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Top 5 Digital Marketing Trends for 2015-ish

Posted by Sean Carton | September 23, 2014 | 4:04pm

By Dr. Sean Carton, Chief Creative Officer and Professor of the Practice at the University of Baltimore

September might be considered by some to be a bit early in the year for a “predictions” issue, but here at idfive we like to consider ourselves proactive and forward thinking. It makes sense to get a jump on the next year. The fact that I have a talk I’m giving a couple of days from now had absolutely nothing to do with the decision to make the September White Paper our “Predictions” issue…yeah…nothing whatsoever.

Ahem. As I was saying, it might be early, but we think that we’ve got enough of a feel for the trend vectors over the past year to be able to take a peek into the future of digital marketing. After all, it’s been 20 years since Wired launched the first banner ad and the industry is starting to feel somewhat mature. And while new developments are sure to come along, we’re kind of past the point where we were in the mid-1990’s where every morning one could wake up expecting something new. “Digital” has, in many respects, become “traditional.” After all, when almost 90% of adults in the US use the Internet, it’s pretty safe to say that the industry has reached critical mass.

Not that it’s become boring…no way! Even though digital has become a routine part of everyone’s marketing plans, it’s pretty safe to say that we’re all still collectively figuring things out, though we’ve made quite a bit of progress since the early days of static banners and Usenet Spam. When the web came along it was tempting to think about it using the same pattern of thinking that seems to accompany any new medium: “Oh! I see! This new medium is just like <insert previous medium> except <insert superficial feature>.” Early web “brochureware” followed this thinking, with designers approaching the web thinking “Oh! I see! It’s just like print except on a screen!” Early online advertising did the same thing: “Oh! I see! A banner ad is just like an ad in a magazine except people can click on it!”

From ripping off old media ad campaigns, we’ve come a long way, baby!

The ability to link, to combine audio, video, animation, and interactivity, to react to user input, to make data-driven decisions…those are the characteristics that make online digital media different.

We’ve come a long way because we slowly have come to realize that what’s really different about online media is the stuff that old media doesn’t have a hope of replicating. The ability to link, to combine audio, video, animation, and interactivity, to react to user input, to make data-driven decisions…those are the characteristics that make online digital media different. With the advent of social media we’ve been able to extend the differences to include the ability to instantly share, to engage in globe-spanning communities of interest, and, yes, to engage in conversations with our customers. Paid search and SEO have allowed us to insert ourselves and our clients into the buying decision process right at the point that consumers are looking for information about what to buy. And mobile has allowed us to extend all this to connect with customers and prospects any-time and any-where while providing them information based on not only who they are and what they’re asking for but where they are as well. We’ve gone way beyond “print on the screen.”

So where are we going next? Here are five of our best guesses:

The End of Interruption

Just to be clear: none of us think that this is going to happen tomorrow…or even next year. But it’s going to happen. We’re sure of it. Why? Because of the gradual change in the “X is like Y except Z” way of thinking that’s plagued digital advertising since day one.

“Traditional” advertising in analog media had to operate on the model that the ad had to “grab” the attention of the viewer/listener/reader either by:

1) Being interesting enough to get someone to stop and pay attention; or

2) Simply getting in the way of the stream of content (e.g. TV spots).

And why not? Consumers had little in the way of choices about where to turn their attention when an ad got in the way. Sure, they could change the channel, but chances are that they’d just run into another commercial (oh those tricky network programmers!). One could turn the page of a magazine or a newspaper, but it was a pretty sure bet that those pages would be laden with ads too.

Once we moved online we pretty much held on to the interrupt-driven model with a death grip. The web was scary to advertisers: consumers could—gasp!—just click and go somewhere else if they wanted to or something got their attention. In the early days (and still, sadly in many cases, today), the advertiser response was to interrupt the flow of content consumption with a whole variety of pop-up and pop-under ads: whole page ads that made us wait to see the content we wanted, and a whole rogues gallery of flying knick-nacks and twirly gee-gaws twisting, turning, opening, closing, obscuring and otherwise getting in the way of the content we’d come to see. Sneaky audio ads and (even worse!) auto-playing video ads inserted their way into our attention sphere with all the subtlety of a dentist’s drill without the benefit a local anesthetic. The whole point was (and still is) to interrupt the viewer in order to hopefully grab a smidgen of attention in order to raise their awareness and spur them on to hopefully buy what the advertiser was selling.

