Expedia’s Pearson expects the automated media buying approach to move from ‘new’ to ‘norm’ in the New Year.

“Automation is revolutionising the media buying process and challenging legacy processes,” he says, adding attribution is key. “Understand how your channels are working for you is critical to making the right investment decisions. This is even more important with digital media becoming addressable via programmatic marketplaces.”

Digital marketers should also place more emphasis on cross-device reporting and analytics – tracking the full customer journey across look-to-book, as well as creative brand building that strives to deliver both ‘the feels’ and a click, Pearson says.

Indago Digital managing director, Gary Nissim, agrees the rise of programmatic is a big game changer. He points to the movement towards programmatic digital TV buying as a case in point.

“This will transform the purchase of the medium and has the potential to place TV buying into the hands of digital agencies that have pre-existing skillsets,” he claims.

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12. Bots bridge the voice-to-digital gap

ADMA’s Sangster encourages marketers to investigate chatbots and voice-to-text technologies in order to create powerful marketing strategies going forward.

“You have technology such as virtual reality and bots all moving very fast, and one that marketers really need to keep their eye on is moving the idea from text-based approach to voice such as Siri. This is going to change the way we communicate with our customers,” she says.

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Up next: Our last 5 digital marketing predictions for 2017

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13. Test and learn – marketers follow the data

With marketers increasingly driven to achieve verified results, Expedia’s Pearson says more must commit to testing, learning and following the data.

“At Expedia, we always ‘follow the data’: It’s core to the way we operate and the way we make decisions about what’s working, and what’s not,” he says. “It’s important because the data is actually informing us about what people read, react to, click on, and book. Taking a ‘test and learn’ approach means committing to the scientific method to track results. Test a digital marketing approach, learn from the data, and make decisions about future activity based on the insights gained. Gut feel doesn’t cut it anymore.”

Promapp’s Berkowski sees rapid test and learn as vital particularly given the plethora of apps and digital channels now available to the marketer.

“What’s also critical is the ability to evaluate which digital marketing tools really make sense for their business and the way their clients become aware of, consider and purchase their product or service,” she says. “Distraction is a risk.”

14. Marketing gets more predictive

Modern marketers spend a lot of time analysing and assessing campaign data and translating it into actionable insights. But Act-On Software’s Huff says marketers need to shift the attention to using data to predict which marketing actions are more likely to succeed, and which are more likely to fail.

“There is a demand for marketers to be smarter and more predictable in their program execution and results. Because of this, predictive marketing technology will be one of the biggest drivers of digital transformation,” she says. “It’s about collecting and analysing engagement data over time and across campaigns to prescribe marketers with direction and insight on who to engage, when to engage, and what to engage with.”

Huff expects predictive marketing capabilities to be embedded within marketing automation platforms that will then evolve into the autonomous driving car of the business, where marketers can choose to leverage the prescribed course of action provided through predictive or overwrite it and use their conventional wisdom.

There is a demand for marketers to be smarter and more predictable in their program execution and results. Because of this, predictive marketing technology will be one of the biggest drivers of digital transformation

Act-On Software's Michelle Huff

15. Video marketing and personalisation gain popularity

Engaging customers is at the centre of every modern marketing campaign. Act-On Software CMO, Michelle Huff, says marketers should focus on retargeting outside of the inbox and video marketing with personalisation.

“With inbox overload, text fatigue and social post inundation, marketers need to look for new and innovative mediums to better engage audiences and increase conversion rates. This is where video marketing and personalisation come into play,” she says. “Video is a great way to humanise the brand and build trust with buyers and customers. Videos that speak to the recipient through personalised elements such as name, company and title, increase the response rate and contribute to the relationship building process.”

As video advertising becomes the dominant format for digital advertising, GroupM’s Lollback warns the industry to stop trying to shoehorn traditional 15 second TV ads into digital containers.

“Marketers need to create vertical video formats that cater for mobile devices as well as short attention spans of modern consumers,” he says. “All the modern platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, You Tube and Snapchat have high mobile usage and give users the chance to skip or scroll past ads - impact needs to be delivered in less than three seconds.”

Lollback expects video live streaming to be a big game changer in 2017 thanks to faster Internet speeds, more efficient data plans, mobile device consumption habits and large changes in broadcast rights deals.

“Joining social platforms such as Snapchat, Facebook launched live back in April this year and Twitter signed rights for live sport streaming we saw the focus of live streaming shift to social. In 2017, we will see an even further growth in this area, as consumers discover and eventually expect ways to consume content in real time,” he says.

“Relatively untapped in the Australian market is brands using live streaming for tutorials, product launches, and exclusive and behind-the-scene experiences. This is set to change in 2017.”

As video becomes the dominant advertising option, IAB’s Solanki warns attribution, digital effectiveness and cross-media effectiveness will all become even more critical.

“Think video content on mobile device and video content on linear TV,” he says. “I think if marketers are serious about success in mobile, they genuinely build their teams with a mobile-first focus – you don’t just add a couple of mobile heads but build an entire team around mobile.”

16. Marketing as a strategy gets holistic

Today’s successful marketing approach can’t work in a silo, but instead looks across the whole business, from people, processes to products, and tailors a solution to align systems, services and customer touchpoints. This is vital is the consumer’s experience of the brand is seamless and consistent across all channels.

With that in mind, Sitecore’s Anderson recommends marketers place more emphasis on defining and operating holistic experiences in 2017.

“While most are optimising relatively new additions to the marketing toolbox, few are optimising across all channels and devices,” he claims. “Consumers today skip across devices and digital engagement channels in the speed of micro-moments. For that reason, marketers in 2017 will need to take a step back for the holistic view in serving prospects and customers. Technology runs deep – time to stitch it together to match consumer expectations.”

17. Content is king

And if you hadn’t worked it out already, content is king in today’s marketing - and the push towards digital is highlighting its importance.

High-quality, original and engaging content will never get old, according to Meltwater’s Hickey. He advises to take their content to the next level in 2017.

“Audiences are more discerning than ever and with so many brands fighting for share of voice, engaging and retaining them is becoming increasingly difficult. This is why marketers need to be even more creative in the New Year,” he says. “It’s worth taking inspiration from media houses that have faced similar challenges in recent years. To make news articles more engaging to retain readers, they’re creating more integrated content, including different mediums like video, social and even virtual reality into their stories. They’re getting more creative, testing out new mediums and it’s something digital marketers should focus on.”

Genuinely understanding what audiences want is another important thing for marketers to be across. “Make sure you’re listening to them, understand what they find engaging, and how your content is being perceived. Marketers need to move away from an inside-out approach to communication, and adopt an outside-in view instead,” Hickey says. “It should be these insights that inform the type of content you are pushing out.”

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