Unfortunately for the advertisers spending money on these things, people hated them and these campaigns had the abysmal click-through rates to prove it. It wasn’t until paid search came along that people began to wake up to the fact that actually providing value to customers and prospects could do far more than trying to whack them over the head until they submitted. The development of content marketing strategies took this even further (e.g. Buzzfeed), demonstrating that amusing people on a regular basis could make them come to you on purpose! Social media marketing added engagement and relationship building, further moving us away from the “interrupt ‘em!” model. And with the advent of the smartphone, all of a sudden brands were granted the ability to create useful applications (okay, “apps”) that not only promoted the brand but also provided a useful service to customers that helped further nurture the relationship and build brand loyalty.

Nope, their success lies in the fact that their core business models all leverage the key characteristics of the online medium, rather than just trying to be the online equivalent of something that could be done offline.

We’ve always said that the most successful online companies are those that do things that could only be done online. There is nothing in the “real world” that compares to Google, Amazon, Facebook, Kickstarter, and numerous other successful online companies. Sure, one could do what any of them do in the “real world” on a smaller scale, but to do so would be missing the point: what they do that makes them successful isn’t just help us find stuff, give us access to a huge inventory of books, stay in touch with our friends, or help fund small companies. Nope, their success lies in the fact that their core business models all leverage the key characteristics of the online medium, rather than just trying to be the online equivalent of something that could be done offline.

The best digital marketing does the same thing. It comes from an understanding of what makes digital different rather than looking for similarities with old media. Once it understands that difference, killer digital marketing embraces and celebrates the difference by being different. It isn’t static: it constantly morphs based on data. It doesn’t cast a wide net: it uses information to hone in on its target. It doesn’t shout: it engages. And, most of all, it doesn’t interrupt: it assists.

In 2015, let’s all get ready to shout “viva la difference!”

Content, Not Container

One of the most fascinating changes that’s taken place over the past several years has been the explosive growth of online video, especially in the form of on-demand video coming from companies such as Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon. More and more, consumers have been moving away from broadcast TV and cable and towards platforms that give them more control over their viewing. According to a new report by AOL, this trend has led advertisers to increase their spending on online video for the fifth year in a row, pulling money away from display advertising as well as broadcast and cable TV. “Binge watching” has become a household phrase as more and more original content comes online. Based on the numbers Nielsen is reporting, media consumption is up nearly across the board, driven primarily by a staggering 53% growth in digital video viewing by 18-34 year olds. Even “older” folks are getting on the bandwagon, with digital video consumption on the upswing for both the 35-49 year olds and 50-64 year old groups.

While it’d be nuts to claim that “TV is dead” at this point—it’ll be a channel that’s going to be with us for a long time, even if only for live events—what we believe will happen in 2015 is a growing realization that “TV” is a format, not the description of something that has to be delivered inside of a large box in the living room. Instead, the distinction between “TV” delivered by traditional broadcast networks over the air or over a cable and “TV” delivered as digital video on our computers and mobile devices will finally begin to break down. It’ll all just be “TV.”

But let’s not just focus on television, though it’s the most obvious medium to explore when talking about these changes. Instead, the bigger trend is the fact that improvements in technology and the growth in mobile platforms are finally freeing all content from their containers. We’ll probably maintain separate “boxes” (televisions, computers, tablets, phones, etc.) for a long time, either out of habit or because they occupy different places and perform different roles in our lives (social, personal, etc.), but the content that we consume on those boxes will be able to move seamlessly from one to the other. This is already possible today, but we’re all still getting used to it. In this coming year it’s going to become a lot more common and advertisers (and 3rd party ad servers/networks) will have to figure out how to respond. Ads will increasingly be tied to the content rather than the device so that they can follow along, perhaps even morphing in response to the device they’re being displayed on. This might sound kind of nuts now, but so did the idea that people would be watching entire seasons of new shows all at once on devices they could hold in their hands, right?

Reality +

Apple made a big splash recently with the launch of their new smart watch. Designed to work with your iPhone (an iPhone is a mandatory “accessory”), the watch does pretty much what every other smart watch does (handle calls, view photos, see the time/date/weather/stock quotes, view incoming text messages, etc.) though with a lot more style than the other smartwatches out there.

But if the Apple watch was just about style, it wouldn’t be all that interesting. What really makes it interesting are three features: a bank of sensors (pulse, accelerometer, GPS, and altimeter), ApplePay, a no-credit-card-required payment system, and a built in “taptic” mechanism that notifies you about various things with a light tap on the wrist.

Suddenly the boundary between cyberspace and your body becomes a lot more porous.

Why are these interesting? First, the bank of sensors allows all sorts of health and fitness-related functionality, including setting goals for workouts, daily steps, etc. It also allows you to do stuff like send your actual heartbeat to someone else wearing an Apple watch. The payment system has the promise of freeing the wearer from ever having to fumble with credit and debit cards ever again and promises a much more secure way to make purchases because the retailer never “sees” your credit card number. Finally, the “taptic” mechanism allows for a very personal touch-based communication between you and what is essentially a computer on your wrist as well as allowing you to send touches (via taps or your heartbeat) to other people. It’s a human/computer interface that takes communication to a whole new level that we’ve never seen before, a personal level much different than the typical screen or speech-based communication. Suddenly the boundary between cyberspace and your body becomes a lot more porous.

That’s the new trend that has the potential to change the relationship between humans and technology. Instead of becoming more and more “in your face” and visible, it appears that computers are starting to disappear as the tech becomes more advanced, quietly slipping into the background so as not to call attention to themselves yet still there to help us interact with the world in a more efficient, intelligent, and information-rich way. Combine what Apple’s doing with technologies such as the FitBit and other wearable sensors that help us automatically track our health and fitness stats, nearly invisible wearable cameras like the Autographer that spend all day taking pictures of your life so that you can go back and re-visit any moment of the day you’ve lived, heads-up displays such as Google Glass and Navdy that blur the lines between the “real” world and the virtual world, and even technologies such as the Nest thermostat or even the new Dyson 360Eye robot vacuum, and “reality” as we know it starts to look a lot different. The real and the virtual are inexorably merging as “technology” quietly disappears into the background. In a future where content might just appear anywhere we want it to appear (“smartwalls” or “smartdesks” projected into the air right in front of our eyes?), concepts such as “publishing” start taking on a whole new meaning and “communication” goes beyond just words and images. How we’ll connect with customers and prospects in the future starts to look a whole lot stranger.

Data Rules

For the more immediate term, one trend that marketers are going to have to deal with is also one that many of us are ill-equipped to handle: finally dealing with all the data we’re all constantly generating and collecting.

See, it turns out that while many advertisers are still stuck in the old “spray and pray” methodology employed since the days of print, others are starting to realize one of the major benefits (and differences) digital media provides: a back-channel for data. Clicks, views, interactions, platforms, time of day, location, and a whole host of other metrics can provide an insanely-high level of detail about customer behavior, preferences, attitudes, and opinions…if we’re ready to deal with it. Unfortunately many of us aren’t. But those who are are gaining a huge competitive—and personal—advantage.

In a recent study of CMO’s by the Chief Marketing Officer Council, it turned out that CMOs who were able to measure their performance consistently got paid more. Why? Because spurred on by a need to increase profits by becoming leaner, meaner, and more efficient, CEOs and Boards of Directors are increasingly pushing CMOs to prove that what they’re doing is working by providing proof of their programs’ ROI. And while holding marketing people accountable for the performance of their campaigns is something that’s always gone on, the difference now is that the business world is finally waking up to the fact that performance is actually measurable now and accountability can be quantified. Look for a much bigger emphasis on this kind of data-driven decision-making in the coming years.

All Marketing is Direct Marketing

And this push towards dealing with data should also finally begin to make us all aware that today, all marketing is direct marketing. In the past we had to create a somewhat artificial distinction between “direct” and “mass” advertising because there were so few ways of directly measuring performance in real-time. For the most part, the “back channel” from the prospect to the advertiser relied on technologies such as the telephone (e.g. 800 numbers) or the mail (e.g. reply postcards). Anything that wasn’t considered “direct response” wasn’t expected to directly people seeing the ads to the company broadcasting them to the world because there was no way to measure response other than through sampling techniques, circulation numbers, sales increases, and sheer guesswork.

Digital is different. Now every ad in the digital realm can provide “response” information, whether it was designed to do so or not. The artificial distinction between “direct response” and “display” doesn’t make any sense anymore.

How advertisers and agencies respond to this sea change remains to be seen. It’s no big secret that hot-shot “creatives” at many agencies loathed direct response marketing because it was seen as somehow “cheezier” or “lower rent” than the “higher” ad forms like television and high-priced print. Direct response ads weren’t seen as “sexy,” just (yawn!) utilitarian methods to get people to do something.

What will marketers do as the “real” world and the “virtual” world start to dissolve into one another?

While mass media advertising still exists (and will for a while to come), in many ways we’re still making the real mental shift from “traditional” to truly “digital” marketing that takes advantage of the unique capabilities of the digital medium. What will marketers do as the “real” world and the “virtual” world start to dissolve into one another? Will consumers welcome forms of communication designed to be more “personal” than words and images? What will happen when marketers can really reach out and touch customers?

Stay tuned. It won’t be long until we find out.